“There were no rules, no laws, and no policies to address this kind of case. And yet it clearly seems wrong that someone should be rewarded for murdering their relatives.”
Should contract law be enforced? The rules are the rules after all. Law and order must be maintained. The laws/rules clearly indicate the decision. The court itself stated, ‘[I]t is quite true that statutes regulating the making, proof and effect of wills, and the devolution of property, if literally construed, and if their force and effect can in no way and under no circumstances be controlled or modified, give this property to the murderer’ (Riggs v. Palmer).
Yet, this seems wrong according to the norms or principles of law and society. Can a murderer get the money he killed his own family for? Certainly a shocking proposition. The court ultimately decided that he would not get his inheritance. Specifically, all laws as well as all contracts may be controlled in their operation and effect by general, fundamental maxims of the common law. No one shall be permitted to profit by his own fraud, or to take advantage of his own wrong, or to found any claim upon his own iniquity, or to acquire property by his own crime (Riggs v. Palmer).
The weight of these principles (honouring contracts versus no man being able to profit from his wrong) were weighed and the latter prevailed.
In many situations, though, we do not have the convenience of time to make a decision as judges do. Nor are we given in life the simplicity of two decisions to choose from, siding with the prosecution or the defence. Nor can we list all of the principles that there could be in advance because ‘they are controversial, their weight is all important, they are numberless, and they shift and change so fast that the start of our list would be obsolete before we reached the middle’ (Dworkin, 45). Therefore you have to look at which are important to your organization, and which apply to the situation, as we will see in the fictional film example, Crimson Tide (1995).
Weighing Principles in Crimson Tide
While a film like Crimson Tide is still less complex than our real world experience, it provides a comprehensible example that has more than just two principles in play, and where decisions need to be made fast, without the time for careful and judicial deliberation.
The Executive Officer, Lieutenant Commander Hunter, played by Denzel Washington, had been assigned to the USS Alabama, an American nuclear armed submarine under the command of Captain Ramsey, played by Gene Hackman, only days before the story begins. (6) An Executive Officer is the second in command and shares some duties with a chief of staff such as executing special tasks, ensuring orders are carried out, and knowing and communicating the concerns of the crew (Parris, 107, 109). Captain Ramsey is nearing retirement age, and one of the few submariners with combat experience, known for being one to execute orders without asking why. Hunter attended the Naval Academy and studied at Harvard, and portrayed as being more philosophical and more likely to question orders (Crimson Tide). Crimson Tide is set in 1995, as the submarine is dispatched to the Pacific Ocean in response to a Russian ultranationalist named Radchenko, who has recruited members of the Russian military and taken over a nuclear missile base. The Alabama is tasked with launching their nuclear missiles to destroy the base if Radchenko begins to fuel his missiles in preparation for a launch. These stakes are high, but it is the difference in decision-making principles that provides much of the drama of the film.
A complex set of conflicting crises arise at once. In a pivotal scene, an accidental fire breaks out in the galley (kitchen), Hunter leads the fire-fighting effort and brings the flames under control, but some of the men are injured. Immediately afterwards, the captain orders a missile launch drill. Hunter questions his captain as to whether this is the best time to run a drill, in front of the crew. Then the infirmary sends news that a sailor who fought the fire was entering cardiac arrest. The captain calls off the drill. Both the captain and executive officer rush to the infirmary in time to witness the sailor’s death.
“It is the difference in decision-making principles that provides much of the drama of the film.”
Just after they have left the infirmary, the captain and executive officer meet in the Ramsey’s quarters to discuss their disagreement.
This scene illustrates three often-cited military principles:
- ‘Mission first and people always’, completing and being prepared for the mission while also needing to balance taking care of your personnel.
- ‘It wasn’t what you did but how you did it’. Doing the right thing in the wrong way makes it wrong.
- Making sure the chain of command is respected and there is unity in the leadership.
The captain questions his executive officer about his thinking when he challenged his superior officer. Hunter’s thinking is that it is best to ensure the fire was fully out and all the staff were safe before running a drill, but Ramsey disagrees.
I tend to think that’s the best time to run a drill. Confusion on the ship is nothing to fear. It should be taken advantage of. Lest you forget, Mr. Hunter, we are a ship of war, designed for battle. You don’t just fight battles when everything is hunky-dory. (7)
The executive officer wants to put the people of the vessel first, whereas the captain wants to put the mission first. They are both right and the two-part principle of ‘mission first and people always’ survives after this encounter. They are both correct. Both attending to the fire and preparedness despite confusion are important and reasonable. A fire on board a submarine is very serious because it could potentially lead to a total loss of the crew and vessel. Yet, being able to act appropriately in confusion and execute a high stakes mission is also of the utmost importance. As Dworkin wrote, ‘reasonable men may disagree’ but the principle remains (37).
“They are both right.”
The dynamic nature of a principle is also demonstrated when the captain suspended the drill once he was informed of the sailor’s heart attack. The drill was less important once a subordinate entered a life-threatening state. The weight of those principles (mission vs. people) shifted once that new information came into play.
Next Ramsey addresses the issue of whether Hunter did the wrong thing, or did something in the wrong way.
I don’t have any problems with questions or doubts. As I said to you before, I’m not seeking the company of [sycophants]. When you got something to say to me, you say it in private. And if privacy doesn’t permit itself, then you bite your [expletive] tongue (Crimson Tide, 1995).
The problem was not about Hunter giving his insights, nor that he expressed questions or doubts, the issue was how the executive officer did it: it was done in public and not private. By doing it publicly it created doubt in the chain of command. However, in a crisis situation, there might not be an opportunity to speak in private, and so the principle of the requirement to bring up accurate critical information about the ongoing issues around the fire may have to be weighed against the principle of acting with decorum. Once again, both of them are right.
Finally, Ramsey sets out the principle of the chain of command, and explains why he thinks it was paramount in that moment.
Those sailors out there are just boys. Boys who are training to do a terrible and unthinkable thing, and if that ever occurs, the only reassurance they’ll have that they’re doing the proper thing is gonna derive from their unqualified belief in the unified chain of command. That means we don’t question each other’s motives in front of the crew. It means we don’t undermine each other. It means in a missile drill they hear your voice right after mine, without hesitation (Crimson Tide, 1995).
In the case of nuclear missiles, the executive officer, by rule with no exception, must verify every captain’s order for a nuclear launch, an essential security step when dealing with the most destructive weapons humans have ever created. The crew need to be able to trust their officers when they are given the order to launch nuclear missiles, and this is achieved through a unified chain of command. If the pre-emptive strike to eliminate Radchenko’s missiles as they are about to be launched were to be delayed due to a lack of unity, millions of lives could be lost and a nuclear war could break out. But, as in the case of the timing of the drill, there are judgment calls, and a good second-in-command will also need to be sure that their principal is acting with all the best information and most strategic timing. Neither person is wrong, but as this is a military drama they come to agree that the chain of command is pre-eminent.
“A good second-in-command will also need to be sure that their principal is acting with all the best information.”
To further clarify the military principle of ‘mission first and people always’ with its order of operations is a quote from one of Eric Nylund’s novels. In this excerpt, Chief Petty Officer Mendez (a highly experienced veteran and senior non-commissioned officer) is speaking to John (a young squad leader) who has just lost some of the personnel under him.
‘A leader must be ready to send the soldiers under his command to their deaths … You do this because your duty to the UNSC supersedes your duty to yourself or even your crew.’ John looked away from the view screen. He couldn’t look at the emptiness anymore. He didn’t want to think of his teammates—friends who were like brothers and sister to him— forever lost.
‘It is acceptable’, Mendez said, ‘to spend their lives if necessary … It is not acceptable, however to waste those lives. Do you understand the difference?’ (8)
In the military, it is one’s duty to spend—if necessary—but not waste, the lives of one’s co- workers and subordinates to achieve one’s mission. John cared for his subordinates, they were like family, but carrying out the mission is still more important. Upon that, chiefs of staff taking care of their personnel (including advocating for them) takes on considerable weight as service members will be asked to carry out orders. Orders that a chief of staff may have helped craft, carry out, or advised for or against. There is a balance though, acknowledging lives must be spent does not mean they should be spent recklessly or flippantly.
The film writers created a situation and characters who could act out conflicting principles in a moment of crisis, with little time to deliberate, and extremely high stakes. It might seem that transferring principles from a legal theory or a film/novel to the real world would make things even more complicated. However, in the next example, we see that having a principle made an impossible decision faster and more straightforward.
Tylenol: ‘we had something more valuable than a crisis plan’
In 1982, seven people died in the Chicago area after taking Tylenol (paracetamol/ acetaminophen) that had been laced with cyanide. It was a shocking crime, and to this day the perpetrator has never been found. The manufacturers of Tylenol, Johnson & Johnson and their subsidiary McNeil Labs, took the radical decision to pull all Tylenol from the shelves across the country and warn consumers. They then produced new safety mechanisms, such as the tamper-proof seals on the top of bottles. (9)
In a presentation to the GIBS Business School at the University of Pretoria, the then leader of the Johnson & Johnson team, Alan Hilburg, recalled what happened during the crisis. In the situation, the principles set out above in the section ‘Understanding principles and how to weigh them’, of protecting the customer from harm, and the principle of maximising profits. We also see the principle of a united chain of command, this time in a corporate setting.
Hilburg recalls being telephoned by the brand manager to inform him that ‘someone is sick or has died as a result of taking Tylenol’ from one of the stores in Chicago. (10) The brand manager recommended recalling all the product from that store. Hilburg proposed removing the product from ‘all the stores in Chicago’ under a precautionary principle that the issue might be more widespread (Hilburg, 2014). That seemed ‘crazy’ to the brand manager, an over-reaction that would jeopardise the principle of maximising profits (Hilburg, 2014). But it was also important to protect customers.
To make such a significant decision, they needed to include more senior decision-makers. The team spoke to the president of McNeil Labs, who believed that the principle of protecting customers had more weight, and so all the Tylenol in Chicago should be recalled. During the meeting, however, Hilburg asked the question ‘Well are we sure that it’s only Chicago?’ The question meant that they needed to go right to the top, to the chairman of Johnson & Johnson who agreed that it was too risky to allow other people to potentially get sick or die. 330 million tablets were recalled across the United States of America.
You know, we didn’t have a crisis plan. … this is the real story. We didn’t have a crisis plan, but quite frankly we had something more valuable than a crisis plan. We had their credo and the credo became our crisis plan. Just like your value statement could become your crisis plan (2014).
Johnson & Johnson’s credo is that their responsibility is first ‘to the patients, doctors and nurses, to mothers and fathers and all others who use our products and services’. Johnson & Johnson’s next responsibilities are to employees, then communities, and lastly to shareholders.11 The credo is engraved in an eight-foot (2.43 metre) block of stone in the lobby of the company’s headquarters, literally giving weight to their principles. (12)
Hilburg claims that ‘If you execute your values, you’re not going to make a mistake,’ showing the value of using principles to make difficult decisions in a time of crisis. Because they had already identified how they would weigh competing principles, they were able to execute a strategy in only thirty-six hours. The first principle was to protect the users of the product, so the product had to be recalled. Employees, and the communities in which their employees lived, would also be negatively affected by these dangerous bottles of pills, so Hilburg did not see a conflict between principles there (2014). Because the responsibility to shareholders came last, the principle of maximising profit clearly weighed less, making the decision-making ‘easy’ and extremely fast.
“Because they had already identified how they would weigh competing principles, they were able to execute a strategy in only thirty-six hours.”
However, pulling the product off the shelves was only the first step. Tylenol was an important medication for many people, and an important part of the company’s line of products, with 34–35% market share. The next step was to rebuild their market share while still focusing on their principles. By acting with integrity, the company demonstrated that they could be trusted. They then redesigned both the pill and the packaging. Moving from a capsule, which could be unscrewed, poison added, and then returned to the bottle was dangerous, and so they instead sold the products as a solid caplet. However that also was not enough, as somebody could still dip the pill in poison. They also changed the packaging, with a plastic seal around the top of the bottle, so the user knew if anyone else had opened the bottle before them. ‘The responsibility the company had and the marketing strategy which was not about the efficacy of the caplet, it was about talking about the packaging’, Hilburg went on, and that was rewarded as the company ‘went from 34 to 46% market share in 90 days as soon as we reintroduced the new packaging (2014).
However, even though the principles were laid out in the credo, and there was an order of operations to the credo, with the weight of each listed from most to least important: coming to these conclusions is not easy. Even in one of the best crisis management and business case studies in history, there was debate among the employees of Johnson & Johnson. There was a lack of clarity on what to do. There was a time limit in which more people could die as cyanide- laced pills were found at other stores (Markel, 2014). It was messy.
Even after the medication had been pulled, it was still unclear what to do. Such safety solutions had never been introduced before. The principle that was broken in the public’s eyes was safety. The point of restoring trust with better packaging was that there was a responsibility, a principle, to reassure users that Johnson & Johnson would never let this happen again. The seal on the bottle not only protected users from tampering, but enabled users to double-check that the bottle had not been tampered with (Hilburg, 2014).
In each of our examples, there has been an official set of rules: the letter of the law, the chain of command, or a credo on an eight-foot stone plaque. There have also been procedures: court process, the verification of nuclear launch commands, or the order of weight for the credo. But in each example, the most important aspect of decision-making was the principle: that no one should benefit from murder, the balance of ‘mission first and people always’, or that a medical company should be trusted to heal and not harm its users. Acting in line with the principle is the best strategy for creating context, clarity, and speeding up decision-making when the correct decision is unclear or difficult. By looking to their principles, weighing them, and determining in which order to look at them, they gained clarity to make decisions.
How this can apply to you
Chiefs of staff working in businesses, non-profits, and politics can also use these strategies to make decisions—as noted above the military has already been addressed. We can also identify what principles organisations hold by seeing how they make decisions, particularly in times of crisis.
For example, the principle of which people were more important can be exercised. Each of the following types of companies placed certain personnel first and showed which people were more important.
For example, a tech start-up offers new or disruptive creative products to the market, so they might highly value employees and give them significant stock in a company that will make them rich if the company succeeds. Whereas a large company whose competitive advantage is offering low-priced goods for customers, even just by just a few cents more than their competition, might value their margins more than their employees. (13)
Some business leaders in hard times commit to no layoffs, instead cutting their salaries. (14) Other companies during hard times may lay off lower-level employees while still paying their executives’ bonuses and have good shareholder dividends.
With non-profit organizations, the priority is the cause. If the cause is caring for the homeless or the environment, then that comes before personnel. A non-profit may treat its employees well, but their priorities are always to the cause. Non-profits do not necessarily prioritize paying their employees well, and they heavily rely on donations and volunteers. As the cause is what is more important, a donation of $100,000 is more likely to go to feed the homeless than be given as an employee bonus. Fundraising can be a priority, but this still is in service of the cause.
Davidson, Oleszek, and Lee (2012) identify different principles that can guide political and legislative leaders:
- Those for whom a particular set of issues (e.g. infrastructure or defence) becomes their speciality and they advance it to help those affected by it;
- Serving their constituents (‘constituency servant’), where helping constituents through advocacy, protection or benefits are their focus;
- Following their party ideology (‘Partisan’) to enable them to pass legislation by making sure their party is in power. (15)
The principle that the particular politician follows will impact how they act, and how they weigh decisions.
Looking to principles during times when things are unclear can be immensely helpful. Figuring out what principles or values are most important and ordering them to create an order of operations can be very helpful too, as the Tylenol scenario exemplified. As shown, these principles will vary based upon the industry, organization, and situation. These principles are also not absolute, in that, just like rules, they sometimes do not apply. At other times the rules are not as important as principles are, as was seen in Riggs.
“Figuring out what principles or values are most important and ordering them to create an order of operations can be very helpful.”
Looking at these principles for weight or order within an organization may require reconsidering which are important. If, for instance, loyalty and producing profits are considered the two most important principles, then it makes perfect sense to retain and protect a senior executive who engages in sexual misconduct with subordinates. However, increasingly, organisations are understanding that their priorities need to change, demonstrated by a PricewaterhouseCoopers report that found ‘scandals over bad behaviour rather than poor financial performance was the leading cause of leadership dismissals among the world’s 2,500 largest public companies’ in 2019. (16)
Not every decision will come down to principles. This framework is meant to be a tool, and like any tool, there are some situations where this tool is not appropriate, It is not wise to use a scalpel to cut down a tree instead of a chainsaw, nor is it wise to use a cleaver to mince vegetables when a kitchen knife is available; even if in the case of the latter two they both could accomplish the same task. This tool is about encouraging chiefs of staff to use their judgment, not to suspend it.
“Looking at one’s principles does not deliver specific directions and answers.”
Looking at one’s principles does not deliver specific directions and answers. However, it is immensely helpful in charting the general course. There may be shorter or longer-term factors that affect decision-making as well. A commandant of the US Army War College once said, ‘There may not be a right answer to a problem. I would tell you at the strategic level there are rarely right answers. There are some that are more right than others, but they all have somewhat of drawbacks.’ (17) The best solution is often far away from what would be perfect. Sometimes all we are left with is the principle of choosing the lesser of two evils.
Figuring out principles, their weight, and maybe even their order of operations, can help speed up decisions during complex times. This is especially the case if drills or scenarios can be practised to prepare your organization to ensure that hesitation and analysis paralysis are reduced during time-sensitive situations. Practising your principles can even help you recognize when the best thing to do is to wait for the right opportunity. Patience is essential; hesitation, hazardous.
Confusing times need not be as confusing if we are aware of our principles, weigh them, and use them with our best reason and judgment. No matter the industry or organization, this framework of reaching beyond the rules can be helpful. Principles will undoubtedly vary, but by using this framework as a tool we can help our organizations make better decisions.
David Serabian is the Chief of Staff/Senior Analyst at Global Fidelity Corp., a final services firm specialising in automated bill pay and currency conversion. David has worked in the public and private sectors, including as a researcher with the President’s Commission on Enhancing National Cybersecurity. Originally from the Washington D.C. area, David is now based in Las Vegas, Nevada.
- The American Ruling Class [documentary film], directed by John Kirby (2005).
- Tyler Parris, Chief of Staff: The Strategic Partner Who Will Revolutionize Your Organization (2015), 17.
- Franklin D. Roosevelt, ‘Radio Address to the Young Democratic Clubs of America’, The American Presidency Project, https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/209054, accessed 20 Feb. 2022.
- Ronald M. Dworkin, ‘The Model of Rules’, The University of Chicago Law Review 35, no. 1, (1967), 14–46 https://openyls.law.yale.edu/bitstream/handle/20.500.13051/3028/ The_Model_of_Rules.pdf?sequence=2&isAllowed=y,%20, accessed 22 Feb. 2022., 37.
- Riggs v. Palmer, 115 N.Y. 506 (1889), https://www.nycourts.gov/reporter/archives/ riggs_palmer.htm, accessed 25 Feb. 2022.
- Crimson Tide [film], directed by Tony Scott (1995).
- Crimson Tide, 1995. ‘Hunky-dory’ is an informal expression meaning when everything is good.
- Eric Nylund, Halo: The Fall of Reach (Tor Books, 2011), 70.
- Howard Markel, ‘How the Tylenol murders of 1982 changed the way we consume medication’, PBS News Hour, Sep 29, 2014, https://www.pbs.org/newshour/health/ tylenol-murders-1982
- Alan Hilburg, ‘Managing the Tylenol Crisis’, YouTube, lecture to GIBS Business School, (uploaded 13 Feb. 2014), https://www.youtube.com/watch?v= jtuvgAkKGqM&list=PL0qbTVHMzf2mkTPY0-AC9tAjn-jzJ8jFw&index=2&ab_ channel=GIBSBusinessSchool
- Johnson & Johnson, ‘Our Credo.’, Content Lab U.S., https://www.jnj.com/credo/, accessed 22 Feb. 2022.
- Johnson & Johnson, ‘8 Fun Facts About Our Credo—Johnson & Johnson’s Mission Statement.’, Content Lab U.S., https://www.jnj.com/our-heritage/8-fun-facts-about- the-johnson-johnson-credo, accessed 22 Feb. 2022.
- Wal-Mart’s employees are one of the highest recipients of public welfare funds (including for food) in the United States, despite most of these employees working full time. Thomas Barrabi, ‘Walmart, McDonald’s Among Largest Employers of SNAP, Medicaid Recipients: Report’, Fox Business, https://www.foxbusiness.com/markets/ walmart-mcdonalds-largest-employers-snap-medicaid-recipients, (18 Nov. 2020).
- Visa and NBCUniversal did this the Covid pandemic started. Johnson, Stefanie K., ‘How CEOs Can Lead Selflessly Through a Crisis’, Harvard Business Review (14 May 2020), https://hbr.org/2020/05/how-ceos-can-lead-selflessly-through-a-crisis, accessed 24 Feb. 2022.
- Roger Davidson, W. Oleszek, and F. Lee, Congress and its members (13th ed. Washington, D.C., CQ Press, 2012), 116–119. However, point 2, constituents are not necessarily homogenous, and a politician might propose tax cuts that benefit one group which simultaneously disadvantage other members of their constituency.
- Bobby Allyn, ‘Top Reason For CEO Departures Among Largest Companies Is Now Misconduct, Study Finds’, NPR.org, (20 May 2019), https://www.npr. org/2019/05/20/725108825/top-reason-for-ceo-departures-among-largest- companies-is-now-misconduct-study-fi, accessed 22 Feb. 2022.
- US Army TRADOC, ‘Army Strategic Education’, YouTube (recorded 4 Oct. 2016, uploaded 6 Oct. 2016), https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=88GyWj1w1_s&t=1070s&ab_ channel=USArmyTRADOC, accessed 26 Feb. 2022.