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Mommas, don’t let your babies grow up to be lawyers

Bill Catlette and Richard Hadden Published on 09 February 2012

Imagine, if you will, what it would be like if roughly 40 percent of a nation’s primary rule-making body were comprised of HR professionals. Or retired Air Force generals. Or any profession, such as dairy producers, for that matter. Just let your mind run with that for a second.

Now ask yourself why we in the U.S. (and other places) should expect better than we’re getting from our legislatures and Congress when it’s dominated by lawyers – people, according to Thomas Jefferson, “whose trade it is to question everything, yield nothing and talk by the hour.”

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Before the flaming begins, understand one thing – this is not an anti-lawyer piece. Those in the legal profession serve a necessary and useful purpose. Most of them, we suspect, are fine people.

Some of the ones we know are. And the principle of having a nation or any large aggregation of people (like a company, for instance) bound by laws and rules is a good thing.

Yet, too much of a good thing can be a problem, whether that “good thing” be principles and standards espoused by HR professionals, military officers or lawyers.

In the latter case, owing in part to the 1.1 million or so lawyers in the U.S. (and their heavy concentration in government), we have allowed the law to become too much the de facto standard for acceptable behavior. In many cases, we conclude all too quickly (conveniently, perhaps) that if something is legal, it must be okay.

We hear people justify their behavior, and that of others, with tired, pat phrases like “No crime was committed,” “No laws were broken,” and “We did nothing illegal.” When you hear those words, you can be sure somebody did something wrong.

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But before we exalt those who simply broke no laws, let’s remind ourselves that the law is hardly a lofty standard.

Recently playing out before our very eyes was a sad, sorry affair involving Penn State University, its legendary, and now former, head football coach and behavior on the coach’s part, which while within the law, was clearly not ethically acceptable. Crimes don’t have the market cornered on consequences.

The Penn State story is an excellent reminder for anyone in a leadership position that compliance with the law ought to be the bare minimum standard for our decisions and behavior.

It’s illegal in this country for employers to discriminate on the basis of, for example, race and gender. But what if it weren’t illegal? It hasn’t always been. Would that make it right? Or any less foolish for an employer to base hiring decisions on such irrelevant factors?

We all get unwelcome phone calls from telemarketers during the dinner hour. My home number is on the highly vaunted “Do Not Call” list, a list with more loopholes than are found on a legislator’s wish list.

I always ask (politely) callers who are from exempt charitable organizations to remove me from their lists. It’s not that I don’t support their cause. I just don’t want to have a phone conversation about it.

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I’m amazed at the number of phone spammers who come back at me asserting their legal right to interrupt dinner with my family. Of course it’s legal! But their disrespect of my reasonable request doesn’t put one more penny in their coffers.

If you’re a leader, tasked with doing what’s best for your organization and its stakeholders, here’s our advice:

1. Make compliance with the law your minimum standard of behavior. Don’t break the law. But don’t think you can stop there.

2. When faced with a dilemma, after answering the question, “Is it legal?” then ask:

• Is it right?
• Does it feed or starve our organization’s mission?
• Is it consistent with our values?
• Would I be proud to tell my kids or other family members about it?

We’re fond of the Danish admonishment to “beware stepping over the lowest part of the fence.” Those who follow us hold us, quite rightly, to a high standard. A standard that we will do what is right even (make that especially so) in the absence of an established guideline, policy or law.

That standard can indeed be a difficult one to live up to when lives, careers and large sums of money are on the line, but that’s the deal when we sign on for a role as a industry leader. PD

Bill Catlette and Richard Hadden are co-authors of the Contented Cows leadership book series and the new book, Rebooting Leadership. They speak to and train leadership audiences worldwide. Learn more about their company, Contented Cow Partners, on the web at contentedcows.com

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