The Parable of the Sadhu


During a hike in Nepal, the author Bowen H. McCoy,  and a group of mountaineers elect to clothe and give provisions to a hypothermic holy man, but not to care for him further. The article moves on from the details of the story to highlight several moral dilemmas and ask questions of both the author's moral responsibility and the responsibility of the group in such a situation. The underlying question of whether or not individual and group ethics are the same is then applied to the business world. McCoy makes it clear that even though ethics are difficult, common values and a corporate culture based on thoughtful personal values, are integral to the success and health of every corporation.

Study Notes

The article begins with a story:
  • Bowen H.McCoy and his friend, Stephen, are hiking above 15,000 feet in Nepal.
  • There are four groups from different countries also hiking in the area.
  • One of the groups finds a Sadhu, a holy man, dying of hypothermia and exposure.
  • The group carries the man to McCoy, and leaves him there.
  • The author and the members of his team clothe the man and eventually leave him in the sun near a path that leads to shelter.
  • The mountain is extremely dangerous, and no one wants to risk their own lives trying to carry the Sadhu two days back to town.
Initial Result:
  • Stephen is angry with McCoy, who eventually summits the treacherous mountain.
  • Stephen says that leaving the Sadhu alone was a breakdown of ethics- that everyone just 'passed the buck'.
  • Author says that they all 'did their bit'.
  • Stephen insists that this is a typical 'Western' approach to a problem: just throw some material wealth at it and forget about it...

Question: what if the person in need had been a North-American woman?

Key Question: what was their responsibility in that situation?

Stephen says that their responsibility could have only ended under 3 circumstances:
  1. If the Sadhu had died while they are caring for him.
  2. If the Sadhu had demonstrated that he was okay.
  3. If they had carried the Sadhu to a village and arranged proper care for him.
McCoy feels guilt but at the time blames 3 things for their actions:
  1. High adrenaline flow.
  2. A goal that didn't allow for any variation (sudden changes of plan could be deadly in such an environment).
  3. A once in a lifetime opportunity (to summit the mountain).

Real moral dilemmas are ambiguous and we often react to them defensively.

Author asks 3 questions of himself:
  1. What are the practical limits of morality?
  2. Do group ethics differ from individual ethics?
  3. How much is enough?
Applying this to the business world:

Action. In the business world, decisions are followed by actions and consequences, not just philosophical mind games.

Problem: On the mountain, the group had no system to deal with the problem.

Not only was there no plan, but the different cultures present on the mountain meant that there was no leader that everyone looked to for a solution.

Key Point: organizations without a shared value system have a hard time dealing with stress.

Under stress, companies with shared value systems often group together and 'tough it out', whereas groups without that sense of corporate culture and unity, fall apart individual by individual, often starting with the executives.

Since corporations and their members depend on each other, a business ethic is an important positive force.

To feel safe dealing with conflict, managers need to have a set of values or guidelines in which to operate.

Many people distrust large organizations (like the church or corporations) because they feel such organizations are impersonal and don't value individuals. However, everyone knows of large organizations that do value individuals...

Question: what is the difference between organizations that value individuals and organizations that don't?

Ethics are intimidating, but shared value systems are central to corporate business.

A Definition of business ethics is to "follow the business as well as the cultural goals of a corporation, its owners, its employees, and its customers."

A Definition of a leader is someone who "understands, interprets, and manages a corporate value system."

Effective managers are:
  1. Action oriented.
  2. Involved in conflict resolution.
  3. Able to tolerate ambiguity.
  4. Able to handle stress.
  5. Open to change.
  6. Able to focus on personal and company goals.

Individuals who act on thoughtful personal values will be the foundation of a corporate culture.

A corporate tradition that: encourages questions, supports individuals, and gives direction where needed can combine individuality with the success of a group.

Cycle: The individual needs to be nurtured by the group, and the individuals will dictate the values of the group...

When Do We Take a Stand? (Supplementary article).

Key Point: Ethical issues shouldn't be over simplified.

The question: When do we take a stand? = What am I willing to give up to deal with this issue?

Concluding Question: what effects does ignoring our values have?