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?