One of the most successful series of fantasy novel sin recent years is George R.R. Martin’s, A Song of Ice and Fire, which is essentially a sprawling re-imagination of England’s War of the Roses, in a world called Westeros where dragons once lived, where dark magic dwells in the shadows, and where the dead walk again. HBO adapted the novels an even more successful television series, A Game of Thrones, and as the sixth season approaches, there is a saying that hovers over the entire plot, the characters that drive it, and the world they inhabit:
Winter is coming.
It is the credo of House Stark, a noble house near the frozen wastelands of the north. They know only too well that in Westeros, winter comes only once or twice a lifetime, but when it comes, it lasts for almost a decade. Those who are unprepared face utter destruction. And so, while other noble houses live by saying such as “Ours is the Fury,” or “Family, Duty, Honor,” House Stark’s words are one of eternal warning. And within the story, it’s a bit of a sticking point with everybody who has to deal with House Stark. “Winter is coming,” a Stark always reminds you, even if winter is nowhere to be seen. That is the problem with House Stark, one character points out: They are always saying that winter is coming. Yes, answers another character, but House Stark is always right.
I thought of this as I read a fascinating article from the Atlantic recently that talked about “the normalization of deviance,” and how it factors into corporate wrongdoing. The Volkswagen emissions scandal was pointed out as an especially pertinent recent example, as were older cases such as the Pinto recall nightmare. In these, we see how data that is slightly off can be accepted as within a norm of deviance, but then data that is seen as even more deviant is also seen as acceptable until you have a boiling frogs situation where the folks who should be holding the line on standards don’t know what is right and what is wrong. They think they are doing the right thing when anybody from the outside can see that they are not.
The article points out how a corporate mission statement, a true sense of mission, not just a handy slogan, can help protect against this kind of insidious, creeping kind of problem. Johnson & Johnson was highlighted as a prime example of deciding to live up to its mission statement of serving mothers as a kind of moral call to action. The result? When the Tylenol tampering disaster unfolded just three years later, the employees didn’t have to be told what to do. They knew it and acted on instinct. I imagine that kind of reaction is a chief compliance officer’s dream come true: a cultural understanding, acceptance and adherence to doing the right thing so strong that under the mightiest duress, the outcome is a true and righteous reaction, rather than a critical failure of a company’s moral weak spot.
I attended a presentation some years ago that detailed how the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster occurred—a most grand example of normalization of deviance, driven not just by creeping acceptance of unacceptable results, but by enormous external pressures that could cause even stand-up leaders to accept things they would not dream of otherwise. Ronald Reagan wanted the launch to happen. NASA doubted the warnings from its contractors because the contractors themselves contradicted themselves and destroyed their own credibility. Flaws were built into the shuttle design itself because political pressures demanded that certain components be built by companies that weren’t truly up to the task. And it all ended in disaster.
I return to House Stark and its credo. Not only do these words ring true in all things—Winter is Coming, no matter what world we inhabit, or what business we do, and we must prepare for it—but I also think that to determine that an elemental mission statement and then live by it is an excellent way to craft the kind of culture where ethical decisions can best be made, and where compliance is a matter of pride. Are such things achievable, or just optimistic fantasy? Johnson & Johnson didn’t seem to think so. And for them, winter was just three years after they told the world: Winter is Coming.