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Should Leaders Ever be Morally Flexible?

March 27, 2016


Viewers of Breaking Bad will remember the slimy lawyer character of Saul Goodman played by Bob Odenkirk. Representing Walter White (Bryan Cranston) and Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul) Saul, in his flashy suits, kept his clients out of prison at whatever cost.

Absent of any sense of morals or professional ethics, Saul was an ambulance chaser, par excellent, willing to do any illicit deal that pocketed him money.

In the new series (now in the second season) Better Call Saul, set six years before Breaking Bad takes place, the viewer gets the full treatment of Saul’s greasy legal skills. But now he’s going by his real name, James “Jimmy” McGill. McGill’s elastic concept of the law (eg, manipulating seniors on a bus to sign up for a tort action) and doing end-runs around the partners at the law firm where he weaseled his way into, exemplify his flexible moral code. He wears the ultimate Teflon suit, deftly flipping accusations of his immoral behavior back onto his accusers.

In a season two episode of Better Call Saul, Mike (played by Jonathan Banks) poses the question to Jimmy, “Are you still morally flexible?”

This prompts some exploration into whether it’s ever appropriate to be “morally flexible” on certain issues or in specific situations.

In the political and business world, we see examples of ethical and moral lapses occurring every day. With Saul Goodman–Jimmy McGill–it’s merely fiction. That’s fine. It’s hilarious. What’s not funny is when those in leadership positions deceive their followers, such as what the public has come to expect from their political leaders, whether at the municipal, state/provincial, or national levels.


But it also happens with regular occurrence with corporate leaders. Whether it was Bernie Ebbers of WorldCom, Dennis Kozlowski of Tyoc, or Kenneth Lay of Enron, there’s no shortage of top-level business leaders who have screwed investors and employees. Listen to their court testimonies or media interviews and these individuals mastered the art of moral flexibility, which eventually descended into criminal behavior. The line between acting without morals to actually breaking the law is indeed a very fine one. Of particular curiosity is why did only one corporate banker go to prison following the financial collapse of 2008?

For fans of House of Cards, the flexibility of morals descends into at times criminal behavior by Frank Underwood (Kevin Spacey) and his wife, Claire Underwood (Robin Wright). Previously a Congressman, Vice President and now President, Frank Underwood is a study of Machiavelli on steroids. His laser focus on achieving the pinnacle of power well exceeds Machiavelli’s amoral pursuit of power. Not to be outdone Claire, with her own ambitions for power, does the same, except in a more discrete way.

While House of Cards is fictitious (with some media commentators arguing the two protagonists are based loosely on Bill and Hilary Clinton’s relationship), the series reflects in many ways the manipulations, deceit and contempt towards the voting public. In short, the lack of ethical behavior in today’s political environment is a commentary on society’s downward sliding sense of what’s acceptable when it comes to morals. It seems that politicians, public servants and business people are increasingly losing sight of what is right and what is wrong.

Frank and Clair

Enter the Republican primaries circus underway in the United States. The Primaries process is revealing the party’s unappetizing underbelly. One aspect that has stood out is the absence of any sense of morals by many of the candidates. Witness Donald Trump’s extravagant promises and outrageous statements, encompassing racism, misogyny and bigotry, and his adroit moral flexibility on a wide array of issues, and you have perhaps America’s greatest elastic leader in history–moral flexibility in action.

Effective leadership involves staying true to steadfast principles and maintaining a consistent, ethical approach to how you conduct yourself daily, whether it’s through community service, managing in business or government, or inter-acting with peers as you solve problems and serve customers and clients.

As the old saying goes, “Say what you mean, mean what you say.” Be transparent in all your activities, shunning the temptation to coat the truth or to stretch it to suit your personal ambitions. Real leadership is about telling the truth, serving others and standing up for the vulnerable.

Don’t drink and drive. But if you do, better call Saul.
– Jimmy McGill

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