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The Importance of Building a Conscience in Business Actions

By Mohamed Ridza Wahiddin, Chief Information Officer, International Islamic University Malaysia

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Mohamed Ridza Wahiddin, Chief Information Officer, International Islamic University Malaysia

In the film Meet Joe Black billionaire media mogul William "Bill" Parrish (played by Anthony Hopkins) rejected a merger between his company and another media giant.

The book ‘Excellence without a Soul’ authored by Harry Lewis, a Harvard professor for more than thirty years and Dean of Harvard College for eight has lamented on how the great universities in the United States have abandoned their mission.

The devastating catastrophe of Hiroshima and Nagasaki that resulted in 90 percent of physicians and nurses killed or injured; 42 of 45 hospitals rendered non-functional; and 70 percent of victims had combined injuries, in most cases, severe burns. Most of them died without any care to ease their suffering. Even those who came to rescue also died from the radiation. Einstein shortly before his death said “I made one great mistake in my life … when I signed the letter to President Roosevelt recommending that atom bombs be made”.

What is the common theme in the three scenarios above? Conscience! Conscience is the voice of the soul (Polish proverb).

Let us now try to understand the link between conscience and action. When we wish to write our names it is first conceived in our hearts. The desire is then conveyed to the brain, and the form of letters takes shape in the thought chambers of the brain. These signals travelled through our nerves, and eventually instruct our fingers to move the pencil to trace out our names. It is inconceivable for a soul to allow its lower faculties to dominate the higher. Furthermore, if passion and resentment master reason, the soul will be ruined. According to Lao Tzu, a philosopher and poet (571-531 BCE) all streams flow to the sea because it is lower than they are. Humility gives it its power.

It is heartening to note the acknowledgement of environmental, social and governance (ESG) role to boost returns. This was recently reported in a survey conducted by Swiss alternative investments specialist LGT Capital Partners and Mercer. Despite this encouraging result, ESG is still underpinned by consciousness. 

Today’s CIOs need to have excellent business and technology acumen (the ability to make good judgements and take quick decisions). This means the CIO’s conscience that is the person's moral sense of right and wrong will act as a guide to one's behaviour. It is therefore natural to restore a balance between conscience, economic needs and technology needs.

In his or her job the CIO has to continuously and consciously decide the best options. A CIO may however decide a non-disclosure of information or simply abstaining during a collective decision. This may cause significant losses to the company although he/she appears not to do anything wrong. I hope to drive home this point by quoting some examples from history.

First, we could hardly imagine how Napoleon Bonaparte would have first demonstrated his leadership during the siege of Toulon if he had not acted on the “Aha!” moment and take it to the next level. According to William Duggan, the proponent of Strategic Intuition, discoveries are realized after that flash of insight is followed by a resolution to act on the idea despite facing many hurdles.

It could also be a matter of life and death as in the case of Archimedes when he was commanded by King Hiero II of Syracuse to ascertain the purity of his golden crown. We may not attribute “Eureka!” to Archimedes today if he had decided not to disclose his famous Archimedes Principle. This principle states that a body immersed in a fluid experiences a buoyant force equal to the weight of the fluid it displaces; it saved him from being executed by the king because it proved the crown was not 100 percent pure gold.

In the 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion; President John F Kennedy approved of a covert invasion using Cuban exiles to overthrow Fidel Castro. It was a fiasco, and the former admitted it was a colossal mistake. Arthur Schlesinger, the then advisor to the President, presented serious objections to the invasion in a memorandum to the latter, but unfortunately suppressed his doubts at the team meetings. This is a classic example of Groupthink or Abilene Paradox where a group of people collectively decide on a course of action that is counter to the choices of majority (or all) of the individuals in the group.

Have you ever kept silent when you felt you should speak up? There are many more situations where CIOs need to make decisions with conscience. These include determining the worth of company data, and finding a balance between risk taking and innovating.

Restoring a natural balance between conscience, technological needs and economic needs will result in inclusiveness, equitable, collaborative, culturally sensitive, fit-for purpose, user eco-friendly and sustainable business. Keeping in mind the bottom billion (the economist Paul Collier’s phrase for the world poorest people) often helps to nurture the soul. After all we are human beings and not human doings nor human capitals.

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