Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Failure to Draw Boundaries: WHY ETHICS MATTERS (10.12.08)

Sarah Palin does not distinguish between the private and the professional. As such, she blurs boundaries. This leaves her open to continual ethical lapses.

Most professions offer some training in ethics. But an ethics code, no matter how detailed, is no substitute for extensive training in ethical decision-making. And many people who enter politics may stumble seriously for lack of sensitivity to ethics. Awareness of boundaries and the ability to draw firm boundaries goes a long way toward protecting oneself from ethical lapses. I doubt politicians get any training in that. And then we’re just left with the person’s own ethical understanding. That, to my mind, is exactly why character and temperament are so important in picking leaders.

What follows is a list of general problems, which may arise from a failure to draw boundaries (borders) between professional roles and duties versus private or personal roles and duties. Many of the examples in this list relate to Sarah Palin specifically, but they are typical of the kinds of problems any politician, bureaucrat, or other professional might face.

1. Flirtatious behavior is not appropriate in professional situations. You see that in the way Palin campaigns. It may not seem huge…. but look at Rich Lowry now! Look at the Pakistani leader who now has a fatwa against him after his meeting with Palin! All because of Palin's inappropriately flirtatious behavior due to not maintaining professional boundaries.

2. Palin’s excuse for why her husband was involved in dealing with Walt Monegan (the Commissioner fired in Troopergate) is that she and Todd are “so close.” He’s always “helped her in her political roles.” Thus, he inappropriately had access to personnel files. And there were breaches of confidentiality. He often sat in on state meetings. Not appropriate. He’s not sworn in to an office, but is simply “meddling” in government. Imagine if Palin had a federal job with a security clearance and violated that security boundary!

3. When a politician mixes personal and professional roles, he or she is not looking out for the citizens’ interests so much as for his or her own. We see that in the Palin’s per diems (for staying at her own home) as well as in charging the state for her family to fly around with her at state expense. Failure to pay her taxes or considering that paying taxes is “not patriotic” is a similar problem of a greater magnitude.

4. Drawing boundaries helps a person make ethical decisions. Depending on one’s role, there are role-specific obligations. It seems that Palin is unable to recognize that professional obligations - in her role as governor – supersede family ties. Or that her obligations to the voters and to the law supersede her own needs or preferences as a private individual.

5. On the other hand, failure to see such boundaries also leads Palin to “use” her children as political props. She fails to see that her responsibilities as a parent supersede her desire to show off a family or seek votes based this or that family member.

6. Lack of drawing these ethical boundaries has gotten Palin into other hot water. And there is also another ethical/legal issue that she is facing in addition to the just concluded Troopergate investigation. In Alaska a government official cannot speak publicly for or against a ballot initiative. But she did that! She excused herself from this law, she assumed, simply by saying something like, “Well, I’m just going to take off my governor’s hat and talk to you as a private citizen.” And she gave advice about how to vote and that swung the vote! So now she’s facing that problem too. And it is completely due to her lack of awareness of boundaries and inability to draw them.

7. For positive examples of drawing firm boundaries, you could look at the other side of it by noticing how Obama does draw boundaries. And does that very well. Result? No drama. No professional messiness. Someone who can protect his children and let them have as normal a childhood as possible. With limit-setting.

8. Cronyism is, in essence, a failure to draw boundaries. You see that with McCain as well as with Palin. She promoted people from high school and her church. People who had very little background for the job. But she liked them and felt comfortable with them. I could imagine Palin fitting very well into the cozy crony-dominated campaign of McCain, who also does not distinguish between private and professional.

9. Letting McCain’s campaign run the “Troopergate” interference provides further examples of boundary lapses. Palin fails to take note that as a governor, she has an obligation to her state. She can’t just turn over her responsibilities to someone else, who is not sworn to state office. And let them have information that is confidential and pertains to state matters. And she can’t let that other party make decisions for her, with regard to addressing a state-generated investigation, where she answers to the legislature, not to another entity like a national campaign. The number of boundary crossings (messy boundaries) in the Palin situation is really beyond belief at this point! What with investigations ongoing and a campaign meddling in them, my Ethics Meter says: Yikes!

10. In my view people who can draw boundaries have one of the single most important qualities of a good leader or good supervisor, no matter where they might work. These are people who grade fairly and treat students or employees or children equally. Who can place professional responsibilities above personal needs. Who recognize that authority is not a power to wield but a responsibility one discharges. That the one with greater power always has greater responsibility to draw boundaries and exercise special care for those they serve or who serve under them.

11. Persons with certain character disorders, particularly narcissistic individuals, who lack empathy for others (e.g. cannot put themselves in the shoes of others), seem particularly prone to problems with ethics and boundaries. To begin with these individuals tend to overvalue themselves and believe what they are doing is right and proper. They may refrain from second-guessing themselves or seeking advice as to the appropriateness of their behavior. This puts them at a disadvantage when making decisions. If they happen to be a politician, it then puts the voters, We The People, at a decided disadvantage. When a politician, or indeed any professional, puts his or her own personal needs above professional duties, the fiduciary responsibility of the person in power is sacrificed on the altar of selfishness. The politician has failed society and indeed his or her oath of office.

To my mind, when it comes to the presidency, the Oath of Office is the single most important duty. That oath is to The Constitution. Once again, since few politicians get any training in political ethics, we are left with the person’s own ethical understanding, which is exactly why character and temperament are vitally important in picking leaders.


Comments (24)

I thought I was posting this in the beta site! Oh, well....

Had this actually posted in the beta site, I could have gotten rid of all those "extra boundaries" in this post (due to a preview function there). But I guess it gives a good example of "boundaries," doesn't it?
I've concluded that Karma decided this should be published here. It's worth the read for sure.

I'm glad you posted it here. It's an excellent distillation of Sarah Palin's problem.
Another example of her lack of boundaries is her somewhat problematic relationship with the truth.

Yes, one should have a boundary between truth and lies. This woman seems to have no boundaries whatsoever!

I don't know about you, but I'm having a horrible time right now because every message out of the McCain campaign seems to violate the rules that I have always lived with of words actually meaning something. I mean, Cindy McCain can say that Obama is running the dirtiest campaign ever? Does she really believe that? If so, what does that reveal about her mental state. McCain seems to deny that the things that he is saying in his rallies makes him responsible for the response of the crowd? Is he insane? I feel myself becoming really affected by their distortion of reality. I feel myself on very shaky ground sometimes, so obviously the concept of the big lie repeated often enough beginning to be the prevailing truth must have some validity.

Jane, here's what I strongly recommend. Stop paying any attention to what the mcShame campaign says. That will protect you from the assault on your sense of reason. It is safe to say that these people care not a whit about your mental stability. But I do. I care about yours. And I care about mine. And I have concluded that it's best to simply put a mental filter in your mind, so that when you see mcShame information coming, you simply stop reading or listening. It will take a bit of getting used to. But you can do it!
avatar I really like this comment because it is a diagnosis of Bush as well of McCain and Palin.
These people are clueless as to what is appropriate professional behavior.
They behave just like bullies and push the envelope of acceptable behavior all the time until the public cries out in outrage.Then they accuse the other guy of the exact same behavior.
If they apologize, it isn't sincere.You can't trust them.
TheraP ,the only thing we might disagree upon is what you said about spiritual and mental development running parallel.As a religious educator, I would define it as moral and mental behavior being parallel.Faith development evolves much like the developmental stages in a child.Otherwise, excellent!

I cede that ground to you. Likely you've got the categories nailed better than I have.

Excellent analysis.
And I'd rather see problems with formatting boundaries than ethical ones!

Well written Thera P!
It is perfectly fair to point out a prior association that cost the taxpayers millions - Keating. On the other hand, what harm has come from Obama serving on a charity board with Ayers?
I'd also point out that our next leader will need to know when to not draw a boundary - i.e. working with a "republican" may be a good idea in many cases. Obama, unlike McCain, seems willing to listen to those who disagree.

Working with someone is not the problem. The problem is when you confuse a work relationship with a personal one or a business one. Obama has not done that. The Vendetta Twins have done it over and over.
avatar As usual a delightfully stimulating post. I love to read them (your posts) - with or without boundaries.
Please post as many places as you can - beta, alpha, omega - whatever! :)

Excellent post! Thanks.

Very good, as usual, TheraP. I think it is also important to note that ethics come from within, and really have nothing to do with religious affiliation. The sense of goodness and boundaries and empathy are taught through example by care-givers into receptive children. I'm not saying you can't be religious AND honorable; I'm just saying that the relationship is not causal.
Doing the right thing because you intrinsically want to be a good person is true integrity; and often makes you honestly question yourself and your own motives. Doing something because you fear punishment after death puts you in a position of being manipulated by a religious leader, and questioning is considered a lack of faith.

I completely agree. Indeed Palin appears to profess a religion. But has no ethics. In her case religion utterly failed.
True spirituality has no fear of being punished. That kind of fearful religiosity is a product of a very childish faith. I think mental development and spiritual development run parallel. Palin is stuck in a very low level of development, isn't she?
avatar VIP Very Important Post
It really hit me that 'this is the kind of discussion and analysis the newspapers rarely do anymore'.
I was also thinking of the religious issue. First, you may be aware of a recent study that showed some values recur across all religions and cultures. This was based on responses to images, not asking questions. Among other things, a human attacking an obviously weaker human. So it may be that some 'values' are hardwired into our brains - until someone messes with it. The millitary has perfected the process of overcoming the natural resistance to killing another human. That is what boot camp is all about - indoctrination while you are pushed to physical exhaustion.
Palin exemplifies for me what religious indoctrination in early childhood does to critical thinking skills. Between 2 and 4 the brain is developing the lateralization, differentiating left and right but also developing connections between them. The more connections the better the cognitive abilities the child is ultimately able to achieve. Certain things promote this development. Being exposed to reading by holding a book and looking at the words while someone reads them. Not being sheltered in an unreal environment to protect them from the sorrow and tragedy of the real world.
Between the ages of 3 and 5, a child will ask between 300 and 400 questions a day. If no one discourages them. This is part of the transition from magical thinking to being able to differentiate between immagination and reality. It also develops the most important part of critical thinking: forming the question in the first place. This largely happens in the right brain.
The child is usually able to understand what is real and what is immagination by age 7. As the Jesuits famously said "Give us a child until 7 and we will have him for life". And the child has to deal for the rest of their lives with the cognitive dissonance of what they were taught and what their brains may try to tell them is reality. Some things are ok to see as a fantasy. It is usually after 7 that they figure out Santa isn't real. Nor is Santa around for the whole year, day in and day out. There is no warning that not believing in Santa will land you in hell for eternity. Most of what they have learned and experienced about religion is stored in the right brain. It is tied to the emotions of a child, where as a helpless (dependent) individual, they trusted the people who gave them love, food, home, clothes, etc.
What I see coming from this kind of upbringing is exactly what W and Palin are cited for: lack of intellectual curiosity. They may be able to absorb facts and concepts - that support what they perceive as reality. They are heavily influenced by people with strong opinions that insist on complete agreement and don't tolerate questioning. They can't do the kind of thinking that asks "Would Jesus want us to kill other people?" and come up with the obvious answer, because their brains won't even form the question. When challenged on it, they can't give it an honest answer, because in the indoctrination and since, they learned that it is OK to lie about this subject.

Brilliant post.

In my experience, the world seems to be divided between those who have boundaries and those who do not; those who can acknowledge a mistake and those who cannot; those who can change because -- it is better to change than to repeat mistakes, and those who cannot. Obama: change we can believe in.

Don't confuse Ethics with Morals... they are different things...
If Palin has a set of rules she plays by (although they may be different from your rules or mine), and she remains true to those rules... then, by definition, she is Ethical.
But is she moral? Entirely different question.
One could argue she is neither ethical nor moral, to be sure.
Great thread... Thanks!
avatar Very acute observations, thanks for the post!
Incidentally, this thread also shows why it makes no sense to vote for the guy/gal "you'd want to have a beer with".
avatar Great essay, TheraP. It seems to me that somewhere in the '80s we lost sight of the importance of ethics and turned instead into a Me First, Winning-By-Intimidation (there really was a book by that title back then!) sort of society. Maybe I'm cynical, but I've observed that to even bring up the word, "ethics" generally engenders quite a negative response. The standard instead seems to be whatever you can get away with. Ethics has become the standard that we apply to others, but that we don't believe we ourselves should be held to. I wish it were limited to only those persons with some sort of diagnosable condition, but unfortunately, it seems to be pretty prevalent in society. At least from where I live.
Palin is, however, an especially egregious offender, as you note.
avatar As ususal, the lack of an edit function exposes my tendency to hit the "send" button before I've thoroughly read through what I've written. The last sentence in the first paragraph should read, "At least that's what it looks like from where I live."

Yes, terrific insightful post. Did you mention her charging the state a per diem to sleep in her own bed? A per diem is meant to offset or lessen expenses incurred when away from home or the office on business. What working adult doesn't know the boundary between their own bed and a hotel bed? And what if she were away and her expenses were all paid by her host? I assume the per diem was charged as well. We call that "double-dipping"--a clear boundary violation (theft?) and a firing offense in a lot of organizations.

Well, I'm late to the party on this one, but very much enjoyed the post. You are right on target. Thank you!

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