Honest Values

Often, when we think of career-ending ethical lapses, brash young people come to mind. We think of people such as Nick Leeson, the Barings Bank rogue trader who single handedly brought down England’s oldest financial institution. Or Jayson Blair, the relatively young reporter on the rise at the New York Times, who fabricated stories and the details surrounding them.

Confining such ethical gaffes to kids makes it easy to chalk them up to irrational, youthful exuberance. They got ahead of themselves. They became drunk with newfound power. They didn’t have the maturity age and experience brings. Like Icarus, they flew too close to the sun, and their wax wings melted.

But, just as often, it’s those with experience, the lions in their fields, who make the most egregious moves. People, like Daedalus, father of Icarus, who warned him against flying so high, who should know better. Like Joseph Ellis, tenured professor who fabricated his own past so as to make it better teaching material. Like Pete Rose, who seems not yet to have understood why he shouldn’t have gambled on baseball while managing a team.

Like a recent erstwhile Daedalus, Darleen Druyun.

Druyun is the former Boeing executive who joined that firm in January 2003 after a many-years-long stint as a top procurement official for the Air Force. In that role, she oversaw huge airplane contracts, including the C-130 cargo plane. It was her leadership that placed a questionable lease agreement on the table whereby the government would lease instead of buy a number of mid-air-refueling-capable tankers from Boeing — probably a bad deal for the government, surely a good deal for Boeing.

While she was serving as the government’s top negotiator with the defense behemoth, Druyun’s daughter, Heather McKee (a Boeing employee who had gotten her job through string-pulling by her mother), sent encrypted e-mails on her behalf to company officials, letting them know her mom was planning to retire. It’s not clear whether her mom put her up to it or not. Regardless, McKee’s e-mails put Druyun in play by indicating that, while she was considering going to work for competitor Lockheed Martin, she was still open to offers.

It is difficult to imagine a better example of wrong behavior from an official who supposedly holds the public’s trust. This story has it all: self-dealing, clandestine arrangements, nepotism, and big bucks at stake. It also has a huge dollop of cynicism wrapped in sanctimony.

McKee’s e-mail pitching her mom’s employment pointed out that Druyun was particularly fond of Boeing because the company “has her most admired quality: honest values.”

The same honest values, one wonders, that encouraged McKee to realize she ought to encrypt her e-mails? The same honest values that urged senior Boeing executives to take a private plane to Orlando for a secret job meeting with Druyun, where the deal was offered and then the hackneyed “this meeting really didn’t take place” was uttered? Or, is it possibly the sort of honest values that caused Druyun to think that, after getting the lucrative job offer, that she didn’t need to recuse herself from Boeing-related negotiations until two months later?

This week, Druyun has tearfully admitted all. It is indeed a tragedy. Druyun had a long and distinguished career, having won awards and developed a reputation for passion and scrupulousness. What seems clear from the chain of events and how they are discussed is that, throughout the saga, Druyun never doubted her own morality. And so, it is easy to scapegoat her.

It is difficult, on the other hand, to face the lesson her story has for the rest of us. But Druyun’s temptations are not so different than those of anyone who makes decisions on behalf of others, who has a family, and who would like a new job — not so different, in other words, than many of us who ordinarily feel satisfied that our own ethical houses are in order. We have honest values and admire honest values, therefore our actions, we feel, must be based in honest values. But, ethics consists of what we do when people aren’t looking, when it seems possible to get away with things. Previously a faceless bureaucrat, Darleen Druyun now has the limelight, and the insufficiency of just having “honest values” is on display for all to see.

So many of us act without thinking, assured of our own morality because our intentions are good, and our hearts are in the right place. But, how do we know? Darleen Druyun did not, and while her own contrition now seems very real, the damage she has done to her former agency and former company will not be undone anytime soon.

Daedalus, worry not about Icarus, but look to your own flight.

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