The Ethics of Responsibility
Management means being responsible for the specific performance of an organization, whether it is a business enterprise, a hospital, a theatre, a government department or a research institution.
Management is a profession, and the essence of management is neither wealth nor status but responsibility.
What are the duties which the professional ethics of the manager imposes? What are the duties of the manager in respect to community and society, and how can we define these ethics of responsibility?
Peter Drucker’s concept of ethics has nothing to do with Business Ethics in the sense in which that word has been used for decades in most business Seminars and books, which are about everyday honesty and which warn about cheating, stealing, lying, bribing or accepting bribes. Of course, nobody should do anything of that. To summon call girls for the entertainment of customers also has nothing to do with ethics, that is only a question of one’s demands and taste. „It would indeed be nice to have fastidious leaders. Alas, fastidiousness has never been prevalent among leadership groups, whether kings and counts, priests or generals, or even „intellectuals“ such as the painters and humanists of the Renaissance, or the „literati“ of the Chinese tradition. All a fastidious man can do is withdraw personally from activities that violate his self-respect and his sense of taste.” 28
For Drucker the fundamental rule for the ethics of responsibility is “Primum non nocere”, above all, knowingly not to do harm. Formulated in ancient Greece 2500 years ago, as the prime responsibility of a profession, the Hippocratic oath of the physician, and transferred to the basic orientation of the manager, it says: “Above all knowingly not to do social harm”.
Here too Drucker is not about perfection but about the orientation towards a code of conduct. “There are important areas where managers and especially business managers still do not realize that they have to impose themselves the responsibility of the professional ethic. They still have to learn that it is their job to scrutinize their deeds, words and behaviour to make sure that they do not knowingly do harm.” 29
An essential topic has already been dealt with in the foregoing. “The manager who fails to think through and work for the appropriate solution to an impact of this business because it makes him “unpopular in the club” knowingly does harm. He knowingly abets a cancerous growth. That this is stupid has been said. That this always in the end hurts the business or the industry more than a little temporary unpleasantness has been said too. But it is also a gross violation of professional ethics”. 30
There are other situations where managers through their behaviour and their words tend to cause social unrest and tensions.
Management legitimizes itself above all through its credibility and its authentic behaviour. However, the credibility of our institutions has suffered. This started with the political organizations, beginning in the second half of the past century. Since then business enterprise too has been injured by a substantial crisis of credibility. An increasing loss of credibility of an institution is always linked with a diminishing trust in that institution. Whenever this happens people begin to question the legitimacy of that institution. This leads to a social problem which may cause serious functional trouble for society. „The higher the monkey goes the more of his behind he shows“ is an old British nursery rhyme which Peter Drucker recited innumerable times. The higher up the manager is in a hierarchy, the more is he “under observation”: It does not matter whether the organization is a business conglomerate, a university or an army. „They must expect their behaviour to be seen scrutinized, analysed, discussed, and questioned. So they have to shun actions that cannot easily be understood, explained or justified. Being visible, managers are also examples. They are leaders by their very position and visibility, particularly in top management. Their only choice is their example leads others to right action or to wrong action. Their only choice is between direction and misdirection, between leadership and misleadership. These terms have ethical obligations to give the example of right behaviour and to giving the example of wrong behaviour”. 31
Here we do not proclaim the desire for perfect leadership. Something like that does not exist in society nor in an organization, least of all in the individual. Nobody ceases to be a human being when he is picked to become a Director, a mayor or a university president, nobody expects his superior to be “God”, but perhaps to be closer to god than oneself. One expects someone whom one can trust, somebody whose actions reflect what he says. That is, somebody who distinguishes himself by his credible behaviour.
Some examples from the most recent past may make this more clear: The top man of a transnational institution initiates a very important and rational anti-corruption program, and on the other hand he engages in nepotism; the chairman of the board of an important conglomerate announces the dismissal of thousands of workers and at the same time says that he will forgo 10 % of his annual compensation, or the governor of a State criticizes in public the more or less moderate salaries of top management of a State owned enterprise but indulges also his friendship with celebrity millionaires.
Throughout his life Peter Drucker has pointed out that the arguments of many managers worldwide regarding the profit motive have made it impossible for the public at large to understand the economic reality. „Managers constantly complain about the hostility to profit. They rarely realize that their own rhetoric is one of the main reasons for this hostility. For indeed in the terms management uses when it talks to the public, there is no possible justification for profit, no explanation for its existence, no function it performs. There is only the profit motive, that is, the desire of some anonymous capitalists – and why that desire should be indulged in by society any more than bigamy, for instance, is never explained. But profitability is a crucial need of economy and society.” 32
Above all, not to do social damage sounds relatively modest in comparison with the expensive Corporate Social Responsibility Concepts of today, „but as the physicians found out long ago, it is not an easy rule to live up to. It’s very modest and self-constraint making it the right rule for the ethics of managers need, the ethics of responsibility”. 33