Living into Leadership: A Journey into Ethics

Bowen H. "Buzz" McCoy

Buy the book »

A Journey in Ethics
Bowen H. “Buzz” McCoy
232 pages (Stanford University Press, 2007)

Socrates believed that an unexamined life is not worth living. Living Into Leadership is Bowen McCoy’s examination of his 27 years at investment bank Morgan Stanley. Although McCoy hails from the business world, his insightful exploration of ethics would be of value to leaders in all sectors – private, public, and nonprofit – and to anyone seeking that elusive balance between work and personal life.

McCoy’s central anecdote is a story that he first penned in 1983, “The Parable of the Sadhu,” in which he and his climbing partner, Stephen, cross paths with an Indian holy man at 15,000 feet in the Himalayas. The pilgrim is nearly naked and suffering from hypothermia. Stephen and some Swedish climbers dress him in clothes from their packs, but McCoy, concerned about getting over the pass before the sun melts the snow, keeps hiking. Later, when Stephen catches up, he asks McCoy, “How do you feel about contributing to the death of a fellow man?” Stephen insists that they should have waited until they were sure the sadhu could survive the walk to the village – and if not, carried him there.

This is a powerful tale for leaders who face difficult decisions with significant consequences, and who must make those decisions under time pressure, often with imperfect information. It demonstrates how easy it is to overlook ethical questions, especially when there is a superordinate goal at stake, like completing a once in a lifetime trek. It highlights the importance of knowing the limits of individual and organizational responsibility. Every climbing party that passed the sadhu had done something to help, but nobody had taken ultimate responsibility for his fate. And finally, the parable illustrates the frequent ambiguity of ethical questions, especially when cultural differences are involved: Why had the sadhu not taken the lower, safer route? Could he have been seeking death as a path to holiness?

Living Into Leadership is a highly readable account of the challenges McCoy faced time and again throughout his career – the types of situations that make you wonder, What would I do? With candor, McCoy tells us what he did, even when it was the wrong thing to do, like when he poorly briefed a young associate who then used deception to extract crucial information from the owner of a ski resort. He also describes the ethical dilemmas experienced elsewhere in Morgan Stanley, such as how the firm responded to criminal acts perpetrated by its own employees, and how it dealt with fairness issues among young, old, and retired partners during a voluntary recapitalization when the company went public.

In the last third of the book, McCoy delves into ethical trade-offs and changes in business norms over time. Here he loses momentum and occasionally becomes platitudinous. But overall, the guidance McCoy offers, and the advice that he draws from a wide range of thinkers – from Dietrich Bonhoeffer to Peter Drucker – make this book a compelling read for those who believe in examining their lives.

N. Craig Smith is a senior fellow in marketing and ethics at the London Business School, where he teaches the required MBA course in business ethics.