JOHN DALLA COSTA'S BLOG  
     
 

In his book, “Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder,” Nassim Nicholas Taleb tells a story that may help put the disappointment of this year’s Davos gathering into some ethical perspective.

Welcomed as a best-selling author, Taleb was one of the celebrity thinkers brought to Davos to help the gathered global elite wrestle insight from the long, still unfolding aftermath of the financial crisis. Expecting critical and constructive dialogue, Taleb discovered the backstage reality to be dangerously out of sync with the on-stage declarations of concern. To his chagrin, he was approached while there by a former Vice-Chairman of the Federal Reserve Bank of the United States, who tried to sell him “a peculiar investment product that aims at legally hoodwinking taxpayers.” When Taleb asked if such a complex maneuver was ethical, he was told, “It’s perfectly legal… we have plenty of former regulators on staff.”

Here then is the problem in a nutshell: people go to Davos to do a sort of insider-trading on big ideas without turning that expanded consciousness into conscience. This willingness to be seen to care about big issues or big problems, while at the same time failing to appropriate their implications and responsibilities, provides the patina of trustworthiness, without any of the costs or sacrifices needed to earn and legitimize it.

This is a type of high-level corruption. Rather than exchange bribes for benefits, attendees exchange even more precious patronage – the peer permission to proceed with business as usual.

Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in No Comments »


For a little while at least many of us will be sweating a bit more than usual to get into shape. But what about honing our professional skills? How do we strengthen them? And our workplaces. How do we pump up our teams and organizations to get ready for all the ordeals and opportunities coming at us?

I tell the MBA students and Board Directors I teach that ethics is like any other muscle – it gets stronger with frequent exercise. Training matters. We can’t expect to have the ethical brawn to meet the moral demands of our toughest questions without exercising our responsibilities diligently on everyday projects.

Here are seven ethics exercises to get the new year off on the right track.

1. Start with ethical stretching. As you do your daily, weekly or yearly “to-do” list, set out your parallel “to-be” list. Just like athletes who visualize crossing the finish line in glory, imagine the integrity achievement that you would wish to have define your professional legacy. None of us are perfect. Which character muscle groups do you need to tone and buff to go the distance as ethical over-achievers?

2. Warm-up with some ethical cardio. Strategic or technical proficiency usually exercises our minds, while compartmentalizing emotions. Overtraining one muscle group is

Read the rest of this entry »

Tags: , , , ,
Posted in No Comments »


Whether Toronto Mayor Rob Ford gets indicted or re-elected, the most pressing priority for the city will be to change the local and global narrative. A city with self-proclaimed aspirations to be “world class” has by association with this disturbing governance failure achieved the desired celebrity, albeit missing two key consonants. But more than mere reputation is at stake. A special city needs to refashion its self understanding, so as to begin to heal the divisions laid bare by this tragic-farce in leadership, and to set a vision for its future that better represents its amazing latent potential. In many ways Toronto also represents civil and social skills that the world desperately needs, so the rehabilitation may be of service to others hoping to develop the reality that we native Torontonians take for granted, and have let be tarnished these last months.

The ancient Greek word from which community is derived is koinonia. As well as convey precepts of “communion” and “joint participation,” the word means “a gift jointly contributed – a contribution.” With this perspective, what “gifts” does Toronto embody? What of our specialness can we reflect more precisely to ourselves as citizens, and contribute to the world around us?

Read the rest of this entry »

Tags: , , , , ,
Posted in No Comments »


Are ethicists more ethical than their peers in other disciplines? It’s an interesting question. A recent study published in the journal Metaphilosophy provides a limited data point, but the news, at least if you’re an ethicist like me, is not good. Comparing how university professors engage students, the researchers found no difference between ethics professors and other faculty. Even though the ethics experts set an ideal, and acknowledged that not following through on that standard was morally wrong, in action, the experts in ethics were indistinguishable from fellow academics.

Are you surprised? I’m not. But I am distressed.

I’m not surprised, because if ethics were truly relevant, or if we really understood them to be effective, we’d be invoking them with much more frequency and rigor. Canada is knee-deep is scandals, with Senators whitewashing expense reports, the Prime Minister’s Chief of Staff paying for the white paint, and the Mayor of Toronto careening from one violation of the public trust to another. Ethics are AWOL, and no one seems to be missing them.

The same is true in business. Ethics have become IKEA-like contraptions for compliance. All the imagination and enquiry have been purposefully engineered away, so that all ethics and compliance officers need to do is follow the illustrated instructions, and assemble the pre-cut pieces.

Read the rest of this entry »

Tags: , , ,
Posted in No Comments »


“Austerity” was recently called the word of the decade in the Wall Street Journal. From the perspective of business the primary deficits to be tamed are those in public spending, but the truth is that our economy and consumer culture are as over-extended as our public purse. In fact, we face multiple deficits simultaneously.

In The Sustainability Revolution, systems-learning pioneer Peter Senge explains that stabilizing “CO2 in the atmosphere at levels that minimize catastrophic consequences will require 60 percent to 80 percent reduction in emissions in the next two decades.” Michael Pollan, who writes about the culture and the environmental costs of food, has observed that our eating habits enfold us in three interrelated crises: the energy crisis, since food production and transportation account for consumption of 20 percent of the world’s yearly oil output; the health crisis, because processed and fast foods contribute to the obesity and type-2 diabetes epidemics that are bankrupting healthcare systems; and the environmental crisis, as deforestation proceeds to accommodate cattle grazing, and fisheries are vacuumed to the point of species extinction. Fiscal austerity is prudent, but to only focus restraint on spending misses the larger, structural deficits that will become even more destabilizing and dangerous in the not too distant future.

We have usually adopted austerity as a corrective – a short-term measure to reduce debts and restore balance. Just as weight-loss diets rarely work for human beings, instant cuts in spending – no matter

Read the rest of this entry »

Tags: , , , ,
Posted in No Comments »


Either as deliberate policy or by necessity, governments and companies are almost everywhere adopting austerity measures. The stringency in spending is required for the simple reason that debts aggregating over decades cannot be sustained.  As it happens, economists, politicians and chambers of commerce have focused their austerity demands on public spending, were deficits have become particularly onerous.  Mostly forgotten in this rush to cut spending is any acknowledgment that the current ballooning of public expenditure was in large part caused by having to extend trillions of dollars of liquidity, bailout and stimulus support for the economic crisis unleashed by the private sector.  No one has yet articulated an “ethics for austerity” that takes stock of the complex causes of our current fiscal disorder, or that envisions a framework for generating social, moral and economic possibilities out of this new reality defined by constraint.

There are indeed serious fiscal issues that need to be addressed in the public sphere relating to costs for healthcare, dealing with the social services for an aging population, and the cost of other so-called “social entitlements.”  However, while we have seen already radical and disruptive spending cuts in education, social services, and public sector jobs and pensions, companies have largely refused to share in any of the sacrifices that austerity brings in its wake. Bankers have rebuffed calls to change the sector’s compensation structures, despite the evidence that distorted incentives fueled the egregious behavior

Read the rest of this entry »

Tags: , , , , ,
Posted in No Comments »


Let’s do a thought experiment. Focus group moderators will often ask participants to anthropomorphize a company or brand. For example, to probe aspects of corporate character or brand personality, researchers will ask: “If BMW were a person, whom would that person be?” Many companies today have officers or functions for overseeing ethics or compliance, so for this thought experiment, I would ask: “If current business ethics functions were a person, who would that person be?” In such exercises, experts tell us to go with our first impression, trusting what immediately comes to mind as representing some kind of subconscious truth. Without too much pondering, whom do you identify as the personification of the business ethics discipline?

In my case, I began this thought experiment in response to the plethora of business ethics failures that have emerged in only the last few weeks. Facebook was caught trying to plant false stories about Google’s supposedly questionable privacy practices in newspapers, and with influential bloggers. Bad enough that the defining social media company in the world was made to blush over its indiscretions, but that it secretly hired Burson-Marsteller to do the dirty work also implicates one of the world’s largest PR companies in the intentional dissemination of unproven–and for many experts, inaccurate–information. This subterfuge about privacy was played out

Read the rest of this entry »

Tags: , , , ,
Posted in No Comments »


I for one am the disappointed that BP CEO Tony Hayward has been fired.  From press reports about his response to the oil-spill disaster it is hard to argue against cause. Clearly overwhelmed by the emergency, Hayward committed numerous personal and corporate miscues during BP’s efforts to deal with the human, social and environmental fallout of the oil well explosion. He must have been a smart guy to earn the top-job at BP, however, when it counted most in crisis, he displayed much more insensitivity than intelligence. While I’m all for the principle of accountability, I can’t help feeling that firing Tony Hayward was too easy, and in some ways a missed opportunity.

First, the problems leading to the Gulf oil-spill precede Hayward’s tenure as CEO.

Read the rest of this entry »

Tags: , ,
Posted in No Comments »


Among its many missteps in the Gulf, BP has now hired public relations executives  to pose as journalists along the beaches besmirched by its oil spill. With so much incompetence and deception on display, it is hard to believe that only recently BP earned recognition from corporate social responsibility innovators as the most accountable large corporation in the world. BP won the Account Ability Rating™ award outright in 2004 and 2005, and came in second in 2006. With such credentials we need to ask some tough questions. Is it that the corporate culture that earned kudos somehow turned 180˚ in a few short years? Or is the premise and criteria for such awards faulty and now suspect?  Oil industry experts are acknowledging that the scale of the spill in the Gulf will have a structural impact on industry assumptions and procedures. Are the corporate social responsibility experts who created the matrices for accountability – and who anointed BP as a paragon – also willing to reconsider their stance and methods for evaluation?

These are important questions for several reasons. First, the real lesson of recent corporate ethical impropriety is not that executives will overreach their legal mandate, or that companies will lose sight of their ethical responsibilities to the community, but that the sentinels intended to protect the public interest have been too easily co-opted into supporting the abuses they were intended to guard against. This is what happened when Arthur Andersen

Read the rest of this entry »

Tags: , , , ,
Posted in No Comments »


With the world’s attention focused on BP’s troubles, the news that the Indian government this week convicted seven former employees of Union Carbide for “death by negligence” slipped under the radar. In fact, the Bhopal gas plant leak that killed thousands of people in 1984 deserves both the dignity of recognition, and respect for being a cautionary tale about what is unfolding in the Gulf. Critics such as Amnesty International have described the long-delayed legal convictions in India as “too little, too late”.  Forty tons of toxins released from the plant killed 3000 people at the time of the accident, and between as many as 7,000 – 15,000 since. A horrific toll continues to be paid by victims, many suffering disfigurement, blindness and other illnesses from the poisoning. Altogether, the Indian government estimates that nearly 600,000 people have been affected by the Bhopal disaster.

BP is not Bhopal in human suffering, although the eventual scope of the health consequences from the oil spill is hardly estimable or minor. As at Bhopal, people died in the accident. And now the spreading clouds of oil are destroying livelihoods for perhaps as many – if not more people – than were impacted in India. There are as many parallels as differences between Bhopal and BP, but the key lesson from this week’s court decision in India is that our global systems of accountability are inadequate for dealing with the global impacts of corporate negligence.

Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in No Comments »


« Older Entries |