Conscience – what Tylenol and the Australian Navy have to say about superlative leadership

The public relations director for Johnson & Johnson received a call from a Chicago reporter asking for comment. The reporter said that a Chicago resident had died from a poisoned Tylenol capsule.

It was the first the company had heard of it.

But Johnson & Johnson did not delay or dissemble. Company chairman James Burke immediately formed a 7 person strategy team, giving them two instructions – How do we protect the people & how do we save the product?

They immediately broadcast that no one should use any Tylenol products at all, told consumers not to use any Tylenol product and halted production and advertising of the product. It cost the company about $100 million. As soon as they discovered that it was only capsules only that were affected, they offered to exchange all outstanding capsules with tablets.

By the time Tylenol was returned to the market, the company had demonstrated such a high degree of integrity and conscience that it quickly rebounded. They improved packaging introducing triple seal packaging which ultimately became the industry standard.

Superlative leaders demonstrate they have a conscience. Unfortunately, one may be a successful leader without one and examples are many. But superlative leaders have a moral fiber that runs through every decision they make and every action they take.

I really like the following definition which comes from the Royal Navy of Australia’s Leadership Ethic Manual:

“Conscience is a moral sense of right and wrong. More robust than the ‘competencies’ of ‘emotional intelligence, conscience is an inner feeling as to the goodness or otherwise of behaviour. Conscience guides behaviour. Conscience is more, however, than an ill-defined self-justified, confidence in the rightness of action or judgment. Conscience draws upon the wider environment in which it operates so, in the Navy, conscience is strengthened by a rational appreciation of Navy values, Navy conventions and expectations and by the ideals of Australian professional service. The rational foundation of conscience is important because leaders must be exemplars of the military profession and inspire others to commit to a just cause.”

Leadership is an inspirational capacity. People will follow enthusiastically those in whom they believe because they possess shared values that call to the most noble and honorable pursuits of mankind.

I know you may question whether this applies if you lead a company that manufactures machine tool parts. But it does.

Conscience is one of those intangibles that one either has or one does not. It influences and affects everything you say and especially what you do…particularly when there may be personal and/or corporate cost and sacrifice.

Leaders with conscience do not depend on definitions of values or codification of ethics committed to manuals. They possess the strength of character to interpret the spirit of ethics and reflect the comprehensive nature of maturity and values that elevate a person, the group they works with, and the company or organization they serve.

Conscience manifests itself in the personal courage and conviction to incarnate those values of conscience in every action, every decision, every directive, every transaction, every encounter, every engagement, and every relationship. Superlative leaders are the same people of character inside out and from the outside in.

The business or organization you lead has no conscience. It cannot. The business or organization is not a living breathing decision-making action-taking being.

But you are.

And you, as a superlative leader, have a conscience. How can you know for sure? Well, conscience is doing the right thing because it is right, not because it is easy, expected, or prescribed. So look at the decisions you have actually made and the actions you have actually taken. Did they manifest high moral values? If so, you are a leader of conscience. If not, well then you know what you need to do.


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