A Conversation with Steven Kerr: A Rational Approach to Understanding and Teaching Ethics

By Thompson, Kenneth R. | Journal of Leadership & Organizational Studies, Winter 2006 | Go to article overview

A Conversation with Steven Kerr: A Rational Approach to Understanding and Teaching Ethics


Thompson, Kenneth R., Journal of Leadership & Organizational Studies


Steven Kerr has been active in both the academic world (Past President of the Academy of Management) and, more recently, has been active in a leadership role in industry. Steve covered many topics in the interview. To help the reader better access material, I divided the interview into four parts: 1) The challenge of defining ethics; 2) The role of government in managing ethical behavior; 3) Structuring the organization to improve ethical conduct; and 4) Implications for ethical education and training. However, first a few words about Steven's background.

SK: Well, the demographics are easy. I had some early low to mid-level organizational experience. I worked for Metropolitan Life; I worked for Mobile Oil a long time ago. Then I went back to school intending to get an MBA but I ran into Robert House who was at City University of New York and he persuaded me to go into the doctoral program. Because of his influence, I had an interview and ended up with my first job being at Ohio State. I had twin majors so I was in Management and Psychology at Ohio State and then I went to the University of Southern California. I began as a professor but ended up becoming Associate Dean and then Dean of the Faculty. In 1989, I got involved in General Electric's (GE) work out effort, which originally was 25 days a year, which is all a Dean has time to spend anyway. However, by 1992, I spent 210 days with General Electric. Because of the time demands at GE, I went on leave, then eventually left USC, and went to the University of Michigan. There they have a special arrangement where you could spend 10 weeks a year with students rather than the traditional two 15-week semesters, which would not have worked, given my GE calendar. I was there 2 years and in 1994, was offered the job to be the head of Leadership Development for GE and to run Crotonville, which is the Issue Development Center, the 53-acre campus an hour north of New York, which was renowned even before I got there. I was Jack Welch's consultant for a while before I ended up working for him running Crotonville, and was part of the top groups of GE with the Corporate Executive Council. Anyway, when he retired in 2001, I went to Goldman Sachs. Goldman had benchmarked many approaches, liked the GE approach to developing leaders. Their point was, "we are proud of what we have done at Goldman. The last head of the firm is now a US Senator, Jon S. Corzine from New Jersey. The CEO before him, Robert E. Ruben, was President Clinton' s Treasury Secretary." Goldman Sachs was proud of what they had done but were facing rapid growth and the need to produce more leaders. GE seems to have a good model. Therefore, they brought me in to work on that and I have the same job, the chief learning officer, which is the title I had with GE. I have been here five years now, which brings us to present day.

1-The Challenge of Defining Ethics

KT: How do you define ethical business behavior?

SK: There's a great quote, Potter Stewart I think it was, who said, "there's a huge difference between that which you have a right to do and that which is right to do." Therefore, when you get into ethical business behavior, then I think it is ethical behavior. Business just puts a milieu on it, a frame. I think that it is really paying attention to the second part of the Potter Stewart quote, the fact that ethical business behavior is doing what is fight to do which often takes you beyond what you have the legal right to do.

KT: So the key to define ethics is to go beyond the legal requirements?

SK: Well, it makes it problematic because now it gets subjective. You know the reason people established law because it gives predictability and supposed fairness, you know you hold "A" responsible, you hold "B" responsible. However, under this interpretation, a minimum standard of conduct is specified as if the law and the right thing to do are identical. In that case, you would not need ethics. …

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