Ethics of Excellence

I have always believed that you can learn something from anything, if you approach it with the right mind-set.

The question I have is this – should we feel able to use everything as a source of learning?  More explicitly, when – if ever – is it not “okay” to cite a source or an example, as something worthy of studying as a source of excellence?

If this is all sounding a bit too abstract – or the late night musings of a teenage philosopher – let me give an example, by way of a short recap.

Shackleton and Excellence

There are many books that extrapolate business lessons from a wide range of sources.  With my project, risk and change management hat on, I see some that have directly relevant ideas and others that, while thought-provoking, seem to offer rather less applicability.


The two books I cited in a recent blog about Sir Ernest Shackleton’s Endurance Expeditions are great examples of a whole set of valuable lessons that we can draw.  I think there are two reasons: Shackleton was, by any measure, a truly exemplary leader with a set of character traits that, together, made him extraordinary.

Second, there is a real flavour of project management in an expedition and in the initiatives he took to save his crew.  There was certainly risk and clear evidence of skilful risk management thinking and decision-making.  And, boy was there a culture change: from a relatively cosy ship, albeit ice-bound, to a perilous existence among the harshest of Earth’s elements – truly “at the edge”, as Dennis Perkins describes it.

Combat and Excellence

But what about the applicability and ethics of citing an historic martial code as a source of lessons for modern civil (and military) project management?  I am referring here to my series of blogs, drawing simple lessons from Hagakure, the early eighteenth century guide to Samurai living.  Well, I make two defences (and acknowledge my soft liberal need to make those defences).

First, like or despise the Samurai way; there is nothing inherently evil in Bushido codes and a way of life that prevailed as a cultural norm for many years in Japan.  Our cultures are different, but this was in another time.  There is, indeed, much to admire, if you evaluate each element on its own merits.

Second, I am being selective and, whilst not treating them light-heartedly, I am trying to extract simple messages: not deep truths.

So to a real ethical dilemma

As an angsty philosophising teenager, I wondered whether Martin Heidegger’s  politics contaminated his profound philosophical ideas.  I have avoided mentioning him in discussing “authenticity” in Brilliant Project Leader, not for this reason, but because it is not an academic text nor anything like one.

But some correspondence on my Shackleton blog reminded me of an excellent British TV drama on the Endurance expedition, “Shackleton”.  That put me in mind of another excellent drama – and also one I think we can learn from.

But should we?  I just don’t know how to feel about citing this as an example of good practice.  I am happy to identify the moral bankruptcy of some of the tactics in it, and ashamed that thoroughly reprehensible characters evince my liking and sympathy against their even more reprehensible co-conspirators.  It’s hard to find more than the tiniest scrap of humanity among the entire set of protagonists.

Yet, the whole drama shows just how efficiently a meeting can be run;  just what statistics can do to create “objectivity”; just how powerful planning and preparation can be in changing mind-sets.  Chillingly powerful.

Evil and Excellence

So what is this drama?

I am talking about a wonderful 96 minute drama.  Like Shakleton, it also stars Kenneth Branagh.  It is called “Conspiracy” and is a re-creation of the Wannsee Conference where senior Nazis signed-off and planned the “Final Solution to the Jewish Problem”.  Colin Firth plays Dr Stuckert and somehow makes an architect of the Nuremberg Laws a likeable character.  He also has the best line in the play:

Klopfer
(representing Martin Bormann, and played by Ian McNeice)
“I’ll remember you.” [menacingly]

Stuckert
(Secretary of for the Interior, and played by Colin Firth)
“You should, I’m quite well known.” [laconically]

The “so what?”

I have always believed that you can learn something from anything, if you approach it with the right mind-set and there is a lot to learn from this drama.

I also believe that we should learn something from everything we encounter, good or bad.  But should I extract lessons about promoting change, handling resistance, and managing efficient meetings from this context?

You tell me…

Please complete the poll below, and enter your thoughts in the comments.

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