The Tiger in the Room

In preparation for the new school year, the IGS Leadership Team welcomed The Ethics Centre Executive Director Dr Simon Longstaff AO

“The whole of education should be oriented to giving individuals the capacity to examine life,” said Dr Longstaff, who presented The Tiger in the Room.

The purpose of the workshop was to explore different perspectives, possibilities and ethical reasoning styles, encourage a shared ethical framework to allow productive and effective dialogue, and explore case studies to further our understanding of ethical behaviour and leadership.

“The burden of choice means some people want others to take responsibility for their actions,” Dr Longstaff said.

“But better a world in which people think and take responsibility for their choices.”

Drawing from his experiences working with the Australian Defence Force, Simon encouraged the team to consider moral authority, and how humans commit acts of folly.

“For leaders, the projection of the moral authority of an institution becomes a key element,” Simon said.

Simon explored the views of Barbara Tuchman’s text, The March of Folly, which details four major instances of government folly in human history.

“Did they recognise the seriousness of their actions? Did they have viable alternatives? Did they at the time have people who were actively urging them to realise the nature of the risk?” Simon asked. “In each case, they did.”

Simon explored the notion of perspective, and how this can lead to “conditioned blindness”.

“This explains why good people can do bad things, because they were conditioned to be blind to the reality that was before them,” he said.  

Four categories of self-deception were presented:

  1. Legalism (inability to imagine moral obligations beyond the law, i.e. they don’t ask any questions)
  2. Tribalism (a sense that the community you are part of is the only thing that matters. They will defer to the judgement of the group, and they will not have an individual perspective of the world)
  3. Moral relativism (the excusing of unethical practices by viewing businesses as “a game” and oneself as “a role”)
  4. Scientism (the role that authority plays in making people blind).

“Each of these four areas have something in common; they condition you not to see,” Simon said.

The team then considered the workshop title, The Tiger in the Room.

“You have all heard of the elephant in the room, something we can all see, but have you thought of the tiger in the room?” he asked.

“The tiger is hidden, the tiger is the threat that is not always seen, but we must widen our perspective to see it.” 

He gave a hypothetical example of a leader of a company who could only see green, yet all of the leader’s employees could see many colours. This perspective inhibits the leader, because their views are constrained.

He explained that today’s employers are “starting to recognise that purpose is important in business”.

“Organisations are now looking for people who are not clones, but truly have some kind of alignment with the company values, so they can be their true self and make a valid contribution,” Simon said.

The team then considered the concept of an ethical framework, which is formed by sustaining principles and values, to guide conduct.

“As a leadership team, think to yourselves, do we first and foremost have a good grasp about our own ethical framework?” Simon questioned.

“Do our values reflect our purpose? Have we considered our principles, which shed light on what is right?”

He portrayed leadership itself as an ethical practice, saying ethics could be considered as “organisational DNA”, which must be actively and consciously expressed.

Simon sees the two great enemies of ethics as:

  • Hypocrisy (inability to see oneself as hypocritical)
  • Unthinking custom and practice (inability to look beyond).

“The antidote is a particular type of leadership, which we call constructive subversion,” he said. “It’s about helping an organisation become true to what it declares.”

His key six ingredients to ethical leadership are:

  • Commitment from the top
  • Being prepared to use the language of the values and principles
  • System and policy alignment
  • Delegated authority
  • Open communication
  • Taking a longer term view.

Simon used the analogy of putting a person into a full-body plaster cast.

“They will have fantastic posture, but if you remove the cast they will collapse because that was all that was holding them together,” he said.

“Systems of control and governance should be more like little frames, rather than casts, so it allows people to support themselves with the guidance of the frame, standing for themselves within the organisation’s values.”

Simon concluded the workshop by commenting that we can never expect ethical perfection.

“Yet we can expect sincerity and a level of skill around our ethical decision making.”

IGS Principal Shauna Colnan thanked Dr Longstaff for his important, informative and inspirational workshop.

IGS Principal Shauna Colnan with Dr Simon Longstaff AO