Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer, as its name suggests, focuses on the notorious father of the atomic bomb, J Robert Oppenheimer. Oppenheimer was recruited by the US government to lead the Manhattan Project during World War II. Oppenheimer and his team were in a frantic race of science against the Nazis for who could be the first to utilise newly discovered breakthroughs in fission to build an atomic bomb. The winner would wield more power than ever considered possible. They would be, as Oppenheimer himself famously noted, the “destroyer of worlds.”
Oppenheimer’s quote, originally from the Hindu scripture the Bhagavad Gita – in full, “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds” – hints at the moral quandary at the centre of Nolan’s film and Oppenheimer’s legacy. What he and his team at Los Alamos achieved was an extraordinary feat of science, a rightly heralded achievement. As also noted in the film, Oppenheimer was not taking part in the project out of some twisted bloodlust, rather because he feared what would happen if the Nazis were able to create such a weapon first.
As it happened, the Nazis had surrendered by the time the bomb was complete. In August of 1945, the US government instead dropped bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan. Estimates vary but it’s thought that over the two to four months following the bombings between 90,000 and 146,000 people were killed in Hiroshima and between 60,000 and 80,000 in Nagasaki, with roughly half of those deaths occurring on the first day . Oppenheimer himself wrestled with the weight of what his creation had wrought for the remainder of his life. The question of whether dropping the bombs was a necessary act to bring the war to an end or a grotesque act of chest-puffing genocide continues to this day.
The Manhattan Project was not a business – though it did employ a whole town’s worth of scientists, engineers and their families. But the film is clear that the ethical implications of the work at hand went unconsidered until it was too late. While it may seem tenuous or trivialising to compare such an overtly destructive act to the ethical considerations of day-to-day business practice today, anyone who has read Patrick Radden-Keefe’s searing Empire of Pain  about the role of Purdue Pharma and the Sachler family in particular in generating the US opioid crisis, for which the death toll stands in the hundreds of thousands and counting, or has been paying close attention to the devastating climate impact wrought by Shell, Exxon, BP and the like over the past decades and its potential implications for the future of humanity, will recognise that ethics and business cannot be so easily separated. The ethical choices companies make can shape individual lives and entire worlds. It’s vital they’re taken seriously.
Business ethics refers to the standards for morally right and wrong conduct within a business. Businesses are, of course, held to account by law, but as we all know, there are slippery ways around the law. Something can be both legal and wholly unethical.
Business ethics are important for various reasons. As noted, in the most extreme cases, such as that of Purdue Pharma, the decision to downplay the addictiveness of their opioids contributed to or outright caused a deadly epidemic in the US. In less dramatic circumstances, some of the advantages of having a strong ethical practice in place are that it helps build customer trust (thus helping retain customers), improves employee behaviour, and positively impacts brand recognition. The numbers back that up.
Over half of U.S. consumers said they no longer buy from companies they perceive as unethical. On the flip side, three in 10 consumers will express support for ethical companies on social media . A 2021 survey by Edelmen found that 71% of people believe that companies should be transparent and ethical . Similarly a 2020 study on transparency from Label Insight and The Food Industry Association found that 81% of shoppers say transparency is important or extremely important to them .
Corporate executives surveyed by Deloitte, meanwhile, stated that the top reasons consumers lose trust in a consumer product company are that the brand is not open and transparent (90%), the brand is not meeting consumer environmental, social and governance expectations (84%), and the brand is engaging in greenwashing (82%) . In case it wasn’t clear, then, ethics matter to consumers – which means they matter to business. And yet a 2018 Global Business Ethics Survey (GBES) found that fewer than one in four U.S. workers think their company has a “well-implemented” ethics program .
The businesses that are prioritising ethics, on the other hand, are reaping rewards.
Ethisphere, an organisation that tracks the ethical conduct of the world’s largest companies, found that the businesses that qualified for its 2022 list of most ethical companies outperformed an index of similar large cap companies by 24.6 percent overall . The Institute of Business Ethics similarly found that companies with high ethical standards are 10.7% more profitable than those without . Honorees on the 2021 list of the World’s Most Ethical Companies outperformed the Large Cap Index by 10.5 percent over a three year period .
Not only do ethical companies make money, unethical ones lose it. 22% of cases examined in the 2018 Global Study on Occupational Fraud and Abuse cost the victim organisation $1 million or more . And there are plenty of unethical companies who crashed and burned in a far more dramatic fashion.
Perhaps the most striking fall from grace was Enron, whose trading price plummeted to a level in accordance with its ethical standards in December of 2001. At the company’s peak, it had been trading at $90.75. Before filing for bankruptcy, its price was $0.26 . For years Enron had been fooling regulators with fake holdings and off-the-books accounting practices while hiding its eye-watering levels of debt from investors and creditors. From 2004 to 2012, the company was forced to pay more than $21.8 billion to its creditors. Various high-level employees ended up behind bars.
Enron is the high-water mark for unethical disintegration. But there are plenty of moral and ethical quandaries for today’s mega-corporations to take on as well.
In the age of data, corporations, especially social media giants like Meta, have a huge ethical responsibility regarding their clients’ data. Extremely sensitive personal information is loaded into these sites on little more than an understanding of good faith on the consumers’ part. How that data is being used (or misused) by these companies is one of the defining discussion points of the age. That’s not to mention the targeting of ads and its potential detrimental impact, especially on the young. Rates of anxiety, depression and suicide in teen and tween girls, for example, surged from 2010, around about the time they first started getting iPhones . A few years ago, Meta’s whistleblower, Frances Haugen, confirmed that the company’s internal data reflected that it was doing severe damage to the mental health of teenage girls. Despite having this information to hand, the company made no attempts to rectify the problem .
Meanwhile energy companies like BP, Shell and Exxon are being held to far greater scrutiny as the effects of their environmental wreckage are starting to play out more and more each year in the form of unprecedented spiking in temperatures, wildfires and floods. The company’s responsibility to its profit line is being put in conflict with its responsibility to the planet. Although record profits last year suggest that one is winning out over the other .
Companies like Google and Amazon, too, have ethical crises regarding their treatment of workers and data security. While their profits or position of dominance in their respective markets haven’t dropped, reputational damage has been done. Both companies will be working to try and keep the fallout to a minimum.
A company’s ethics start at the top. When management acts ethically, employees follow suit. Companies with strong ethical values tend to display their code of ethics publicly, allowing them to be held to account. Some key ways companies can create an ethical environment include conducting mandatory ethics training for all employees, integrating ethics with processes, creating a space where employees find it easy to raise concerns, clearly defining company values, fostering a culture of transparency, and aligning your incentive system with your company values .
The importance of ethics
Ethics are vital to an organisation’s longevity. Companies that choose to cut ethical corners may see short term gain, even thriving for decades, but when the chickens come home to roost, as they did for Enron, there’s no coming back. Climate change and issues around data-mining are placing greater scrutiny on companies who have historically been focused on profit-at-all-cost models detrimental to more macro struggles. In cut-throat business environments, morality and ethics can often be sidelined in pursuit of the bottom line. But as the numbers show, ethical companies are often rewarded by customers with repeat business, and reputational damage can prove irreversible.
Like the scientists at Los Alamos discovered, it’s possible to be so focused on innovation and achievement that you’re blinded to the ultimate consequences of your ambition. Sew the ethical seeds early so as not to be undone further down the line when your decisions play their course.
Welcome to the leadership paradox. Let’s start with a scenario. You joined your company many years ago, starting in a more junior role, where you proved your skill sets over and over. Maybe you were a born salesperson, maybe you were a master at client relations, maybe you were product focused, perhaps something else entirely. Regardless, with every task and every further year at the company, you demonstrated your value. As such, you were rewarded with a series of promotions. Eventually you found yourself in a management position, the leadership role you’d always wanted. Sounds great. All is well, right?
Not necessarily. Because once you’d reached this position, you discovered that the skills you’d demonstrated to get there weren’t needed anymore. You’d ceased to be the one selling; you’d ceased the one fronting the call; you’d ceased to be the one making decisions around specification. You might have still tried to do all those things, to involve yourself heavily and bring yourself back to the fore. Perhaps you rolled up your sleeves and said your management style was “hands-on”, justified your involvement in lower-level projects by saying you were a lead from the front type.
To do so is only natural. After all, you got to where you are by being an achiever, someone who not only got things done but prided themselves on being the one actively doing them. And this is where the paradox lies. Because the skills that served you so well and earned you your promotion might be the very same ones preventing you from succeeding in your new role.
This notion is distilled to its essence in the title of Marshall Goldsmith’s bestselling book: “What got you here won’t get you there” . Being a thriving part of the workforce and being a leader are two entirely different things. The skills are not the same. To achieve, you need to be able to get the best out of yourself. To lead, you need to be able to get the best out of other people.
Oftentimes, newly promoted leaders try to continue as they were before. They want to get their hands dirty, to micro-manage and ensure that every aspect of a project is marked by their fingerprints. But micro-management is not the answer. As Jesse Sostrin PhD, Director of PwC’s Leadership Coaching Center of Excellence, puts it, leaders need to be “more essential and less involved.” He adds, “the difference between an effective leader and a super-sized individual contributor with a leader’s title is painfully evident” .
For many, the adjustment is difficult and can take time. If a leader is too eager to imprint themselves on every aspect of a project, not only is the leader likely to end up feeling overstretched (according to Gallup research, managers are 27% more likely than individual contributors to strongly agree they felt a lot of stress during their most recent workday ) but the project will suffer too. Staff will come to feel constrained and undervalued. They may not feel they have the opportunity to grow or express themselves fully. They will be less likely to try new and innovative ideas with someone breathing down their neck or dictating that they must service a single vision at all times rather than being allowed to bring themselves to the fore.
In other words, micro-management offers a whole lot of downsides in exchange for very few upsides. Sostrin proposes that a useful way for a manager to tell if they are taking on too much responsibility is by answering the simple question: If you had to take an unexpected week off work, would your initiatives and priorities advance in your absence?  A well-functioning team run by an effective leader should in theory be able to get by without that leader – for a period of time, at least. Whereas an organisation that orbits around the whims of a single figure is likely to stall, and fast. It’s why all good managers practice delegation.
Delegation is something every business practices but not all do well. Just handing an employee some of the work does not count as delegation in any meaningful sense. Successful delegation involves genuinely trusting the employee and granting them autonomy. That can be a scary prospect for a leader used to having a controlling stake in all output. But there are ways to ensure that even without constant supervision, your team is working in a manner you approve.
The first is obviously to hire smart, capable workers to whom you feel comfortable delegating responsibility. Oftentimes leaders take on extra workplace burdens out of a lack of faith in their team. They think, “I’m not confident they have the ability to do the task,” and so instead choose to take it on themselves. But trust is paramount to any successful workplace. And to paraphrase Ernest Hemingway, the best way to know if you can trust an employee is to trust them – at least until they give you a reason not to. The best thing a leader can do is give their employees a chance and see what happens.
After all, a leader’s job is to get the best out of their employees. As Forbes writer Cynthia Knapek puts it, “Some people work to show you what their superpower is, but a good leader works to show you yours…you’ll never be a good delegator if you’re holding on to the belief that no one can do it as well as you can” .
Trusting your team – and shedding the arrogance of presuming you can do everything better yourself – is pivotal to good leadership. Refusing to cede control is the sign of an insecure leader, one who sees their role and status as proportional to their decision-making authority. They think that any act of delegation would lead to a dilution of their power.
This theory is backed up by a 2017 study on psychological power and the delegation of authority by Haselhuhn, Wong and Ormiston. They ultimately found that, “individuals who feel powerful are more willing to share their decision making authority with others. In contrast, individuals who feel relatively powerless are more likely to consolidate decision making authority and maintain primary control” . Delegation is a sign of strength, not weakness. Consolidation of all authority is the remit of the insecure.
Another thing leaders can do to help ensure their team is working autonomously but towards a clear end goal is to have a solid set of principles in place. These principles shouldn’t just highlight the leader’s values and goals but make clear the approach they want to use to achieve them. Shift Thinking founder and CEO Mark Bonchek calls such a set of principles a company’s “doctrine”. Bonchek argues that, “without doctrine, it’s impossible for managers to let go without losing control. Instead, leaders must rely on active oversight and supervision. The opportunity is to replace processes that control behavior with principles that empower decision-making” .
Having a guiding set of principles in place lets you delegate responsibility more freely because you know that even with limitless autonomy, your employees are aware of the parameters they should be working within – it keeps them drawing within the lines.
Evidently, a pivotal part of leadership is and always will be people management. But if a leader has already clearly defined their principles, they’ll find they need to manage their people much less. Some companies that advocate for principles-based management include Amazon, Wikipedia and Google. The proof is in the pudding.
How delegation is handled contributes enormously to what kind of company one is running and what kind of leader one is. For example, consider two scenarios. In scenario one, a tired and over involved leader, seeing that they have taken on more than they can chew with a deadline fast approaching, tells one of their team that they no longer have time to do a report that they were meant to be writing and so thrusts it on the employee to hastily pick up the slack.
In scenario two, a leader identifies a member of their team who they want to write a report for them. They talk to the employee and tell them that they’ve noticed the employee’s precision in putting facts across concisely and engagingly and want them to put those skills to use in this latest report. They talk through what they want from the project and why this employee is the perfect person to achieve those goals. They make known that they are available for support should any be needed.
In both examples, the boss is asking their employee to write a report. But in one that work is something fobbed off on the employee, a chore the leader no longer wants to do. In the second example, the leader is identifying the skills of a member of their team, letting the employee know that these are the skills needed for the task at hand and thus giving the employee an idea of what’s needed from them as well as a confidence boost.
Sostrin suggests four strategies for successful delegation . First, to start with reasoning. As in the example above, this includes telling someone not just what work they want done but why – and that means both why they are working towards a certain goal and why the employee is the person to do it.
Second, to inspire their commitment. This, again, is about communication. By relaying the task at hand, their role in it and why it’s important, they can understand the bigger picture, not just their specific part of it. They’re then more able to bring themselves to the project, rather than viewing it as simply a tick-box exercise they’re completing for their boss.
Third, to engage at the right level. Of course delegation doesn’t mean that a leader should hand work over to their employees and then never worry about it again. They should maintain sufficient engagement levels so that they can offer support and accept accountability, but do so without stifling their team. The right balance depends on the organisation, the project and the personnel involved, but Sostrin suggests that simply asking staff what level of supervision they want can be a good start.
Fourth, to practise saying “yes”, “no”, and “yes, if”. That means taking on demands that you think are best suited to you, saying “yes, if” to those that would be better off delegated to someone more suited to that specific task, and giving outright “no”s to those you don’t deem worthwhile.
For example, Keith Underwood, COO and CFO of The Guardian, said that he doesn’t delegate when “the decision involves a sophisticated view of the context the organisation is operating in, has profound implications on the business, and when stakeholders expect me to have complete ownership of the decision” .
Kelly Devine, president of Mastercard UK and Ireland, says, “The only time I really feel it’s hard to delegate is when the decision is in a highly pressurised, contentious, or consequential situation, and I simply don’t want someone on my team to be carrying that burden alone” .
On top of these four, it’s worth adding the benefits around communicating high-profile, critical company decisions to your team, whether that be layoffs, new investors, or whatever the case may be. Leaders should want their employees to feel part of the organisation. That means keeping them in the loop of not just what is happening but why. Transparency is highly valued and in turn valuable.
It can be all too easy for managers who rose through the corporate ranks to eschew delegation in favour of an auteur-esque approach – shaping a team in their distinct image, if not actively trying to do all the work themselves. But delegation not only makes life less tiring and stressful for the leader, who cannot possibly hope to cover everyone’s work alone, but it also results in a happier, more productive, and likely more capable workforce, one that feels trusted and free to experiment rather than constrained by fear of failure.
Good ideas come from anywhere. Good organisations are built on trust. Good leaders don’t smother their workers but empower them. And with each empowered collaborator, the likelihood of collective success grows.