The Wheatley Institution

Lectures on Ethics and Leadership

Charles Conn
September 6, 2013

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Good afternoon everybody and thank you very much Peter for asking me to come today. It is a great honor to be here in the presence of this fine group of people. I was reminiscing with them last night: This is the first time I’ve seen Clayton and Dean Clark in a very long time. I’m sorry, I’m still going to call you Dean Clark even though you’re President Clark. I don’t remember all the details, but the first time I remember being in a room with them was maybe twenty years ago. Both Clayton and I had been awarded a dean’s doctoral fellowship at Harvard and we found ourselves at Professor Clark’s office at the same time and I was deliberating whether to stay and do the PhD and had probably come to talk to them about that. I remember sitting there first listening to Clay talk about his research ideas and being in his presence, listening to his ideas, I felt an intellectual and physical aubit (2:06). In the end, [I] decided not to do the PhD. Clayton went on and wrote about technology disruption and I went on and lived it as a technology entrepreneur. I think he had the better of it for sure.

Appropriately enough, Peter has asked us to come and talk about responsible leadership. As the new head of the Rhodes program, I’ve been ruminating a lot about responsible leadership. It is pretty much my job. As Peter said, I am also the director of Patagonia, the outdoor clothing company. One of the things I spend my time thinking about is the contrast between Cecil Rhodes who as the founder of the Rhode scholarships a hundred and ten years ago, and Yvon Chouinard who is the founder of Patagonia. I know you couldn’t imagine two more different people and I think that is kind of the point. As many of you know, Rhodes established the Rhodes Scholarships and maybe you don’t know that it was really the first of its kind. He was explicitly trying to develop young leaders to do what he called “fight the world’s fight,” which for him, meant to encourage relationships among countries and to make the world a better place. His criteria were really interesting. Rather than just picking intellectuals, he wanted to pick people who had a devotion to truth and caring for others. He also wanted people with the energy and ambition to develop and he wanted most of all people who he felt had moral force of character to lead. All of that sounds like an ambition to responsible leadership, and I think it was. It has produced some amazing leaders, probably today in Australia it produced Prime Minister Tony Abbot, (we’ll see I guess when the votes are all counted) Bill Clinton, Bob Hawke, Norman Manley in Jamaica, Cory Booker in New Jersey, and many others. I thought it might be fun to look at Cecil Rhodes today, partly because Clayton Christensen is a Rhodes Scholar, and to think [about] what we can learn about the differences between effective leaders and responsible leaders by looking at Rhodes and others.

Rhodes was an amazing entrepreneur and business person. When I say amazing, imagine that by age 48 he had started two companies that are still with us today, De Beers and Gold Fields, two countries that are still with us today, they have different names now—Zambia and Zimbabwe, and had been Prime Minister of a third, all before forty-eight. Then he promptly keeled over and died. By any definition [he was] a remarkably effective leader. History has not judged him to be a responsible leader and I thought ti might be interesting to talk about why. [He had] amazing breadth of vision and many of the characteristics that we do think of as good in leaders. He was a person of really big ideas. He wasn’t a scholar, maybe surprisingly, big ideas and big ideals rather than about personal gain. In fact, the only book he carried with him (and he carried it with him all the time) was Marcus Aurelius’ Mediations, which for those of you who don’t know, it is a stoic text and one of the things that propounds as basically stripping away all of your personal concerns and developing a conception of the cosmos as all present and at the same time encompassing all time. None of that is about personal gain. He was guided by the big principles and ideas of British values and British Empire. Today we might think about empires as somewhere between bad and silly, but one thing Peter asked us to do as we prepared for this talk was to think about responsibility, context, or culture specific and here we might say that it was. Rhodes’ ideas and ideals were shared by many, if not all, of his countrymen of the day. So, we will set aside for now our view that empires may be a silly idea. It was a powerful idea in its time. He painted a large vision for Africa that captured the attention of others. He built followers and shaped followership of thousands based on his leadership, and [he] inspired many people. He is famous for saying to the Countess of Warwick right toward the end of his life when she accused him of being a dreamer, of the following quote, “it is the dreamers that move the world. Practical men are so busy being practical that they cannot see beyond their own lifetimes. Dreamers and visionaries have made civilizations. If there had been no dream, we would still be living in caves and clubbing each other to death over a mouthful of food.” The only reason I recount it is this is again a person with a big vision, definitely far beyond his life. He was also a great judge of people. He surrounded himself with those who had a different skill sets from his own, (another characteristic of effective leaders) which included the strategist Alfred Beit, the financier Lord Rothschild and the operator Charles Rudd. He had enormous charisma to get these kinds of people to follow him, but he was also a careful listener and he drew these people out and incorporated their views into his view. Finally, he built an enormous fortune but he didn’t give a whit for money at all. In fact, he owned almost nothing personally. He wore the same old hat, he wore the same rumpled clothes, he didn’t even own a watch, and not until the end of his life did he even live in a proper house or have a bed any more than a cot. SO he didn’t do anything that he did—starting countries, starting companies, genuinely changing the face of the continent—for any gain or any luxury in his own lifetime..

Today we may not agree with the idea of building a bigger British empire and expanding Queen Victoria’s realm, but if we set that aside, why is he not viewed as a responsible leader? He was loved by those around him, especially those closest to him, he was vetted by the Queen, and he was admired by both Britons and Africans during this period. I think many of us in the room do know the answer, and the answer does tie into the some of the things that Kim spoke of a minute ago which is, while his ends were ends that many held, his means were not. Basically, Rhodes would do whatever was required to win his game and his game was a big game, bigger than we typically talk about with companies today. He told different people different things—that’s lying. He manipulated shares in stock exchanges in order to get more wealth, again for ends, not for himself. He even started small wars when other forms of persuasion like bribery didn’t work. That is how we ended up with upper and lower Rhodesia. People were bullied, ruined, people died, all while Rhodes pursued this vision, he was a friend of the Queen; she thought what he was doing was a good thing. In the end of course, it doesn’t matter how great your aims are. What you do matters. Mark Twain has a wonderful saying about Rhodes, “He wants the earth and he wants it for his own. And the belief that he will get it and let his friends in on the ground floor is the secret that rivets so many eyes upon him and keeps him at the zenith where the view is unobstructed. I admire him, and frankly I confess that when his time comes, I shall buy a piece of the rope as a keepsake.”

In the end time caught up with Rhodes before any rope [did]. We can see the difference between being an incredibly effective leader and being a responsible and moral leader amounts to responsible means , not just responsible ends, tak[ing] account of the impact of our actions on other people and other legitimate aims not just our own aims, and most importantly, what Kant called the categorical imperative, that we don’t’ use other people as means to our own ends. Before I finish I do want to contrast Rhodes, you know this historical character, with a living character with whom I get to work many days of the year, and that’s Yvon Chouinard the founder of Patagonia. I know it is a big segue to go from empire to Patagonia, but Patagonia is a pretty successful company out there in the world. It is a story that is much less grand, but it is grounded in a genuine story of responsibility. Chouinard is an environmentalist who happens to be, very reluctantly, a capitalist. He only became a capitalist because he wanted to make pitons that worked when he was mountain climbing and didn’t fall out. Then he started the clothing company because he needed a cash cow to pay for his trips to go climbing. Literally this is how ti happened. For him, the starting point is always nature, which he enjoys. His view is, unless you sell organic seeds or night soil, you’re doing some environmental harm. At an early part in the company’s history, an epiphany came to them about how much harm even a good company like Patagonia was doing. This is the lesson in responsibility. They found even when they produced an organic, cotton polo shirt that it used 2,700 gallons of water and burned 21 pounds of CO2 in its production, transportation, and packaging. That led to this fanatical pursuit inside the company of changes of how they thought about the company and how they made their products to be responsible. Not to be perfect, because he will still tell you today that Patagonia does harm, but it is their explicit goal to do no unnecessary harm. I am going to talk about three things they do because I think it does matter. It underscores that being responsible is a lot more than having a great aim and thinking good thoughts; it is about what you do on the ground.

The first is what they call the footprint chronicles. They looked at every single product they made and they traced every single step of the product and they tried to root out any dangerous dyes, any improperly produced imports, and any worker practices that are unfair or unethical. [Not a] single product in Patagonia get[s] produced without that kind of intensive process. The second thing they did was recognize that just producing good products was not enough, but that they needed to think about their customers’ demand behaviors. Most companies want as much demand as possible; at Patagonia that is not the case strangely. They started something called Common Threads, they’re working to encourage customers to reduce what they purchase, the last campaign was “don’t buy this jacket,” which literally was “please don’t buy this jacket unless you really need it.” When you have something from Patagonia that breaks, they don’t want you to throw it away, they want you to send it in for free to have it repaired, to recycle, so when you’re done with a Patagonia product they want you to send it back because all those fibers get reused and recycled. They also recycle via the E-bay store, so if you are tired of what you have from Patagonia you can send it there and donate any profit to charity, so that other people can enjoy their clothes. The third thing we are working on in Patagonia right now is called the Higg Index, which is a way of taking both of these ideas from a single company, Patagonia, and making it at the scale of an industry. They are trying to create an index that measures the impact on both workers and the environment for every single piece of clothing that is produced for the people that are participants in the index—more than 300 companies from Walmart to North Face to Patagonia. So they are trying to take their little practices that started in Patagonia and make it broad.

The point is Yvon is actually a lot like Rhodes. He cares about only one big thing, saving the planet, and it is something that will never be achieved in our lifetime. He doesn’t care about money. Chouinard wears an old pair of Walmart jeans. He won’t even wear Patagonia jeans—they cost too much. He drives the same Toyota Corolla that he has always had, he doesn’t own a cell phone, he lives in the same house he has lived in for 40 years. He is the same kind of curmudgeon that Rhodes was. He doesn’t even have Rhodes’ charm. Literally, he is a grouchy son of a gun, but he is a responsible leader. He is a responsible leader because he does not only try to make a great end, but he [also] cares about all the steps along the way that are required to do it.

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