A Failure of Leadership

Most of us remember exactly where we were and what we were doing on the morning of September 11, 2001. I remember the day clearly. At 8:50 a.m., I was sitting with the bank’s CFO in a conference room facing the Hudson River and New York Harbor at our headquarters in lower Manhattan. We were discussing a bulk asset sale with two guests from another bank.

Suddenly, we were interrupted by an employee, who rushed into the room breathlessly announcing that a plane had just hit the north tower of the World Trade Center just a few hundred yards away, its imposing presence blocked from our view by a building. Like so many others, my immediate thoughts ran to the possibility of an errant single-engine Piper Cub. Before I could even comprehend that possibility, I looked out toward the Hudson and saw the second jet flying straight toward us, making its ominous turn toward the South Tower –- much too low, much too near, much too loud. To this day I can still recall the sound of the engines screaming louder and louder as that son-of-a-bitch piloting this suicide mission accelerated, crashing into the South Tower.

Several times that morning I tried to go to the Trade Center to see if I could find my brother, who worked in the North Tower. I couldn’t see more than 10 feet in front of me. It was terrifying. Lower Broadway on a normal day would be busy and filled with people. I could see no one through the fog of dust and asbestos. I was alone, all alone. Unable to see where I was going, I proceeded to Braille my way forward, grazing the walls of buildings to guide me forward. I never made it to the Trade Center.

The history of that awful day is remembered in thousands of stories. As time passed, I have often reflected on the fact that we did not need a federal commission, new laws, regulations or company policies to tell us the right thing to do. Everyone instinctively responded by reaching out to help someone. People stood shoulder to shoulder with family, friends, neighbors and strangers in the weeks and months that followed as we collectively mourned the loss of so many innocent lives. We came together to help each other. For many of us, however, the emotional scars of that day remain.

Today we are faced with a different enemy, one that we cannot see. Covid-19 knocked on our door in January without warning. No living generation has ever experienced a pandemic. Given the absence of leadership from Washington, we must Braille our way into a completely uncertain future. To date, over six million have contracted the virus, and the number of Americans who have died is fast approaching 200,000. Experts tell us that these numbers will likely double by year-end. Our failure to act at the federal level has launched an economic tsunami the likes of which not seen since the Great Depression. Tens of millions of people are jobless, with no immediate hope in sight. Businesses everywhere are shuttering. And communities of color have been disproportionately hard hit economically, as well as from the pandemic. Without question, the failure of a coordinated federal response has left people feeling that no one cares.

To make matters worse, the proliferation of unfounded conspiracies theories, often promulgated by the highest levels of government, combined with widespread and pervasive truth decay, has fueled hatred, division and disarray everywhere.

Soon the fall season will be upon us. Our days grow shorter. Before too long winter will set in, brining with it cold and darkness. The summer brought us the opportunity for sunshine and fresh air. Now many will be driven back indoors.  In addition to our physical and economic health, our mental health is taking an enormous toll. Indeed, we know from those who have bravely fought in war conditions, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is very real. It manifests in numerous different ways, including emotional numbness and isolation, loss of interest in daily activities, distrust, hyper-vigilance of other people, extreme anxiety and helplessness among other symptoms. Suicide ideation, especially among the young, has risen dramatically. People are no longer rooted in a world once familiar to them. They are disoriented, adrift. The absence of leadership leaves us feeling extremely vulnerable, stoking anger – both of which substitutes for our grief.

We have heard a familiar refrain, “We’re in this together,” but never has the need to strengthen our connections and help our brothers and sisters in need been greater. These problems cannot be settled by a few slogans. Even a vaccine is not a cure-all. The pandemic will be with us for a long, long time. In addition, our COVID-induced PTSD will take time to heal. We are, without question, experiencing a crisis of leadership and moral bankruptcy today. We must get back to basics and restore the sacred trust and respect that holds us together as a community of people. The failure to do so will cause the cancer of failed leadership to continue to fuel risks to our health, economy and national unity, which are wreaking havoc on democracy and capitalism. We need leaders who are faithful to something other than the sound of their own voice. We need leaders who are committed to raising-up everyone in the country, rather than merely their own short-term self-interests. Life comes with responsibilities. At our core, what defines us as Americans are the bonds of human connections and our commitment and responsibility to one another, especially in time of crisis.

Keith Darcy is President of Darcy Partners Inc., a boutique consulting firm that works with boards and top executives on a wide variety of complex governance, ethics, compliance, and reputation risk challenges. Website: Darcy.Partners

Ethics and Compliance in a Pandemic Environment

[Click above to download full article as published in REVUE INTERNATIONALE DE LA COMPLIANCE ET DE L’ÉTHIQUE DES AFFAIRES – N° 4 – AOÛT 2020.]

Summary

The life-threatening pandemic, along with the global economic collapse, raise significant new risks for organizations everywhere. Ethics and compliance executives are challenged to deal with these new (ab)normal conditions, while facing considerable pressure to do “more with less.” This article explores these issues, and calls attention to how and where risk managers need to prioritize their time and activities in order to manage against a tsunami of increasing risks.

These are troubling times. A still surging life-threatening virus has brought the entire planet to its knees. Health systems and front-line warriors are completely overwhelmed and at risk. In our attempt to respond to COVID-19, by sheltering in place, we face a global economic collapse not seen since the Great Depression. People are waking up every day, stunned and dazed by a world turned upside down. Businesses have shuttered everywhere, resulting in massive unemployment worldwide. These conditions have exposed racial and economic divisions, all made worse by the spread of disinformation and hatred. And so many people are dying.

“Business-as-usual” no longer exists and is unlikely to ever return. Sales teams and traders working remotely pose special challenges. The virtual workplace for them creates significant control and surveillance issues, as well as confidentiality issues.

For ethics and compliance executives, this tsunami of bad news requires significant and additional vigilance, because of the new risks and the change of global business environment (I) with serious impact on the interactions with employee, stakeholders and third parties (II)

I – The change of the global business environment and new risks

Where to start – The starting point is to acknowledge the brutal truths that everyone is experiencing, and how it is impacting the way business is conducted. Clearly, a dynamic and continuous risk assessment process, one that considers the rapidly deteriorating and changing business conditions, is critical. “One-and-done” assessments are completely inadequate. In that regard, it is further essential that all risk managers operate in unison. Risk managers operating in silos do so at their own peril, and expose the enterprise to additional internal and external threats. Compliance, human resources, internal audit, legal, chief technology and information officers must coordinate and share data that monitors and measures emerging risks and trends across the enterprise.

Use of technology – On the issue of risk measurement and monitoring, it is more critical than ever that technology be deployed to follow for issues and trends. While some technology for ethics and compliance professionals has been developed in recent years, due to the investment necessary it has generally been slow to be implemented. The time is now. Technology can be a great enhancement in monitoring for risk. Unfortunately, given the global economic collapse, there are extraordinary pressures to contain expenses in most industries and all departments, including ethics and compliance departments. It would be foolish to consider any diminishment of resources in managing risk. At a time when risks are rising, as well as the expectations of enforcement authorities, this could expose companies to significantly greater risks. Regarding those companies that downsize risk management resources, I’ve seen this movie before (tech bubble crash, Great Recession, etc.), and it ends very badly.

Price gouging – Although generally not illegal, price gouging in some countries regarding specific items (e.g. food, medical equipment, health supplies, etc.) may be noticed. A perhaps bigger risk, however, to price gouging is reputation risk to the enterprise. “War profiteering” in this environment will be severely frowned upon by all stakeholders. Reputation risk today is at least as great as strategic, operating, and financial risk. All it takes is one incident gone viral, and it can destroy a firm’s reputation. How a company treats its customers, suppliers, and communities where they do business will forever define its brand.

Digital fraud – Ethics and compliance executives need to be on the alert for digital fraud, including fake websites, phishing, malware, and other schemes. Also, because more and more of the company’s business operations now happen online and/or from home, cyber risk by definition increases, including employees discussing or exchanging confidential information, or use of unauthorized chat applications. These risks can impact both individuals and organizations.

False claims risks – For companies involved in medical technology, pharmaceuticals, and other areas of healthcare, the potential for creating false claims rise. This is particularly true of those products and services especially important in addressing COVID-19 related issues (e.g. vaccines, treatment of the pathogen, protective equipment, ventilators, etc.). Making false claims for public corporations is particularly troublesome, as it creates opportunities for senior officials who are rewarded in stock, options, and other paper programs, for manipulation and self-dealing.

Aid programs – Across the globe massive amounts of government assistance programs have been enacted to financially support troubled companies and individuals through this crisis. As a result, it creates extraordinary potential for corruption and fraud. I have long said that wherever there is money, there is the potential for corruption. And wherever there is lots of money, there exists the potential for lots of corruption. Abuse and/or misuse of government support funds bears potentially heavy costs.

So, too, are the reputation risks for top executives of companies accessing government support, where they reduce staff while maintaining large compensation packages.

II- Interactions with employees, stakeholders and third parties

Fraud triangle – When economic bubbles burst, it exposes rot. This is an important time to be reminded and wary of the elements of the fraud triangle – pressure, opportunity, and rationalization. These elements may be particularly important when considering supply chains. For example, the European Union’s 5th AML Directive (anti-money laundering) imposes on member countries specific requirements regarding a beneficial ownership directory. From an anti-corruption and money laundering perspective, compliance officers have to identify the natural person(s) owner of third parties, vendors, and suppliers so as, among other things, to expose a hidden government official as a means to pay a bribe.

Import/export control issues – Addressing beneficial ownership also intends to addresses import/export control issues regarding Specially Designated Nations (SDN’s). Compliance officers must consider how many tiers of due diligence are necessary to uncover the true beneficial owners. In France, the enactment of SAPIN 2 law sharpened the focus of enforcement authorities regarding corruption, and the requirements for boards and top executives. This was further strengthened on June 1, 2020 when the French Ministry of Justice issued a memo to prosecutors outlining how it plans to investigate and prosecute illegal bribes paid by French companies to secure business in foreign countries.

Work environment – Among the biggest areas for risk for ethics and compliance executives should be employee concerns. It is important to recognize that so many people in the company workforce are suffering from fear and trauma. They are afraid for their lives due to the pandemic, as well as afraid for the potential loss of their jobs. Many will have either lost a friend or loved one, or know someone who did. And the prospects for a second wave, and maybe a third, remain high according to experts. For everyone, there is a deep anxiety, indeed, terror at the loss of a predictable future, even as we awaken from a self-induced economic coma and re-open for business. The psychological impact, and potential for depression and/or post-traumatic stress, will grow over time as this virus will be with us for a long time.

Given these circumstances, it is important to place employee safety as a top priority. How a company treats its workforce in this troubled time will forever define its culture. Creating a safe and healthy work environment is critical to employee performance, and organizational success. In an era of truth decay, leaders must be honest to engender the trust necessary to lead today and into the future. Trust, real trust, demands truth – they are two sides of the same coin. In an era of transparency, you cannot spin the truth. Building trust will contribute to a culture of employee accountability, increase traffic to the helpline and other methods to “speak up.” This is especially important in a socially-distant workplace. And as we encourage a “speak up” culture, so too, we must create channels for significant two-way communication. People need to feel part of a social system. It is fundamental to being human. Compliance executives need to strengthen their relationship with business and human resource leaders in this regard.

Similarly, senior executives who cut their salaries as a magnanimous gesture while furloughing or downsizing the workforce, but are rewarded with outsized equity grants, may suffer reputational conflicts down the road.

All crises follow a similar path. They have a beginning, middle, and, hopefully with COVID-19, an end. Clearly, the present isn’t what it was, and the future isn’t what it used to be. We stand at the end of an age, and the beginning of a time not yet defined. Uniquely, we have an opportunity to participate in defining it. Ethics and compliance executives have an extraordinary opportunity to provide leadership in defining a “new normal.”

There is a familiar refrain these days – “We are all in this together.” Clearly, we cannot get through this crisis alone. In the days ahead we will be challenged to find new ways to create interdependencies, and search for new ways to experience community where we live and work. It’s time we begin to plan for a future worthy of our children and grandchildren – one that is built upon a foundation of integrity, dignity, and human worth.

Keith Darcy is President of Darcy Partners Inc., a boutique consulting firm that works with boards and top executives on a wide variety of complex governance, ethics, compliance, and reputation risk challenges. Website: Darcy.Partners

A Reflection: Arthur Ashe

photo by Ron Cogswell CC by 2.0

As a lifelong competitive tennis player, tennis has been my refuge from the day-to-day battle with the world; a place where I can trash talk with my friends, hit some winning shots, and mishit many more losing ones than I hate to admit. For sure, I‘ve had some accomplishments on the courts in days gone by. However, as Bruce Springsteen sings “Glory Days, well they’ll pass you by.”

Over the years I’ve had some outstanding doubles partners. Two of them in particular got bad bounces in life, and passed away prematurely. I still think of them often, and with affection and admiration, blessed by their friendship.

Another person who got a bad bounce was one of my role models, Arthur Ashe. I admired Ashe ever since he broke onto the tennis scene. Looking back, there were several things that drew me to Arthur: (1) the quality of his game, so smooth and precise; (2) his incredibly composed manner on and off the court; (3) the way he, as a Black man, conducted himself in a white man’s game, and, most importantly, (4) the causes he stood for and fought against.

Ashe was an active civil rights activist. On the issue of racism, he modeled an alternative to the rise of Black Power advocates and their call to fight. Ashe aligned himself more in the nonviolent camp, although he was certainly not deaf to the cries of others. He used his celebrity to raise awareness of class differences.

Similarly, he became a tireless crusader against apartheid. Despite years of being denied visas to join the rest of the tennis world in the South African National Tennis Championship, he persisted using his celebrity to bring attention to the issue of discrimination. After receiving an approved visa, he refused the play before a segregated audience, causing the government to acquiesce to his requirement. His visit to South Africa, along with the work of the Rev. Leon Sullivan and many others, he solidified a movement that helped bring down apartheid, and brought with it freedom from prison for Nelson Mandela.

I felt like I knew Arthur. When I learned he had AIDS, I was saddened beyond measure. Yet, in typical Arthur form, he continued on in his life and the causes he fought for, until it was no longer possible. I remember reading when he was diagnosed with HIV after undergoing a blood transfusion during heart bypass surgery that his immediate thoughts and concerns were directed to his wife Jeanne Moutoussamy, and his fear of her being infected. She said to him, “You and me, babe. You and me.” I held my wife Lynne tighter that night than ever before.

On February 6, 1993 I was at our tennis club one evening for a team match, when news of Arthur’s death was announced on the television. He was 49 years old. I broke down and wept. Soon thereafter, I published the following article.

*****************************

Finding True Leadership Next Door

In Memoriam: Arthur Ashe

GPA Photo Archive (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Leadership is one of the most discussed and least understood phenomena. The Wall Street Journal recently ran a feature piece on a prominent leader, his work, sleeping and eating habits, and lifestyle. As the article exhibits, leadership has become a celebrity watch. It’s ironic that in this age of information, the more we know about our leaders, the clearer it becomes how little we know about the subject of leadership.

What is it that makes us dash off to the bookstore looking for a copy of biographies of leaders, or seeking Stephen Covey’s The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, or Blanchard’s (the microwave leader) One Minute Manager?

Why do we measure the power of executives by the floor they sit on on, their proximity to the corner office or, as a young Turk once observed to me, “the number of window panes in my corner office.”

What is leadership? Where can it be found?

Leadership must be on another floor, or in an office down the hall. Maybe we’ll find it in the next best-selling book.

We search in vain for leaders we can have faith in. Our doubts about today’s leaders are not so much about their skills, talents and accomplishments, but about their trustworthiness. We are unsure whether they are serving their organization, institution, or themself. One thing is certain, however: they aren’t serving us.

I live in Westchester County, New York. Recently we lost a wonderful neighbor, and the world lost a truly great leader. Interestingly, he never led an army. He never ran a company. In fact, he was never in charge of anyone except himself. He never published a book outlining his leadership philosophy, although you knew where he stood on every important issue. He was an intensely private man, neither showy nor flashy. He was certainly not charismatic. Most of his life work was confined to a small area and, while he was excellent at his craft, he was not the best of his time.

In this day and age when leadership has become a celebrity watch, in the person of this quiet, unassuming man was a truly great leader. His name was Arthur Ashe.

He was born into a segregated Southern community in Richmond, Virginia. His ancestors were direct descendants from Amar, a West African woman that was enslaved and brought to America in 1735. Growing up he was precluded from playing in his home city’s indoor courts, or from playing against white children. Nonetheless throughout his career he broke the color line at scores of all-white country clubs, including – without question – the biggest all-white country club of them all: South Africa. Although he enlisted in the U.S. Army, where he served with distinction, he later quietly and peacefully demonstrated his desire to see the war in Vietnam come to an end.

When a congenital heart condition abruptly ended his still flourishing career, he used his misfortune as a way to educate others. And in the final chapter of his life he showed us we must have compassion and a great sense of urgency for AIDS victims.

Arthur Ashe taught us how to handle conflict and adversity in confronting racism, war, apartheid, heart disease and HIV. As his niece so eloquently said at his memorial service, Arthur Ashe was committed to “breaking down human fences.”

Arthur Ashe handled both success and adversity with similar dignity and class. The Rev. Jesse Jackson observed that, “Arthur managed to build a code of conduct for the gifted.” Indeed, in doing so, he connected the haves and have-nots, the well to do and the voices of the oppressed.

In a television interview one month before he died, Ashe responded to an interviewer’s praise by saying, “Look, I’m not a hero, I’m not a legend. I’m just a man.” There are no labels you can put on Arthur Ashe. Yet, by his example, he taught us all something about what it means to be fully human. It was because of his humanity that he was awarded the Medal of Freedom, posthumously.

Arthur Ashe was a great leader. He looked no further than himself to find it. And as long as we’re seeking it somewhere else, we’ll never find it ourselves.

Arthur Ashe understood that his tennis accomplishments were merely a platform to contribute his humanity to important societal issues (once again, tikkun olam – “to repair the world, and build a more just, humane future”). It is that unselfish sense of giving that is the hallmark of real leaders. When I think of Ashe, I am reminded of the words of the sportswriter Grantland Rice:

When the once Great Scorer

finally calls your name,

it’s not whether you won or lost,

it’s how you played the game.

***

Arthur Ashe was born on July 10, 1943. He would have been 77 years old next week. At a time when statues are being torn down, one stands proudly on Monument Avenue in Richmond, VA. Bless you Arthur Ashe.

Keith Darcy is President of Darcy Partners Inc., a boutique consulting firm that works with boards and top executives on a wide variety of complex governance, ethics, compliance, and reputation risk challenges. Website: Darcy.Partners

Duty, Honor, Country

The Sylvanus Thayer Award is an honor given annually at the United States Military Academy to someone whose accomplishments exemplify the motto of West Point. Thayer was a graduate of Dartmouth College, and later from West Point. Following a distinguished military career, Colonel Thayer was appointed by President James Monroe as Superintendent at the Academy in 1817. Under his leadership West Point became the nation’s first college of engineering. During Thayer’s tenure the Academy established numerous academic advances, policies and traditions, still in effect today, for which he is credited as the “Father of West Point.”

In 1958 the West Point Association of Graduates established the Sylvanus Thayer Award to recognize a citizen of the United Sates, whose character, accomplishments, and stature exemplify the qualities for which the West Point motto strives: Duty, Honor, Country. It is an honor that must be received at the Academy. In 1962 the West Point Association of Graduates chose to honor (Ret.) General of the Army, Douglas MacArthur. It became his farewell address.

On May 12th that year, MacArthur left the Waldorf Astoria Hotel where he lived, and proceeded to West Point, where he spoke to the Corps in the mess hall. He referred to the Academy’s motto – Duty, Honor, Country – as a “moral code.” His words are among the most eloquent ever spoken and, in these troubled and divisive times, a welcome source of inspiration and comfort today. Here are some excerpts:

Duty, Honor, Country: These three words reverently dictate what you ought to be, what you can be, what you will be. They are your rallying points: to build courage when courage seems to fail; to regain faith when there seems to be little cause for faith; to create hope when hope becomes forlorn.

The unbelievers will say that they are but words, but a slogan, but a flamboyant phrase. Every pedant, every demagogue, every cynic, every hypocrite, every troublemaker, and, I am sorry to say, some others of an entirely different character, will try to downgrade them even to the extent of mockery and ridicule.

But these are some of the things they do. They build basic character.…They make you strong enough to know when you are weak, and brave enough to face yourself when you are afraid.

They teach you to be proud and unbending in honest failure, but humble and gentle in success; not to substitute words for actions; not to seek the path of comfort, but to face the stress and spur of difficulty and challenge; to learn to stand up in the storm, but to have compassion for those who fall; to master yourself before you seek to master others; to have a heart that is clean, a goal that is high; to learn to laugh, yet never forget how to weep; to reach into the future, yet never neglect the past; to be serious, yet never take yourself too seriously; to be modest so that you will remember the simplicity of true greatness; the open mind of true wisdom, the meekness of true strength.”

When MacArthur spoke of the soldiers he led, he said:

“I do not know the dignity of their birth, but I know the glory of their death. They died unquestioning, uncomplaining, with faith in their hearts, and on their lips the hope that we would go on to victory. Always for them: Duty, Honor, Country. Always their blood, and sweat, and tears, as they saw the way and the light…. The code which those words perpetuate embraces the highest moral laws and will stand the test of any ethics and philosophies ever promulgated for the uplift of mankind. Its requirements are the things that are right, and the restraints are the things that are wrong. The soldier, above all other men, is required to practice the greatest act of religious training – sacrifice.”

“You now face a new world, a world of change…. All through this welter of change and development your mission remains fixed, determined, inviolable.”

As he came to the close of his remarks, MacArthur said:

“The shadows are lengthening for me. The twilight is here. My days of old have vanished – tone and tints. They have gone glimmering through the dreams of things that were.  Their memory is one of wondrous beauty, watered by tears and coaxed and caressed by the smiles of yesterday. I listen to them, but with thirsty ear, for the witching melody of faint bugles blowing reveille, of far drums beating the long roll.

In my dreams I hear again the crash of the guns, the rattle of musketry, the strange mournful mutter of the battlefield. But in the evening of my memory I come back to West Point. Always their echoes and re-echoes: Duty, Honor, Country.

Today marks my final roll call with you. But I want you to know that when I cross the river, my last conscious thoughts will be of the Corps, and the Corps, and the Corps. I bid you farewell.”

These are troubling times. A still surging life-threatening virus has brought the entire planet to its knees. Health systems and front line warriors are completely overwhelmed and at risk. In our attempt to respond to COVID-19 by sheltering-in-place, we face a global economic collapse not seen since the Great Depression, which has further exposed racial and economic divisions, all made worse by the spread of disinformation and hatred. Particularly hard hit by the pandemic have been black and brown communities, the poor, and the elderly. It is our most vulnerable that have suffered the most. This has resulted in a profound loss of trust in our leaders and institutions. The void must be filled by those of us who, individually and collectively, will carry the torch forward in response to these crises, propelled by our commitment to Duty, Honor, Country.

Keith Darcy is President of Darcy Partners Inc., a boutique consulting firm that works with boards and top executives on a wide variety of complex governance, ethics, compliance, and reputation risk challenges. (Website: Darcy.Partners)

Shoes

I recently came across this previously unpublished blog, written some time ago. Like so many other essays, the message often changes with the times.

Shoes

Keith Darcy

Life is the great gift that has been given to each of us. What we do with our life is our gift in return. Each of us finds different ways to express this. We are, each of us, one-of-a-kind.  No one sees the world just as we do.  Our purpose in life is to discover, and express fully, the uniqueness that is distinctly ours.

Some years back my great friend, Dennis, went on a three-day religious a retreat in southern New Jersey. It was a weekend structured for spiritual contemplation and reflection. Beginning Friday morning, the participants met periodically as a group — in silence — to hear a spiritual message, then split up to reflect upon the message individually, while walking in the sacred surroundings of the gardens, through the woods, or along the mountain ridge. The only exception to the rule of silence was time the scheduled for Sunday at lunch.

The participants at the retreat all came from different churches in New Jersey. Among this large gathering were a few people Dennis recognized from his parish in Summit, but he did not know them well. Curiously, as he looked out among the many strange faces, he wondered who were these people, where they came from and why they were there.

At lunch on Sunday, Dennis was making his way through the cafeteria line when the man standing next to him said “Hello.”  Dennis did not recognize this man, but politely returned the greeting. This stranger then said to Dennis, “You may not recognize my face any more than I recognize yours, but I do know you by your shoes.” Dennis’ face looked appropriately puzzled. The stranger then said, “I’m your shoemaker, and I’d recognize those shoes anywhere. Whenever you brought them to me for repair, it was important that I gave them the same care that you did.”

When Moses went to the top of the mountain to receive the commandments, a Voice from the burning bush said to him, “Moses, take off your shoes.” It was understood by that order that the ground he walked on was holy. Indeed, the ground we walk on is holy.  So are the shoes we wear.  So, too, are the gifts of the shoemaker. 

Nietzche once wrote, “At bottom every man knows well enough that he is a unique human being, only once on this earth; and by no extraordinary chance will such a marvelously picturesque piece of diversity in unity as he, ever be put together a second time.”

Each of us is born with gifts differing. This is our uniqueness, to express fully. Whether we are butcher, baker or candlestick maker there is always the opportunity to creatively contribute to life by polishing that which is already beautiful. Life is the medium, and we are the canvass. Thus is the art of living.

After reading this, I reflected on several things relative to today’s crisis:

  • As we are required to hide behind masks for health reasons, unrecognizable to some, there are so many other ways we are recognized. The shoemaker recognized my friend Dennis by his shoes, and the care he took, which prompted him to make sure he gave similar care and attention. It calls out the importance of reciprocity.
  • Each of us has something unique to contribute. Our first responders and frontline medical people are making extraordinary sacrifices to keep us safe, at great risks to themselves. So, too, the transit workers, grocery clerks, postal workers, and package deliverers, among many others. Each of us has out part to play, and it takes all of us working together when times are tough.
  • As scientists study the cause-and-effect relationship between climate change and pandemics, let us never forget that the ground we occupy is holy. It is the source of our sustenance.
  • Lastly, let us remember the power of prayer. Many people pray for guidance, solace, protection, or thanks giving. In the midst of all that troubles us, let us all consider a moment of silence, and in that silence be grateful for our many blessings.

Mary Oliver, the Pulitzer Prize winning poet, wrote this poem, Praying:

It doesn’t have to be
the blue iris, it could be
weeds in a vacant lot, or a few
small stones; just
pay attention, then patch

a few words together and don’t try
to make them elaborate, this isn’t
a contest but the doorway

into thanks, and a silence in which
another voice may speak.

Indeed, life is the medium, and we are the canvas. Let us strive to polish all of which is already beautiful.

Keith Darcy is President of Darcy Partners Inc., a boutique consulting firm that works with boards and top executives on a wide variety of complex governance, ethics, compliance, and reputation risk challenges. Website: Darcy.Partners

A Commencement Address

The world is a mess.

A still-surging life-threatening virus has brought the entire planet to its knees. Health systems and front line warriors are completely overwhelmed and at risk. In our attempt to respond to COVID-19 by sheltering-in-place we face a global economic collapse not seen since the Great Depression. Particularly hard hit by the pandemic have been people of color, the poor, and the elderly. It is the least of us that have suffered the greatest losses. 

Given the absence of a federal response individuals, organizations, and states have been left to fend for themselves. They are competing for scarce resources, most especially to provide first responders and medical workers with the protective equipment necessary to keep them safe. The absence of ventilators vastly increased risks to patients in the hospitals, and to those trying to protect them. And the lack of a coordinated national strategy has endangered everyone. It is an extraordinary and unprecedented failure of leadership.

For the class of 2020, these are overwhelming obstacles to overcome. The challenge for these graduates is to decide: are we victims of this environment, or do we choose to take charge and do what we can to contribute to a better world. It’s times like these that shape our character.

By itself, dealing with this pathogen and its uncertain and long-term consequences is more than enough for any people to consider. Unfortunately, when COVID-19 came knocking on our door, we already faced numerous other significant crises. In this era of disruption, there is no shortage of other critical issues facing us, which have been overshadowed by the immediacy of coronavirus issues. They include: climate change; a rapidly growing gap in income and wealth; gender inequality; racism, etc.

Graduates, you are not victims. You have a role to play. It is a role many have been increasingly playing for over a decade. Witness many significant collective actions in recent years: Occupy Wall Street, which arose in 500 cities worldwide following the Great Recession; the “Arab Spring, often referred to as the Twitter Revolution; Black Lives Matter; #MeToo; Time’s Up; March for Our Lives; Never Again; Everytown for Gun Safety; the Women’s March, now a movement; OK Boomer; Youth Strike for Climate (over one million students participated); Global Climate Strike (September 2019, wherein over seven million people from 150 countries participated); etc. When we unite and gather together, we can demand change.

Scientists are studying the cause-and-effect relationship between climate change and pandemics. By itself, climate change poses an existential threat. Once a self-sustaining ecosystem, today the Earth is dying. The evidence is overwhelming: More frequent wild fires; greater and more frequent super-storms; longer periods of droughts, over-expanded geographies; rising sea levels; the warmest temperatures in recorded history; air pollution; water pollution; toxic waste.

The evening news stories have offered graphic pictures of the impact of climate change:

  • Australia, California, and the Amazon were ablaze;
  • Puerto Rico and the Bahamas were destroyed;
  • Floods have destroyed large areas from the Midwest to Bangladesh;
  • South Africa is suffering from an extreme drought, and Cape Town has a critical water shortage;
  • The Artic Sea is rapidly shrinking, and it was 70 degrees in January 2020 in Antarctica.

Despite this empirical evidence there continues to be science, economic, humanitarian, political, and crisis denial by too many. For sure, COVID-19 deserves our immediate attention, but beware what lurks behind it.

Some years ago, the late Ryuzaburo Kaku, former CEO of Canon Inc., wrote an essay in the Harvard Business Review entitled “Kyosei” (“living and working together for the common good”). Therein, he expressed particular concerned “about the imbalance between the generations, i.e. between those of us who live on Earth today, and those who will inhabit it in the future.” Graduates, we have failed you.

The teenage activist, Greta Thunberg, spoke at the United Nations last year, and said it best, “The eyes of all future generations are upon you, and if choose to fail us, we will never forgive you…This is all wrong. I shouldn’t be here. I should be back in school on the other side of the ocean. Yet you come us young people for hope. How dare you? You have stolen my dreams and my childhood with your empty words. Yet I am one of the lucky ones. People are suffering.”

COVID-19 has also called attention to health disparities in our country. While African Americans represent 13% of the US population, they are 30% of the pathogen cases testing positive. Latino communities have also been extremely hard hit. The failure to provide adequate testing in those communities points to the larger issue of racism.  We cannot fix what we cannot talk about. There are no simple discussions or solutions here. But neither can we ignore it. 

The economic consequence of the pandemic also deeply affects people of color to a greater degree. Job loss for black and brown communities, particularly those part of the gig economy, is far greater than salaried white-collar employees. This exacerbates the growing gap in income and wealth. This condition is unsustainable, and can only create a greater sense of divisiveness and class distinction in an already divided country.

Another existential threat is truth decay, and the spread of disinformation and hate. The assault on truth is an assault on trust. It breeds hatred. At a time when we need to come together to collectively address so many significant issues, leaders who intentionally contribute to lies, and perpetuate disinformation, are magnifying the damaging effects of these issues. In an age of information, where everyone knows what’s going on, this represents an inexcusable failure of leadership.

In light of all this, it is no surprise that there has been an extraordinary erosion of trust in institutions and our leaders. The secret of leadership, I have learned, is that there are no secrets.  Trust – real trust – demands truth. They are two sides of the same coin. In an era of truth decay, leaders must be honest to engender the trust necessary to lead today, and into the future.

My friend Yan Tougas posted the following on social media, quoting from Unitarian minister, Theodore Parker, speaking on slavery (1857):

“I do not pretend to understand the moral universe; the arc is a long one, my eye reaches but little ways; I cannot calculate the curve and complete the figure by the experience of sight; I can divine by conscience. But from what I see, I am sure it bends toward justice.”

Yan continues: “The arc doesn’t bend on its own. The bend is created by the courageous and persistent work of a minority, who posses a moral imagination capable of seeing a future world that is better than today’s. And so do we all have a responsibility to see the injustices around us, and to work towards its elimination, even if we never enjoy the fruits of our labor. You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to evade it.” (Rabbi Tarfon).

The pandemic is a global problem, not a national one. Climate change is a global problem. It does not belong to one nation. Truth, science, and global collaboration are critical ingredients to solving these problems. Crises can be opportunities. The pandemic is an opportunity to build a bridge between fighting COVID-19, while investing in climate change, biodiversity loss initiatives, and the new tech-enabled distance economy that awaits us.

Erich Fromm, the 20th century psychoanalyst and theologian, wrote in To Have or To Be:

”We have lost sight of the most important questions of human existence…who am I? How should I live?…We think virtues and ethical norms are arbitrary, and a matter of personal taste. It’s a battle between integrity and opportunism, the natural realm and the spiritual realm, between life and death.”

There is a Hebrew expression: tikkun olam,– “to repair the world, and build a more just, humane future.” Indeed, my work, and our work, is unfinished, incomplete.

Commencement is, by definition, “a beginning. ” We are at a turning point in human history.  What we decide today will determine the future for generations to come.  It’s time for a “new beginning. We must work together to focus on rebuilding America into a more just, humane society worthy of our children and grandchildren. Life comes with responsibility. It is our duty, individually and collectively, to work toward “repairing the world.“

Keith Darcy is President of Darcy Partners Inc., a boutique consulting firm that works with boards and top executives on a wide variety of complex governance, ethics, compliance, and reputation risk challenges. Website: Darcy.Partners

Facing Uncertainty

“I had this plan….”

People are waking up every day, stunned and dazed by a world turned upside down. The novel coronavirus has upended everyday life in ways that are unthinkable. Businesses have closed, and jobs everywhere have been lost. Friends and family are testing positive for COVID-19, and so many people are dying. The toll on human worth and dignity has been overwhelmingly harsh. There is an unresolved mourning.

In the midst of all this, any and all plans that we may have hoped for have been dashed. Life is, at best, completely uncertain. As Alvin Toffler defined the title of his 1970 best selling book, we are experiencing Future Shock, i.e. “Disorientation due to premature accelerated change.”

All crises follow a similar path. They have a beginning, a middle and, hopefully in this case, an end. The world that we left behind is never coming back. Business-as-usual is over. As medical solutions and vaccines become available – and only then – we will emerge to a completely new normal. Unfortunately, these medical solutions take time, and in the meantime we face the prospect of a second, maybe even a third wave of COVID-19.

As Alice remarked in Wonderland, “There’s no use going back to yesterday, because I was a different person then.”

Clearly, the present isn’t what it was, and the future isn’t what it used to be. We stand at the end of an age, and at the beginning of a time not yet defined. Uniquely, however, we have the opportunity to participate in defining it.

There is a familiar refrain these days. “We are all in this together.” At a time of extreme divisiveness, we are beginning to experience a new sense of unity not seen since 9/11. A common, invisible enemy is pulling us together. We applaud the first responders and front line medical people who are fighting for our lives. Food banks have sprung up everywhere. Drive-by birthday celebrations are taking place. There is a heightened sense of responsibility to family, friends, and strangers.

Although required to self-isolate, we cannot get through a crisis alone. In the days ahead we will be challenged to find new ways to create interdependencies, and search for new ways to experience community where we live and work.  It’s time we begin to plan for a future worthy of our children and grandchildren – one that is built upon a foundation integrity, dignity and human worth.

Keith Darcy is President of Darcy Partners Inc., a boutique consulting firm that works with boards and top executives on a wide variety of complex governance, ethics, compliance, and reputation risk challenges. Website: Darcy.Partners

The New (Ab)Normal

Unaltered photo by
Vladislav Grubman / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)

Author Mary Higgins Clark once noted there are only three places in the world that begins with the article “The” – The Hague, The Vatican, and The Bronx (also known as Da Bronx). My journey began in that colorful, closely-knit bedroom borough north of Manhattan comprised mostly of lower/middle and middle class people from various ethnic backgrounds, spread among numerous apartment houses and single-family homes. I can recall the sights, sounds, and smells of my native land, like the elongated siren of the old black and green police cars, or the local buses spewing smoke as they departed from their stops. No matter where I go, they stay synonymous with a place called home.

Today, New York is silent. Silence is the complete absence of sound. The novel coronavirus has brought about a deafening silence as we shelter-in-place. But more disturbingly, it has silenced daily life in this bustling city

In New York City, the sidewalks are almost as empty as the streets. Among the few sounds we hear are in the morning, when there is a change of shifts at the city’s hospitals, and at the police and fire stations. But at 7:00PM, the silence is broken with gratitude, as people everywhere open their windows to bang pots and pans in recognition of these same brave people who are giving so much to help.

The quiet in New York is exacerbated by the face masks we wear. The masks cover our faces so we don’t pass on the virus. They also conceal from view the sheer terror we are experiencing. The mask, however, is especially troubling when the behavior of some leaders muffles the message when being less than truthful.

Some years back I visited Consumer Reports headquarters and learned about something called anechoic chamber. It is a place that completely absorbs reflections of sound. It is a place so quiet that you can hear your heart, lungs, stomach, and even the blood coursing through your veins. All sound is traveling away from the source.

At a time when there is so much pain and suffering, it is important for leaders to listen to their inner voice. In the silence of our personal anechoic chamber we can hear the deep moaning in the world, and better reflect on ways to address what’s needed. Our humanity depends upon it.

Keith Darcy is President of Darcy Partners Inc., a boutique consulting firm that works with boards and top executives on a wide variety of complex governance, ethics, compliance, and reputation risk challenges. Website: Darcy.Partners

Challenges, Risks, and Potential Liabilities for CCOs

Photo by Philipp Birmes on Pexels.com

Without question risks in today’s world are rising, as are the expectations of enforcement authorities. In a perfectly transparent world, there are no secrets, and there is no place to hide. CCOs are on the front line of managing organizational risk and preserving reputation capital. In this environment, the challenges, risks and potential liabilities for CCOs are growing.

Read the full article below:

A Defining Moment: Dealing With Disruption

For most of my career, my routine was predictable. I awakened early, well before dawn. After showering and getting dressed, I’d pour a cup of coffee into my travel mug, get into my car, and begin the 50 mile drive to my office in lower Manhattan. Upon arrival I would check my in-box, and review my calendar for calls and meetings for that day. Our CEO would arrive some 30 minutes later with his coffee from Au Bon Pain, and we would discuss outcomes from the day before, and mutual priorities for the bank facing us. We would engage with various stakeholders, and revisit at the end of the day to discuss the significant events we experienced.

Today, millions of people wake up without jobs. Some have been given limited severance, many others none. Some are furloughed and retain their health insurance, but most have none. And, perhaps most frightening of all – there is no end to this crisis in sight.

For the more fortunate who have retained their jobs, most are sheltered-in-place. Every day feels like Groundhog Day. The kids are distance learning, feel a diminished sense of parental attention, and a disconnect from their peers. They spend their spare time torturing one another. Tension between spouses rise, often dramatically.

For everyone, there is a deep anxiety, indeed terror, at the loss of a predictable future.

Anything that resembled a routine is gone. “Business-as-usual” no longer exists, and is unlikely to ever return. The starting point for leaders is to acknowledge the brutal truths that everyone is experiencing. In an era of truth decay, leaders must be honest to engender the trust necessary to lead today, and into the future.  Trust, real trust, demands truth – they are two sides of the same coin. Leaders cannot spin the truth. In an age of transparency, everyone knows what’s going on.

Given that we are all shuttered-in-place, there has been a profound loss of touch. Michael Osterholm, MD, a world-renowned infectious disease expert, favors the term “physical distance” versus social distance. This is particularly important for leaders, who need to be on the front line, fully engaged with all stakeholders. While required to be physically distant, they cannot afford to be socially distant. 

The life-threatening novel coronavirus, combined with a global economic collapse, pose formidable existential questions for leaders.  We are in the midst of a complete and global disruption, i.e. “a break in the normal course of activities” according to Merriam-Webster. In this era, leaders everywhere will be judged more for who they are, and the values that they represent, than for what they do.

Keith Darcy is President of Darcy Partners Inc., a boutique consulting firm that works with boards and top executives on a wide variety of complex governance, ethics, compliance, and reputation risk challenges. Website: Darcy.Partners