Managing Conflicts of Interest

by Rushworth M. Kidder

Want a barometer of a nation’s moral concern? Check out how frequently the word ethics appears in the news. Last Thursday, anyone counting would have scored a hat trick. On the New York Times front page that day, above the fold, were two sad and tangled tales of ethical lapses. In one, New York Gov. David Paterson quit his re-election campaign. In the other, New York congressman Charles Rangel relinquished the chair of the powerful House Ways and Means Committee. A third piece, appearing in a box at the bottom of the page, involved Eric Massa, a freshman congressman from upstate New York, who resigned his position because of an ethics investigation.

Some readers rightly see these stories as additional nails in the coffin of our collective moral sense — proof that integrity is dead. Other readers, also right, see them as encouraging evidence that iniquity can’t be hidden — that the public cares enough about integrity to demand such exposure of unethical behavior.

But there’s a deeper significance here. Each of these stories is about conflicts of interest — which, simply defined, arise when people seek to exploit public positions for private benefit. The fact that these three public figures fell so easily into such conflicts reminds us that we’re not very good at training our leaders about ethics and integrity. Simply put, we give them few tools to defend themselves against three of the most corrosive influences in human experience — power, fame, and wealth.

These influences, if left uncontrolled, will generate an almost infinite number of conflicts of interest. But our public figures don’t necessarily come into their jobs prepared to deal with these conflicts. By the very nature of the democratic process, we push ordinary people into extraordinary positions — too often without the moral headlights to illuminate the approaching dangers. For all of the leadership training we do, we devote hardly a moment to discussing the conflict-of-interest issues that most easily could wreck their careers. Should it surprise us, then, that they run into the ditch or over the cliff with disturbing regularity?

Notice how it happens. Rep. Rangel did it merely by accepting personal gifts, including Caribbean travel, in situations apparently meant to influence his votes. Gov. Paterson accepted free tickets to the World Series, and tried to squelch an investigation of a top aide in a domestic violence case. Rep. Massa resigned after being accused of sexually harassing an aide. In each case, the positions these men held required of them an impartiality, a loyalty to the office rather than to the self, a judicious use of their influence for the common good. They were, in other words, trusted to do the right thing. When that trust evaporated, their reputations were shattered. It no longer matters that they are smart, savvy, sophisticated, or experienced. Being untrustworthy, they no longer are valued as leaders.

What lessons can we learn? Four come to mind:

  • These men each came to grief over issues that, in the grand scheme of things, were pretty small: a few days’ vacation, a couple of phone call, several free tickets, some suggestive language. Conflicts of interest rarely involve high-stakes gambits. Instead, they usually hinge on activities that seem, to the person doing them, to be innocuous, commonplace, even trivial.
  • Because of that apparent triviality, the last person to spot a conflict of interest is often the person engaged in it. Conflicts that are perfectly obvious to colleagues, friends, and acquaintances remain shrouded from the view of the actor himself. Such is the power of self-interest that we can see others’ faults far more clearly than our own.
  • Conflicts of interest come in two flavors: actual and perceived. The perception of self-dealing can be just as damaging to a reputation as the real thing. That fact can be a curse if the perception is false and the accusation unjustified. But it also can be a benefit if it warns a public figure of a pending conflict and gives her time to avoid it.
  • Conflicts of interest are inevitable. The people most suited to public leadership have extensive experience and wide personal networks, so they unavoidably will encounter situations where loyalty comes into conflict with truth. They’ll face dilemmas where their duty of fidelity to others stands at cross-purposes with their duty of integrity to their position. It’s not shameful to find oneself in such dilemmas. The goal is not to avoid conflicts of interest, but to manage these truth-versus-loyalty dilemmas so they do no harm.

How can they be managed? What’s needed is moral courage. To resist the seductive influences of power, wealth, and fame, our leaders obviously need to develop the moral courage to say no to temptation. More important, they need to encourage such courage in others. They need to surround themselves with colleagues who can point out the danger frankly and candidly before an apparent conflict becomes a real one. If Paterson, Rangel, and Massa simply had taken that last step, they might have remained effective leaders.

©2010 Institute for Global Ethics