Ethical Leadership: Learning how to address the challenges before they become crises
It was such knowledge that enabled Slagle to land exactly the job he wanted at graduation, working in corporate planning where he could apply what he’d learned about discounted cash flow and managerial economics, along with other financial and economic concepts. Alcoa, Inc. offered him just that opportunity, and so he began a distinguished 37-year career with the company.
His positions there included stints as chief executive officer of companies in Brazil and Australia that were among the most significant industrial organizations in those countries. Among his many contributions was a widely recognized initiative to bring women into the male-centric management ranks of the company’s Australian operations — an effort that succeeded because of sustained leadership of a major cultural change within the company. In 1996, he served as president of Alcoa World Alumina, the world’s leading global source of alumina, used to manufacture aluminum and alumina-based chemicals. Slagle retired from Alcoa in 2002 as executive vice president and a member of the Executive Council, the company’s senior leadership group that provides strategic direction.
To mark the 50th anniversary of his Cornell graduation, Slagle and his wife made a $1 million commitment to Johnson to endow the Robert and Sharon Slagle Fund for Researching and Teaching Business Ethics. “I wanted to make a significant gift to an area that’s very, very important – an area that should be a focus of any graduate business education.” Slagle has been a generous supporter of the Johnson Annual Fund for many years. “I have always favored Johnson with my Cornell giving because what I learned at Johnson has contributed to everything I have been able to accomplish during my business career,” he says.
Slagle sees ethics as one of the most critical and difficult challenges in business for two reasons. First, he says, “If you look at any five-year business plan for any corporate organization, you’ll find a lot of numbers: net income, sales goals, staffing levels, cost reduction, safety numbers, capital expenditures…yada, yada, yada. But we don’t measure ethical behavior quantitatively because ethics is qualitative. One of the problems is that since numerical goals are always very specific, they can tug at any ethical area.
“For example, suppose a company sets a goal to reduce lost time accidents (LTAs) to 10, and by November, they’ve already reached their limit. Then in December, there’s another accident — an 11th. There’s a very strong urge to ask whether there’s any way to avoid calling this incident an LTA. That can lead to aberrant behavior such as assigning the individual to work at home, and everyone in the organization knows it’s wrong. So there’s a real sharp focus on how the business leader performs when faced with missing such a goal,” he points out.
The second area that Slagle sees as one of the biggest ethical challenges is the clash of cultures that may be encountered in doing business globally. “Outside of North America, employees may have grown up in a culture where officials don’t think twice about bribery or other practices we don’t condone. As a result, they have a different set of ethical norms than ours. That presents a real challenge for leaders who need to uphold standards.”
Says Slagle: “My view is that the time to learn about both of these kinds of tensions and conflicts is not out in the real world on the firing line, but during the educational process.” Through their gift, Bob and Sharon Slagle hope that Johnson faculty will develop cases that provide experiential training in the area of principles and authentic leadership. This approach to ethics emphasizes scenarios in which students practice values-driven leadership and develop character and skills that will enable them to provide ethical decision making and leadership throughout their careers.
By strengthening Johnson’s leadership curriculum in this way, the Slagles are providing future Johnson graduates with a foundation in ethical decision making and leadership that wil enable them to make a real and growing impact on the world of commerce.