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“Virtuous Betrayal” and Institutional Integrity

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Dr. Krantz is a consultant and researcher from New York City. by James Krantz, PhD

It was a great pleasure to participate in a day-long symposium this past July in honor of Dr. Wesley Carr, which was devoted to exploring institutional integrity. The presenters offered fascinating perspectives on institutional integrity, each drawing on their own experiences to shed light on the dilemmas and challenges of living up to the ideals of integrity within the complex, cross-cutting pressures leaders and managers face today.

My presentation centered on a dilemma faced by leaders/managers when a conflict arises between the needs of his/her colleagues and the requirements of adhering to a mission. Under those conditions, a type of betrayal is necessary if the integrity of the institution is to be preserved.

At those moments two worlds collide. One has to do with the people that animate an organization. Every successful leader knows how dependent they are on them for the success of the enterprise and for their own success. This is especially true of those closest around the leader with whom he/she works–the quality of the relationships is crucial.

The other has to do with the mission of the enterprise. Every enterprise has two sides, Janus like, in which different aspects are contained. One side is the organization, a task-system with all of the building blocks of organizational life (e.g. structure, technologies, policies, etc.). The other side is the institution, meaning the values and purposes which the enterprise strives to achieve. Every institution carries or embodies some important meaning on behalf of the larger society, whether it be, for example, to fight and protect, raise the next generation, or provide sustenance. 

Leaders have the responsibility to keep the two in alignment, working hand-in-glove. When this essential link is broken, various sorts of dysfunction result. Businesses pursue profit blindly without regard to ethics or social responsibility. Or organizations strive toward idealistic or unrealistic goals and lose contact with the complex trade-offs and realities of functioning effectively. Creating what Isabel Menzies calls the “anti-task” environment.

Research has shown that where people in organizations are connected with the higher purposes and meanings of their enterprise, they are more in tune with their roles as citizens, more productive and creative at work, have fewer diseases of despair such as alcoholism or drug addiction, are less often divorced, have fewer instances of spouse abuse, and vote more often.

The apocryphal story of the two young sixth graders illustrates this point. The teacher asks, “What does your daddy do?” Their fathers stand next to each other on an assembly line, both turning a wrench. One boy says just that: “My dad works on an assembly line.” The other boy: “My father builds jet airplanes.” Through understanding the meaning of their roles, not just the task demands, people find meaning.

The dilemma I’m exploring is about what happens when maintaining the relationships of trust and collaboration requires leaders to engage in behaviors that do not honor the higher ideals, meaning and purposes of the enterprise. Take the example of Winston Churchill during WWII. Because the English had cracked the German’s secret codes (due to having the “Enigma Machine”), they discovered that the town of Coventry was about to be bombed. Churchill was faced with a terrible dilemma: does he warn the citizens of Coventry, thereby saving thousands of lives, which would also reveal to the Germans that their secret code was known? Or does he keep the secret and doom thousands of his country men and women?

My presentation centered on this exact moment and exact dilemma, one that occurs far less dramatically in ordinary life, but nonetheless has a profound impact on the leader and on those who will be affected by the choice. I am suggesting that at these moments a kind of betrayal is required. Not betrayal in the usual sense of self-dealing, malicious, or somehow malign purposes, but betrayal in the service of higher ideals and purposes–what I call “virtuous betrayal.” 

Churchill chose to let the bombing go on without warning the Coventry citizens. While a defensible decision, Churchill reportedly grieved this for the rest of his life. The psychic costs of virtuous betrayal on the betrayer are deep and often disturbing, which is why people in these roles often regress psychologically in the face of making these choices. They revert to less thoughtful, more defensive ways of relating to the situation in order to avoid the pain of fully embracing what they face. As a result, sometimes they corrupt the institution because they are unable to face the interpersonal consequences of betraying (very often under-the-surface) expectations and agreements. Or they find ways to blame or devalue those being betrayed to soften the recognition of the suffering required to embrace institutional integrity.

This pertains not only to leaders in high position, but to people at all levels. Leadership can be exercised everywhere in an organization. The father building jet airplanes is much more likely to be able to go against group norms or groupthink in the service of higher ideals than the father who turns a bolt all day long. 

Institutional integrity is about ensuring that our institutions are functioning in concert with their missions and purposes. This isn’t about the ritualized “mission statement” but about what role they play on behalf of the larger social context. Ensuring institutional integrity requires that leaders, at any level, be in contact with the meaning of their roles, not only their task expectations. 

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