For many Georgia lawyers, March Madness has two meanings. It’s the month when our attention moves to the NCAA basketball tournament. It’s also the deadline for us to complete our prior year’s twelve hours of Continuing Legal Education (CLE) to maintain our Georgia Bar licenses. So sometime in March, many of us trudge downtown to sit through two days of tedium and meet our requirements.
This past Friday I had a different experience. I attended a sobering presentation on ethics delivered by Egil (Bud) Krogh, one of the White House officials convicted of conspiring to violate civil rights during the Watergate crisis.
Forty years or so ago, Krogh was a 30-year old lawyer reporting to John Ehrlichmann, his mentor and one of President Richard Nixon’s senior advisers. Krogh went from a rising star to a convicted felon. His path to prison, disgrace and disbarment started when he compromised his conscience and values.
Ultimately, Krogh helped orchestrate the ransacking of a psychiatrist’s office in search of “evidence” regarding the physician’s patient, Daniel Ellsberg. Then and now, Bud Krogh struck me as a decent person and I wondered how he could have acted as he did. After hearing his talk, it’s easier to understand.
Krogh let his powerful superiors, including the President of the United States, dictate his direction and over ride his own judgment and principles. He followed the lead of his mentors when they maintained that national security superseded the rule of law. Additionally, he operated in an environment where those at the top would not listen and did not want to hear positions at odds with theirs. And he occupied an intoxicatingly powerful job. That’s the awful mix that led to his outrageous actions.
Today, we focus on distributing Codes of Conduct, policies, check the box learning and other communications to prevent compliance and ethical disasters. Krogh’s message suggests we give greater emphasis to basic leadership and citizenship, not just rote standards. We’d all do well to remember and apply these principles:
- Use your values when you make workplace decisions. If something doesn’t feel right, don’t ignore your ethical compass.
- It’s hard to speak up. Leaders need to encourage people to raise objections and listen when they do. It’s dissent which can avert disaster, not blind agreement with authority. At several junctures during Watergate, if someone had simply said this isn’t right and others had reflected and acted, the magnitude of the disaster we, he and others faced could have been averted.
- Mentors matter – those who hire us, train us and lead us also help us understand how to interpret and apply values. This is a key leadership responsibility.
- Strong leaders choose to have people around them who are self confident, have strong values and challenge potentially wrong headed actions. Krogh contrasted President Roosevelt who expected his Chief of Staff, George Marshall, to speak his mind and disagree with bad decisions with President Nixon whose aides lacked those qualities.
- The real risk in not adhering to values and failing to speak up can be far greater than that which appears most immediate – the loss of influence in a job or, at worst, the actual loss of position.
In March or any other month, madness would be ignoring Bud Krogh’s simple, tragic lessons. Many have over the past 40 years. And all of us have paid a price.