Monday, November 2, 2009

Stealing the Declaration of Independence

This blog references the character Ben Gates from the movie “National Treasure”. If you haven’t seen the movie (and trust me, you should!), you might want to read a summary:

Does the end always justify the means? And why does it matter anyways?

Some people might say that Ben Gates is most definitely a leader…and some people might say he is most definitely not. He has charisma, a vision (finding treasure), the ability to communicate his vision, influence and inspiration, followers (Riley), ill defined problems, changing situations, and even opposition (Choi, Gardener, Hackman, DePree, McGregor). He comes up with creative solutions to problems that put him outside what we would consider the norm (Mumford). After all, he is a treasure hunter. He reaches into his “golf bag” and uses many different leadership styles throughout the movie (Goleman, 2000). And, of course, these styles depend on the situation. He is authoritative at some points (Barnard, 1938), but shows his participatory leadership style also (Geneen, 1998). He is not a servant or transformational leader, but I would argue a transactional one (McGregor, 1966). His vision was simply to find his treasure, but this became more complex as the movie went on. At the exact moment when Ben Gates knew that Ian was going to try to steal the Declaration of Independence and take Ben’s treasure, Ben’s vision became one to fill a higher social purpose (Burns, 1978). He was going to save the day/country/and treasure. And when no one believed that the document was in danger he took matters into his own hands. More simply put; he decided to steal it first.

Pay attention to the word “steal.” Could Ben have saved the day and his treasure without stealing the Declaration of Independence? We may never know and he certainly made it seem like it was the only option, but what about in the real world? Where do we as individuals and leaders cross the line when trying to get to our “treasure”? If we say that leadership is value laden, can we pick and choose which values apply to us (Heifitz, 1998 & Selznick, 1975)?

Let’s take a look at a doctor that decides to give his patients that can’t afford treatment free medication. We might all agree that he’s exhibiting a genuine heartfelt gesture, but as a leader is it ethical (Selznick & Barnard)? Personally, yes, but what about for the hospital he works for? Is he stealing their money and medication (Friedman, 1970)? If you say that he is acting ethically, then does it make a difference how many patients he treats for free? If 1 is okay, then what about 50, or even 500? At what point do we stop being considered a moral hero and leader and start being considered a criminal? And whose job is it to make sure this line doesn’t get crossed?

Further, if we say that leadership is a relationship (Stogdill, 1948 & Rost, 1991) and if this doctor is teaching other medical students; is he being a good teacher and role model? I wonder what an effective follower would look like in this situation. Would they be going right along with him and handing out free medication? Or would they be using their problem solving skills to find other ways to solve the problem of people not being able to afford healthcare (Kelly 1988)? Could it be possible that by pushing the limits this doctor is actually effectively leading and teaching his students (Tead, 1935)?

So let’s go back to “National Treasure”. I’ll leave you with one last quote from Ben.

Ben Gates: “A toast? Yeah. To high treason. That's what these men were committing when they signed the Declaration. Had we lost the war, they would have been hanged, beheaded, drawn and quartered, and-Oh! Oh, my personal favorite-and had their entrails cut out and ''burned''!
So... Here's to the men who did what was considered wrong, in order to do what they knew was right...”

That brings us full circle. You tell me; so does the end always justify the means?


  1. "At what point do we stop being considered a moral hero and leader and start being considered a criminal?"

    This questions grabbed my attention because I feel like this this ethical question comes up quite a bit. Think back to our super hero discussion about Batman doing things that were illegal to accomplish his goals. Granted, we did reach near consensus about his lack of leadership, but it's still relates to this discussion. It also reminds me of the apple commerical we watched about people who were "crazy" but ended up doing really great things.

    To me, it seems that we always praise people (leaders and nonleaders) for doing illegal, unconventional, or "crazy" things only after we see positive results. For Ben Gates, it really worked out for him in the end because he was really right all along. He could have easily turned out to be a cracy lunatic who made up conspiracy theories for fun. Then, we would NOT praise his actions, nor would we call him a leader. Even if he weren't crazy, and were still acting for good, he could have ended up being wrong. What if the Declaration of Independence contained no map? I bet you his good intentions would not have been tolerated so well.

    As for the doctor, we have a hard time criticizing his actions because he is acting for the good of his patients.

    My point is, we praise the leaders who take risks and act unconventionally only when they produce positive results. We don't seem to have room for leaders who really put in a great effort and had an innovative idea if it results in failure. We don't praise someone for breaking the rules if they aren't doing it for some greater good.

    To me, Ben Gates and the "bad guy" are using the same means to get to the same end, but simply have different reasons. We would probably tend to hail Ben Gates as a leader because he turned out to be a genius who acted for good. Had he been wrong about the whole thing, we would waste no time putting him in the category of "bad guy" with Ian.

    So, as a leader, can you break rules as long as you are acting for good instead of evil?

    Even if you are acting for evil, can you still be a leader?

    (I realize these are not exactly new questions for us)

  2. Interesting points Laura.

    I think this debate, as Catherine mentioned, continuously comes about in our class discussions and I am still not certain I have a good grasp and standpoint on the answer, so I'll talk (or type) through my thoughts. To me the question here is about overall morality and, as you mentioned, does the end justify the means.

    As I define leadership, I am inclinced to say no. We have discussed leadership as influence repeatedly in class. To steal the declaration or to illegaly distribute free drugs to poor patients is for the immeidate good of the indiividuals it directly influences. But what about the influence it may have on others down the road long-term? What type of example is that setting for other individuals who may feel that their motives are just as justified now, but don't consider the effects it may have later? Like you mentioned, a doctor who continues to give out free medicine is robbing his employer and his peers. If his motive is his morality, he should be working towards a reformation of medicinial distribution so that his seemingly positive influence doesn't unintentionally negatively impact others. This reminds me of Selznick's argument that a responsible leader should practice the "avoidance of opportunism". I would say that both Ben Gates and the mentioned doctor would not fall into this description.

    As Geneen mentions, "actions reverberate" and a leader is always being watched. A leader paves the way for others to follow. I personally don't encourage the people around me to feel honored in breaking rules because they feel it is justified for the utilitarian good. If all doctors began prescribing free medicine, or worse if patients started only going to doctor's who prescribed free medicine, what would that cause? And if individuals started breaking into the Smithsonian or the Capitol for "justified" causes, what type of message would that send? I'm going to request that for now, Ben Gates retire his treasure hunting days.

  3. Catherine,

    Thanks for the comments. I agree that sometimes we (society) tend to overlook illegal/crazy actions of leaders if they end up producing positive results, but my question is; doesn't this seem like a double standard? How can we justify a leader's illegal means when the end result only turns out for the good? That seems like that hangs a whole lot of people out to dry. I know that in life we have to have successes and failures, but could there be more to it than this? Makes me wonder why we are so drawn to the "crazy ones" like we watched in the Apple commercial. Could we all have a little bit of "crazy" inside of us?

  4. Caitlin, Your last sentence made me chuckle. I like your thought process throughout your comments. I don't know the answer either, but I think it really depends on how you define leadership. If you define leadership as simply a product then I don't think your means matter. But, if your define it as a process (which I think is what you were getting at) then your means definitely do matter because your leadership is shown throughout the whole process. And if we believe that values play a part in this definition then your means matter even more so. It would be hard to say that just because you were considered a leader that you could bend the rules and do whatever you want to get to your goals. I'm sure this does happen sometime, but I think we have rules, laws, and checks and balances for good reasons. And just because you are considered a leader that shouldn't give you the ability to bend/break them. I think that in itself devalues the definition of leadership...because then it seems that it is nothing more than a role.


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