It is surprising how often we end up like Oliver Wendell Holmes (The Philosopher at the Breakfast Table) in our house. I am involved in some in depth research on the qualities of Leadership for modern situations, and as part of my refresher reading I picked up the “Harvard Business Review on Developing Leaders” where I read the following passage:

“Carter we say, was a highly principled and intelligent president who stayed unswervingly true to his ideals. And yet even the most die-hard Democrat would agree that Ronald Reagan was more effective than Carter at winning congressional and public support for his agenda. We ask, ‘Do you want to be 100% pure, like Carter, or do you want to be effective like Reagan? You must choose one or the other.” Waldroop & Butler “Managing Away Bad Habits” – Harvard Business Review on Developing Leaders, HBS Press, 2004, p30

Now regardless of the actual qualities of both Presidents quoted, I think the authors have failed to ask the right question. By stating that one must be either a) Principled or b) effective, they ignore the question I asked at the breakfast table this morning, “Why can’t you be both principled and effective?” – We are having a prolonged breakfast this morning, and I think I opened up a can of worms.

Because first we had to discuss what was meant when we described someone as having “Good principles” The husband, when asked suggested that they were those who believed in what they said. So the next question was “Then how does a person of principle differ from a truthful one”. By the time we had come to consensus on that the coffee was cold, so there was nothing for it but to pour another one – the discussion was getting interesting.

We then came to the conclusion that principles were an inbuilt guide to our moral conduct, and while we could describe two different people as having ‘principles’ they may not have the same principles – therefore principles must be personal. Perhaps, we pondered (we do a lot of pondering in our household) our principles are an outcome of who we are, where we came from and what role models we adopted.

I then turned to the dictionaries to see if we could further define what we mean when we talk about ‘principles’. I collect dictionaries, and I often find that some words have changed their meaning over time as a reflection of changes in society’s standards. I wondered how “principles’ had fared.

My oldest dictionary – Newnes Family Reference Dictionary (Australian Edition) circa 1920; defined it thus “Consistent regulation of behaviour according to moral law” so we decided that it was something that we did personally, we regulated our behaviour according to our moral law; and when we did so we became “persons of principle”.

So far so good; what about my 1943 Chambers Dictionary – “A fundamental truth, on which others are founded “ We found that a little hazy, where is the personal element here? Nothing about the fundamental truth regulating our behaviour. Perhaps my trusty Oxford English Dictionary can clarify – “A General law as a guide to action” –1966. Oh dear, we are getting further and further away from the idea that principles are personal moral decisions that regulate our behaviour.

The husband then decided that perhaps what we wanted here was some ‘ethical’ discussion. So I distributed the dictionaries and we got to work. What was ethics, we wanted to know and did it differ from principles. The results from Newnes – “The science of morals as concerned with human conduct” – well that’s ephemeral enough; so turning to Chambers we found – “That branch of philosophy concerned with human behaviour” – quite where that fits in with personal moral law was a bit dubious, perhaps the OED can clarify better this time – “The science of morals; rules of conduct” – Ah light is beginning to dawn, which is as well because the coffee is stone cold, we can hardly call this early morning now, and there are still questions we want answered.

The key is the phrase “rules of conduct” because the on-line Wikipedia defined principle as “a rule or code of conduct” so now in 2008 the words ‘principles’ and ‘ethics’ are defined as being the same thing.

Unfortunately, I don’t believe that this is accurate. I am sure that we all hold some personal articles of faith in what we consider to be right and moral conduct – in fact I am sure that we are all, to some degree or other, people of principles. But when we join a company or organisation we will probably find that they have already drawn up rules or a code of conduct, and we may be presented with their “Business Code of Ethics” which we need to abide by. Now these business ethics may or may not be in keeping with our personal principles, but they must be followed if we are to keep our job.

So perhaps Waldroop and Butler were right – to a degree. May be we have to follow the company line in relation to a code of ethics, but that still doesn’t answer the question of “Why can’t we be both principled and effective?” I can’t answer yet, we are still debating whether in business today Ethics has replaced Principles, and we are divided in our opinions. So it’s back to the breakfast table, and to pour another cup of coffee to see if we can get to grips with the problem. What do you think?

Michele @ Trischel
Well actually still at the breakfast table but I will be later!!

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