This UCLA grad penned a bestseller that's influencing corporations everywhere.
By Janet Eastman
Published Apr 1, 2009 8:00 AM
Dov Seidman '87, M.A. '87, founder of Los Angeles-based corporate ethics consultancy LRN and author of the bestseller HOW: Why HOW We Do Anything Means Everything ... in Business (and in Life),
preaches the gospel of good corporate conduct. His ideas have been
embraced by business leaders and lawmakers and championed by
influential writers like The New York Times' Thomas Friedman. Seidman's years in Westwood are, in part, "how" all of that happened.
Q: Corporations now routinely engage in ethics-based efforts
like "social responsibility," "good- governance," "transparency" and
"cause-related marketing." Has business grown a conscience?
A: Businesses have always been great at asserting things. In the 1980s
and '90s, they proclaimed excellence, quality and productivity as Job
#1. Today, businesses can no longer differentiate themselves solely on
the products they make, the services they provide or the processes they
use. Instead, they need to differentiate based on the connections they
establish and the experiences they create that engender trust and
loyalty. So businesses are asserting humanistic values of integrity and
trust, commitments to society and responsibility to the environment. We
will see which organizations live up to their assertions.
Q: Your column is in BusinessWeek. The New York Times Magazine
has a weekly column called "The Ethicist." Does mainstream interest in
ethics come in unprompted cycles or is it stimulated by scandals and
A: Every scandal chips away at our
confidence and the trust we place in our institutions. The 21st-century
dynamics of hyper-connectivity and hyper-transparency, however, have
changed the game completely. Mainstream interest in ethical behavior
isn't a fad. Today, everyone can see easily and deeply into who we are
and into the organizations to which we belong, and our expectations for
behavior have risen. The word "ethics," however, has baggage. That's
why I talk about how we do what we do — our behavior. Part of what I'm
trying to do is reframe how people look at their endeavors so that they
can make different choices.
Q: What is the relationship between business ethics and the severe recession we're now suffering through?
A: I talk often about the Certainty Gap, the space between the
unpredictable nature of the world and our ideal vision of stability and
security. We are experiencing war, recession and a crisis in values
that crosses business, society and government. When this happens, we
reach out for reassurance, for things that can stabilize us and give us
confidence to go on. We look for something to fill the gap. That
something is trust. Trust allows us to function in times of
uncertainty. Trust creates environments where people feel comfortable
taking the kinds of risks that lead to innovation and, ultimately,
progress. Therefore, the question of our time is, how do you create an
agenda of trust? The answer comes through leadership and behaviors that
are consistent and principled.
Q: If you could talk to alleged white-collar crook Bernard Madoff, what would you say?
A: I'm not sure what I would say. The depth of his betrayal is beyond
words. His actions were not just stealing; they were stealing in epic
proportions. Madoff robbed something much more than just money from the
nonprofit world. He robbed the world of their endeavors. Think of all
the projects under way that won't be completed. Think of all the people
in need who will go without. It's tragic.
Q: Is ethical thinking inherent or learned?
People are born with the ability for ethical thinking and most families
try to cultivate it. But just as Aristotle said that excellence is not
a single act but a habit, I believe we have the opportunity to become
excellent at pursuing performance in a principled and consistent way.
Think about great athletes. They practice thousands of hours to ensure
that in the crucial moment, when the heat is on, they make the right
play, catch or basket. I believe we, along with our leaders and
institutions, need to apply this same discipline. We need to go to the
ethical gym. We need to test and flex our ethical muscles and develop
into ethical athletes so that under pressure, we do the right thing,
even if it's inconvenient or unpopular.
Q: What about the people who succeed by being unethical?
A: People who seem to be getting ahead that way are not on a
sustainable path. They may appear to be making strides, but their
unethical actions will likely catch up with them and they will likely
Q: What happens if you mess up in a digital world where you're forever followed by a database of your transgression?
A: In the past, you could control your life story and reduce it to a
one-page résumé. Today, in our more connected and transparent world,
your story is told in real time by others and it's archived and
searchable online. Second chances and reinventing yourself are rare.
But while we can no longer control the story being written about us, we
can control our behavior. No one expects us to be perfect. An authentic
apology is powerful. It allows you to connect or reconnect, recover and
move on. Doctors, for example, are sued less when they apologize to
patients for mistakes made in their care.
Q: You have begun to counsel clients on sustainability. How is that a business ethics issue?
A: It's time to reclaim "sustainability" from a singular focus on the
environment. In its most important sense, sustainability is a long-term
strategy for innovation, growth and significance. We need our leaders
and institutions to understand it is about our relationship with the
environment, but it is also about our relationship with our
communities, organizations and institutions. Simply put, our businesses
won't be around to fight global warming or to help their communities if
they are making the kinds of short-sighted financial and investment
decisions that led to our current economic crisis.
Q: You say there are three ways to get someone to do something: coercion, motivation or inspiration. Which is more powerful?
A: Most companies have fireable offenses and they have their place. So,
too, does motivating with rewards. There is nothing wrong with carrots
and sticks, with 401(k) plans, with bonuses. But they have their
limits. Being coerced or motivated means that you are being influenced
by external factors. Inspiration is the most powerful source because it
is internal. When you are inspired, you are in pursuit of a mission
that you think is important. Being inspired doesn't mean you're
extra-motivated. Instead, you're acting on your beliefs and you are
propelled by your values. Inspiration is renewable and can be shared.
Q: In your book, you acknowledge UCLA Law School Professor
Emeritus Herb Morris '51. Tell us about that relationship and what you
learned from it.
A: I became a philosophy major
accidentally — a result of all other classes being full. It turned out
to be a blessing in my life. Herb was my adviser. I took his graduate
seminar on guilt and shame. He has remained a mentor and one of my dear
life friends. Herb taught me that philosophy was not something to just
study; it was something to be practiced. He inspired me, encouraged me
to go deeper, to stretch my thinking and be a philosopher. Herb taught
me that principled thinking can play a significant role in every part
of your life. We continue to have long conversations and we play
tennis. There's an ongoing debate about who's better. I like to joke
with Herb that, age adjusted, he is a better player.