The HP Saga: Morality and Legality

10 Sep ’06

As dawn breaks on what could be Patricia Dunn’s last day as HP’s board chair, I can’t help but wonder how if I were her I would feel opening the door to a Sunday newspaper that bore the headline of Allen Wastler’s piece in CNNMoney: “HP Chair: Lying, or incompetent?”

The question comes, of course, because of HP statements to the effect that she knew nothing about the pretexting. Wastler’s point, and Kedrosky’s point in a similar post earlier this week, is that Dunn would have to be incompetent for the statement to be true. Not “can’t make change from a dollar” incompetence, but rather the kind of incompetence that makes its trade in “nudge nudge, wink wink” elisions. The kind that begins with a sick feeling in the stomach, but ends with the dying gasps of one’s integrity.

I’m inclined to agree. For the life of me I can’t understand how anyone might think a leaker could be identified, if not by being directly asked (Dunn didn’t ask them, and for what it’s worth, Keyworth has said he would have answered truthfully if asked), by any means that, even if not illegal, were profoundly improper, even in that moral universe. I recognize that dealing with a leaker is an enormously difficult area of corporate governance – it’s just that precisely because of that one expects a highly tuned, careful, precise and diligent exercise in governance to manage it.

To make matters worse, speculate for a moment about how much thought went into wondering whether this escapade, if conducted, would ever see the light of day. To my mind it’s certainly not beyond the pale to imagine the unmasked leaker taking the pretexting story to the press as well. Indeed, it’s perhaps even probable that he would, especially if he thought the leaking trivial, or necessary and just in the circumstances.

Dunn’s answer to this, at least in part, is the customary “legal counsel approved it” nudge nudge. This is the moral manipulation that every child learns at an early age, of course: no matter how much Mom or Dad disapproves of that extra cookie, if the other can unknowingly be manipulated into OK’ing one more, it doesn’t really matter how wrong one knows it to be. But of course, that’s what adolescence is supposed to teach us – it does matter. And at some point as an adult, one simply decides to do the right thing, or not.

Leadership is supposed to be about making those choices in difficult circumstances. Under pressure, when it matters. Leaders are supposed to define the moral character of the organization. And the shape of this thing is now looking like a leader who succumbed, out of anger or frustration, to convenient moral elisions, after ensuring that the necessary compartmentalization was done, and after getting the necessary rubber stamp.

Update: the WSJ has an interesting piece on the use of detectives in such investigations.

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