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  Nitin Nohria is the tenth dean of Harvard Business School, a post he has held since July, 2010. Nohria has previously served as co-chair of the Leadership Initiative, Senior[…]

Many people possess an over-confidence in their own moral capacity. Nitin Nohria, dean of Harvard Business School, argues this overconfidence is what so often gets people in trouble.

Nitin Nohria:  Whenever we see examples of ethical or moral failure, our knee-jerk reaction is to say that was a bad person.  We like to sort the world into good people who had stable and enduringly strong, positive characters, and bad people who had weak or frail characters.  And this belief that somehow our behavior or our conduct is largely shaped by who we are and our true selves is, I think, one of the great assumptions that we need to challenge if we have to get a better handle on what leads people to go astray.

Lincoln was once asked, what is a measure of a person’s character?  And he says, you know, “My experience is that most people think that the true measure of a person’s character is how
they respond to adversity. “I have found,” Lincoln said, “that the real test of a person’s character is to give them power.  And I have been surprised how often I have been disappointed by people’s character when they have been given power.”

The overconfidence that people have in their own moral capacity is one of the things that we have to be very careful about. Most people think I am good; I have the proper moral compass.
I will never be led astray. That form of moral over confidence, I think, is sometimes what gets people into trouble when they find themselves in situations where the pressures are so great that they are led astray.

Thinking hard about what it is about situations that are more likely to tempt us and what it is that are about situations that are more likely to give us moral courage is, in my view, one of the most important things that we need to understand. This is in no way intended to excuse or provide or or not hold people accountable when they commit a mistake.  I just think that we always end up focusing on the character of the person as if there was a bad seed that they always were rather than recognizing that people change.… that they find themselves in
circumstances where they can be frail and where their own sense of
moral confidence can fail them.

So I am much more inclined, and this is one of the things we are trying to teach at Harvard Business School is through cases to allow people to see that there are circumstances in which, if
you have very, very high powered incentives that are tied to particular measures, you may be tempted at the margin to gain to achieve those measures.