Sometimes the world is not just good, it’s excellent. For the print media, the Ivor Callely story was a godsend. During the dead months of summer, with the Dail in recess, there is normally a dearth of political fodder to fill up all those empty column inches. Ivor Callely then got himself injected into this news vacuum.
It has all the ingredients of a badly plotted soap. Unreported property interests (always good for the jealousy factor). Journeys from Cork to Dublin in the dead of night (sing along now: ”It’s a long way to Seanad Eireann, it’s a long way to go…”). Hints of marital difficulties, perhaps to throw the trailing media pack off the scent? A small number of people taking a contrarian view (“What’s a lousy €3,000 when the country is in chaos?”).
I’m particularly interested in the Ivor Callely story because of what it tells us about organization leadership. While I am in the same constituency, I don’t know Ivor at all – other than a couple of brief hellos at community functions.
What’s The Story? Ivor ‘has a bit of form’ as they say. He previously got into difficulties because of painting being done on his home in Clontarf that was supposedly not paid for. A favour. ‘Less than squeaky-clean’ – but probably not a hanging offense. A price was extracted in the sense that the Dail seat was lost. It might have been possible to learn from this and move on. In the way of things in Ireland, transgressions can be overcome, perhaps explained by Catholic teaching around forgiveness.
2nd Chance: Through a nomination by the former Taoiseach, Ivor subsequently secured a seat in the Seanad. A second chance was now on the cards, a welcome back into the fold. Then mileage expenses were claimed from Cork as the principal place of residence. Subsequently mobile phone receipts were submitted from a company, which had ceased trading. The terms ‘leopard’ and ‘spots’ now enter the arena – albeit we will hold our final fire until the investigation committees have concluded their work
The way forgiveness works in Ireland is that it is directly connected to repentance – you have to show genuine remorse. It is not a ‘get out of jail card’ for any offense. Ivor did more than break the 11th commandment (“thou shalt not get caught. By avoiding falling on his sword, through denial and obfuscation, he now has lifelong membership of ‘Ireland’s least wanted’ dinner guests. But, the problem of ethical behaviour is deeper than the furore over one person.
Ethics + Leadership: Those who argue that €3K is not a lot of money are missing a central point. People who place themselves in leadership roles have to lead ethically. It is not just about the ‘deal’. Admirable as success and entrepreneurship is, the how of leadership matters. Like Caesars’ wife, leaders need to be beyond reproach. And politicians are always in a leadership role. Historically, some politicians demonstrated a belief that ‘rules are for little people’. But during this recession we’ve reached a tipping point. We’ve SHOUTED stop to unvouched expenses and to supporting a ‘blind eye’ culture because we’ve collectively had enough.
Corporate Ethics: While the corporate world has not exactly been a leading exponent of ethics in recent times, fiddling expenses has never been a misdemeanor in the business world. It’s rightly classified as theft, a dismissible offence. If a drug addict steals a shirt for Penney’s and gets caught, most of us have little sympathy for the crime. There is no ‘clear blue water’ between fiddling expenses and stealing from a retail store. Arguably the so-called ‘white-collar’ crime is actually worse – as most often the basic life needs have already been met. White-collar criminals don’t steal bread to feed their families. What they do is to create a cancer in society where people come to believe that fiddling, tax avoidance and claiming extra social welfare payments is all fair game.
Continual ethical lapses by those in senior positions tears at the heart of democratic society. So, the message is simple and stark. Lead appropriately or get off the platform. Resign. Make a living some other way, but not at our expense.
Those who argue that politics will not attract talented people going forward if everything is open to scrutiny are saying that ethical leadership can be compromised. It can’t. There is no acceptable ‘small amount of criminality’ in a functioning democracy. We all need to pull the oars.
The saving grace from plunging into a cynical tailspin is that not all politicians are the same. Over the past number of years, I’ve had the privilege of working alongside politicians across the political divide and have witnessed a deep commitment to public service. In the commercial world, there are also numerous examples of ethical leadership, given life through social and corporate responsibility programmes. The good news is that despite a recent flurry, in the overall scale of things ethical lapses are relatively few in number. But when they do occur, they need to be dealt with convincingly. They need to be cut from the body public in the same way that a surgeon removes cancerous cells. Ethics are the glue that binds western society together. We should not allow anyone or any organisation, political or otherwise, to tamper with this.