Skip to main content

Ethical dilemmas: Commentary on the case of the foreign dictator

In this series we confront readers with ethical dilemmas and ask: what would you have done?  Each dilemma is followed up with a commentary.

These articles are based on a series written in the mid-1990s by Paul Lynch for Management Consultancy magazine in which he posed ethical dilemmas that might confront management consultants and asked readers what they might have done in those circumstances.

Paul followed up each case with a commentary based on readers’ observations and what had happened in reality.

We introduced the series with The Case of the Foreign Dictator in which a management consultant, Antonia, was asked to develop a programme for management change in a large, international company.

Having had her proposal accepted, she found out that the chief executive was ambitious, driving and unsympathetic to the desired culture of delegation, empowerment and collaboration. The programme of workshops that Antonia had proposed was therefore likely to founder on the hard rock of the chief executive’s intransigence and ambition. She therefore had to seriously consider whether she should withdraw from the programme to safeguard her reputation

But Antonia was sales limited and needed the income from the work, so her dilemma was whether this should outweigh her professional judgment that the programme was unlikely to succeed without support from the chief executive.

The client’s human resource manager had similarly expressed unease with the proposed programme, so Antonia decided to meet him to discuss what might best be done. They agreed a new first step, that she would make a presentation to an established group of board directors who met regularly to sanction new projects throughout the group. This group received the presentation of the proposed programme enthusiastically. However, reflection on the proposal quickly brought them to the same conclusion as Antonia: that without the chief executive’s support the programme would fail. Following deeper consideration, the directors agreed to sanction one workshop and to reserve a decision on further work until the result of the first workshop was known.

The first workshop took place and the response was positive. With the confidence that this engendered, the directors sought the chief executive’s approval to develop the programme shaped by the views of those who participated. They felt that this would create a groundswell of opinion favouring a more open culture; the chief executive would see the benefit of the change. Antonia would thus take part in a worthwhile programme without compromising her professional reputation.

Antonia’s openness with the human resources manager enabled her to identify a way to progress in a limited and controlled manner that mitigated the potential risks; it could have confirmed her fears, but in fact happily did not.

The directors recognised Antonia’s thoroughly professional approach, which encouraged them to entrust a sensitive and potentially disruptive process to her and enhanced her standing with this client.

Monday 20th April 2020
The thinker statue