Does a Genius Need Ethics?

Can people be considered genius – without any moral compass to guide their actions? Are swindlers enabled where you work, under the guise of intelligence? In an age where horizons shift, leaders look past moral failures of big business, and a sense of new beginnings enters the fray, where do ethics fit?

Does a Genius need ethics?

Look into intuitive intelligence and you will see ethics at its core. That should not surprise us. Otherwise, why embrace honesty, lead with humility and walk humbly?

We know that each person is born with a unique mix of moral intelligence, and the brain strengthens moral codes with each ethical act. We also know a person’s choices generate new dendrite brain cell connections for more of the same.

What may come as a surprise though is the brain’s proclivity to change  itself to act ethically or corruptly, in future dilemmas. Simply stated, today’s actions to cheat on a test rewire you for cheating in financial practices. Or slight conflicts of interest today, grow neuron pathways for the kind of greed that governs corporate America tomorrow. Inequity that enters a boardroom with only one culture or one gender or one average age, strengths brainpower for more of the same in the next meetings.

My question is:

Can a leader be a genius without showing  ethical guidance?

If ethical brainpower is valued as a central part of the intelligent brain, it’s time to revisit MacArthur’s criteria,  that awarded several of  25 geniuses to highly unethical leaders in the past decade.

If, on the other hand, leaders can simply drop ethics out of the intelligence mix altogether, you’d better run for cover  in the next decade.

Take Karl Rove, the 58 year old Fox news contributor, who won genius status from MacArthur for changes he led with a 50+1 strategy that microtargeted votes for George Bush to win neighborhood ballots. If ethical IQ or intrapersonal intelligence had been factored into the gauge to identify geniuses – would Rove have won  genius awards?

Or check out Ayman al-Zawahiri, the Egyptian surgeon,  who won 23rd place out of 25 geniuses showcased in the decade’s genius level. You likely remember, he became bin Laden’s confidant,  who spear-headed the 9/11 attacks. Is that genius material or gross stupidity? How you decide whether to include or exclude ethical leadership into intelligent leadership will impact what the world looks for, expects and enables in innovative leaders.

Should high performing minds of the future, be held to ethical standards that lead a finer future? Or should brilliant change agents, be listed among minds that promote violence or steal for personal gain? That choice for or against ethics as key to intelligence, will impact leaders who guide innovation across differences for your grandchildren’s era.

What’s your take on fostering more ethical leaders in the coming year?

14 Comments

  1. You ask a great and discerning question, Ellen. Via Polly LaBarre’s recent post at the MIX, I was just reading Matt Taibbi’s post on Goldman Sachs from last April http://www.rollingstone.com/politics/news/the-great-american-bubble-machine-20100405). Surely it could be said that some of the highly placed people Taibbi mentions could also be regarded as having a certain kind of genius but in the absence of ethical conduct why would we reward these people even with notoriety? Sounds like many simply ought to be in jail. Is there a distinction to be made here between cleverness, scheming, or manipulation — and genius? It seemed to me from reading the descriptions of the twenty-five people on the link you cited that such negative qualities snuck into the criteria, undermining the real qualities of genius that, at least in my book, represent a whole different kind of integrating social contribution. Structurally similar to the confusion between authority and leadership, the confusion between cleverness and true genius distorts and damages the real thing, and creates, as you say, more mental pathways for the future in all the wrong places. How destructive.

  2. Brad Shorr says:

    Hi Ellen, Everyone needs ethics: perhaps a genius, measured purely in terms of brainpower, needs ethics more than the average person because his/her actions stand to have a greater and more far reaching impact. Of course the problematic issue is what constitutes ethics – who determines what is ethical?

  3. WHGM says:

    The actions of anyone are better off guided by a ethical or moral compass (although potentially unclear who’s compass @bradshorr). The question is if the genius mind needs to equipped with the compass, or that this guidance can come from outside. The genius is no less if the ethical equipment is not available in the same body that excels at something. It merely confirms the need for humility, critical self-awareness, and the furthering of interpersonal cooperation.

  4. Susan Mazza says:

    Unfortunately I think the answer is yes. Whether labeled or identified as a genius or not in the absence of ethics very intelligent people can do extraordinarily awful things. The question for me is whether or not we let them get away with it. There is no leader without followers. If we choose to follow the lead of someone who enrolls us with their genius yet demonstrates questionable ethics we are responsible for the consequences.

  5. eweber says:

    Thanks Dan, as you suggest too, it seems to me that we should be asking the question and making new kinds of directions for the coming era. Once again, it helps to know specific criteria used to determine what is genius, and we may want to discuss, how ethics fits into the IQ mix.

    That said, brainpower we know about today is far more specific than what we once knew. Certain parts of the brain relate specific to ethics and we now know how.

    Let’s all challenge current systems to ensure that ethical behavior is showcased more in leadership models we adhere to. That may be a first step toward innovative growth. What do you think?

  6. eweber says:

    You build a great case for taking another look at internal vs. external motivation, WHGM. Thanks for your interesting slant: “The question is if the genius mind needs to equipped with the compass, or that this guidance can come from outside.”

    I was a little less clear about your meaning in the statement” The genius is no less if the ethical equipment is not available in the same body that excels at something.”

    Can you elaborate a bit more? For instance, do you have an example of how: “It merely confirms the need for humility, critical self-awareness, and the furthering of interpersonal cooperation.”

    Thanks for helping us to hold this keen topic up to the rainbow for another look together!

  7. eweber says:

    Interesting point Susan, and thanks for stopping by.

    When you state that: “Whether labeled or identified as a genius or not in the absence of ethics very intelligent people can do extraordinarily awful things,” did you consider that intrapersonal intelligence – which includes ethics is as much part of the brain’s equipment as it mathematics, or linguistic intelligence?

    That said, would you agree that what we call genius should represent the full requisite of intelligences, including ethical IQ? You?

  8. eweber says:

    Wow – You make an interesting reference to “brainpower” here, and I was wondering Brad how you are defining such?

    Great questions and thanks for raising these: “What constitutes ethics – who determines what is ethical?”

    Would you agree that the ethics of any diverse culture, or moral principals are those that benefit a wider community?

    In ethics classes I teach in MBA programs, we have no trouble coming up with shared values together, for instance. Values such as respect, generosity, truthfulness, kindness, forgiveness, acceptance and so on. Shared values may vary slightly from group to group – but mostly remain similar.

    Ethics appear easier to agree upon, and harder to live on a daily basis. In our new MBA leadership class – and in the text – we’ll be suggesting some coll brainpowered tools to foster ethics at leadership levels.

    One such tool, be be an approach to questions assumptions — just as we are doing here. Many assume you can be a genius and lack ethics. Others suggest this is not possible – given new facts about the centrality of ethical or intrapersonal intelligence.

    It’s especially cool that each ethical act we do, creates new neuron pathways for more of the same. Thoughts?

  9. Jessica says:

    Bin Laden spear-headed the 9/11 attacks? I’d add that a capacity for not believing everything the television tells you ought to be factored into the equation. A strong resistance to brainwashing would probably lead to a higher incidence of ethical behavior.

  10. eweber says:

    Thanks Jessica, you bring up a good point about what influences us and what we mimic around us.

    New research on mirror neurons offers some interesting facts about how people are impacted deeply what those around us, and the brain comes with equipment to make that happen in spite of apparent persistence.

    So much so that we can brain wire entire nations for unethical behavior over time, according to Dr. Doidge in the book, “The Brain that Changes Itself.”

    Would you agree that’s a good case for facilitating strategies to finer morals at work?

  11. Brad Shorr says:

    Hi Ellen et al, Fascinating conversation. When I mentioned brainpower, I was referring to intelligence, insight, creative intelligence – any of those things that we usually associate with “genius”. I would say that ethics is not a characteristic people generally connect with genius, which is one reason why your post is so interesting. As far as your definition of ethics being defined as what benefits the community, I would say that definition is insufficient. Again, the question is – what is beneficial? Clearly, there can be differences of opinion on that point, as we can easily see here in the U.S. on any number of issues – right to life, gun control and immigration, just to name a few of the more obvious ones.

  12. Ellen, as usual, very thought provoking. If I just look at the word ‘genius’, than I think of that as morally or ethically neutral – to me, it just implies a level of intelligence/cognitive ability, not anything else – including the ability to do execute upon any genius idea the person has – simply innate intellectual ability. Now, leader is a loaded word – a good leader must have an ethical/moral compass, a bad one, not. For instance, from a pure ‘denotation’, Hitler was a leader (not sure about the genius part), but he was smart enough to use the circumstances to his advantage and lead.

    I think of Kant’s ‘Divine Ought” – “Ought” genius leaders have moral, ethical compasses used for good (cuz perhaps they do but use it for ill), yes, but then who ensures the ‘ought’? My fear is that it would be governments and we know they are lousy at doing that….

    Great question, just not sure there is a great answer except for the trust in human nature and checks and balances to power.

    thank you! deb

  13. Benjamin says:

    No reason why genius cannot include ethics.

  14. slacker says:

    Interesting article , I am going to spend more time learning about this topic

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