The Ethics of Innovation

To some, the term “media ethics” is an oxymoron. I wouldn’t go that far, but you can’t work in the news business as long as I did without witnessing ethical lapses and I saw my share. Some newsrooms illustrate all too well how creativity, talent and hard work can at times become corrupted. Sometimes those weaknesses are individual. In other instances they are systemic. In other words, a product of the organization’s leadership.

I remember once listening to my boss carefully explain that some reporters on staff were allowed to lie when covering stories. I saw stories pulled in deference to major advertisers and I watched with dismay as veteran reporters dismissed the transgressions of public officials who almost certainly broke the law, but who were also long-trusted sources who those reporters didn’t want to lose. I witnessed such lapses on the part of both colleagues and competitors.

I suspect you can come up with some lapses that you’ve seen in whatever business you may be in. In innovation circles, one complaint I often hear is about those who take credit for the ideas of others—a sure way to kill off creative contributions.

If you’ve heard me speak, you know that I see integrity as crucial to innovative thinking and leadership. Integrity needs to be practiced both individually and collectively, but the situation is especially bad when leaders lack it. In a news organization, an ethical lapse by an individual reporter or producer is unfortunate, but the impact may be rather limited.  The values of accuracy and fairness suffer in ways that may be known only to that reporter (and perhaps his or her source). The fallout may not extend much beyond a single story. In many organizations, the ethical shortcomings of individuals, while certainly not to be praised, may have that sort of limited impact. However, when leaders suffer ethical lapses, it corrupts the objectives of the entire organization, putting pressure on everyone to behave in less than honorable ways.

Leaders set the tone and the standards of conduct by creating a climate that either contributes to integrity or undermines it. When it’s lacking, ethics isn’t the only casualty. Communication and trust suffer. Feedback breaks down, because when people stop speaking the truth the crucial information and reality checks needed to guide the success of the enterprise are missing. The result may not be as spectacular as the collapse of an Enron or a Global Crossing, but it can still be a powerful obstacle to innovation—not to mention dragging down profits and growth. We now know that the Enrons of the world were pretenders. They talked a good game about being leaders in innovation but it was all smoke and mirrors.

A healthy innovation culture not only promotes creativity and execution, it’s one in which a strong sense of reality permeates the place. Not dismal pessimistic realities, just clear-eyed assessments of the challenges that must be met and the problems to be solved, in order to be successful. The ethical and legal boundaries are clear bright lines that are as inviolate as a reporter’s deadline. Successful innovation isn’t about denying reality or shading the truth; it’s about finding real solutions to real problems. Integrity is its foundation.

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