The American View: Shove Me Tender

Good leadership requires the folks in charge to set and enforce boundaries and ethical restraints. Business Reporter's resident U.S. 'blogger uses Elvis Presley’s film debut to discuss how the removal of social pressure can ruin a person once he or she is presented with a chance to get ahead by violating a company or societal norm.

Somewhere along the line, I picked up a folk saying that works really well when talking about employee misconduct: ‘It's a sin to put temptation in the path of an honest man.’ I don’t know the source; I remember overhearing it shortly after I got to Texas and it stuck. Since then, I’ve found it awfully useful for teaching leaders why it’s an awful idea to run their organisation in a laissez-faire manner. If you give your people the impression that unethical or illegal activities might be tolerated, there will always be someone in the crew that takes advantage of the opportunity. It might even be someone who wouldn’t normally be inclined to break rules. Temptation is a terrible corrupter, and letting your people fall victim to temptation constitutes damned poor leadership.

The phrase – and the idea that it conveys – is useful because an institution’s perceived ethical performance is usually a direct reflection of its leaders’ demonstrated ethical performance. That’s because the fundamental nature of an organization is blindly amoral. Despite what the Harvard Business School types would argue, a group isn’t a gestalt lifeform. Groups are simply collections of people, not thinking or reasoning entities in their own right. The behaviour that we attribute to groups comes directly from the behaviour of the individuals in and associated with the group.

In business, this means that the way an organisation is structured, funded, regulated, and (most importantly) led largely determines how it functions, for good or ill. The people at the top influence the people below them, with each echelon amplifying certain values while nullifying others, until only the most impactful behavioural standards resonate consistently throughout the collective. Only enforced notions of right and wrong dictate how ‘the organisation’ acts. Leaders set standards, and leaders enforce standards – both through deliberate action and through what they ignore.

You can tell a lot about a person’s character by observing what-all they choose to ignore.

Further, organisations are rarely static entities. Every time leaders in crucial positions leave their posts (for promotion, retirement, etc.), the organisation evolves. Each new outsider holding incompatible values exposes the organisation’s culture to change. If the outsider is less ethically-focused than the previous leadership cadre, the group’s collective commitment to institutional ethical conduct will begin to slip. At first, the outlier will likely be held in check by the sheer weight of official rules and informal peer pressure. Over time, however, those controls – if not systemically reinforced – will weaken. The outlier’s alternative approach will start to be seem as … if not acceptable, then at least tolerable, until the new, less restrictive standard becomes the norm.

This is how good companies go bad. No matter how well intentioned or committed its founders are, personnel churn stresses a group’s established and accepted collective values. This isn’t inherently bad; diversity of ideas and perspectives makes groups become more competitive and effective. The ‘cost’ of that growth, however, is a loss of focus on what the group stands for, what it values, and how much deviance it’s willing to accept. The more that a group grows, the more likely it is that its identity will fracture and reform into something that its founders wouldn’t recognize … or approve.

We’re about to change gears abruptly. This will make sense in a minute.

I’m not an Elvis Presley fan. Never have been. I don’t hate his music; I just don’t care for it. I can’t say that I care much for his movies either. They’re not my speed. There is, however, one Elvis movie that ties into our subject: his first film role in the 1956 Western drama Love Me Tender.

The film’s setup is simple: a group of brothers returns home after the end of the Civil War and has to adapt to changes in their family dynamic. The early tension between characters comes from a bureaucratic screw-up. When word came home that Elvis’s character’s brother was KIA, the boy who stayed home married his older brother’s sweetheart. When her ‘deceased’ true love comes home unexpectedly, things get mighty tense around the family farm (as you’d expect).

Modern audiences should have no trouble understanding the characters’ motivations, especially if they’ve listened to ANY country-western music in the last 75 years. 

It’s implied that there’s a larger homecoming issue in play as well. These young men went off to war and came back fundamentally changed. Their values, beliefs, and outlooks all evolved in the crucible of fear, death, and suffering. Tender’s 1956 audience surely picked up on the subtext, given that World War II was only a decade old and the Korean War had just ended.

Making matters worse, the older brothers’ last mission for the Confederate Army was to loot a Union payroll shipment. They succeeded but not until the day after the war officially ended. The raiders succeeded in seizing the Union gold. Nothing wrong there; critical war-fighting matériel (like hard currency) is a lawful military target. Unfortunately for them raiders, bad timing retroactively changed them from soldiers acting under legitimate orders to outlaws committing banditry.

So, what does 1950s cowboy Elvis have to do with understanding fragile corporate cultures? More than you might expect at first glance. Tender’s story isn’t so much about the accidental love triangle as it is about the consequences of a disastrous decision that the soldiers made to keep their purloined gold after they discovered their error. If they’d obeyed the military regulations that bound them, duty would have compelled them to turn the loot (and themselves) in. They didn’t truly become criminals until they realized their mistake and gave in to the temptation to run away with their loot.

Remember that line from the beginning? It’s a sin to put temptation in the path of an honest man. Robert Webb’s screenplay did a decent job of exploring what happens when a poor fellow is presented with a chance to make a dishonest fortune and how temptation can ruin a man. The love triangle sub-plot between Richard Egan’s and Elvis’s characters is meant to illustrate that the older brother is – and strives to remain – an honourable man despite his mistakes. He let his greed get the better of him, and he paid an awful price for it when people come looking for the gold he stole.

Remember: it wasn’t the killing that got him into trouble. It was keeping the payroll. There’s something tragically American about that. 

The viewer is left to wonder just how differently the story would have turned out had the soldiers’ leaders instilled and maintained a culture of unshakable professionalism. Would Egan’s character have agreed to hide the gold and cover up the unintended crime? Or would he have done the hard, right thing according to law and regulations? Given the size of the score, it’s hard to guess how much pressure it would have taken to push the tired and disenchanted soldiers over the line. Without significant coercive pressure – like the presence of senior officers, the risk of getting caught, a culture of demonstrated intolerance towards lawlessness in the ranks – then it might not have taken much pressure at all; more of a gentle nudge than a violent shove.

That’s the heart of my argument: organisations only possess the principles, values, and standards enforced by their leaders. Ordering your workers to follow a set of ‘core value’ isn’t a viable coercive control. No, the people who hold power in the organisation have to hold everyone fairly accountable for their actions. If they don’t, those espoused values are valueless.

Further, whenever and wherever leadership creates ethical ambiguity – often by failing to predictably enforce required behavioural norms – workers questions why they should follow the unenforced rules. In organisations where members are expected to follow stricter ethical standards than the average person (like in the military), workers who find themselves free of external social control will tend revert back to their pre-membership behavioural norms. They’ll stop living up to their new group’s standards and will revert back to the standards of the culture they grew up in.

In a similar vein, the absence of social controls is felt most painfully when an isolated member (or a small group) is presented with a significant temptation to ‘cheat’ the system. It’s especially insidious when it appears that he, she, or they can get away with the transgression without risking exposure. That was the challenge facing the brothers in Love Me Tender: In the absence of a strong code of behaviour and in the absence of firm, consistent oversight, the temptation to hide the crime and keep the gold was simply too powerful to pass up. The rules that they should have followed as soldiers didn’t seem to matter once the Army was no more.

Literally and figuratively. 

This is a normal human failing. It’s also a completely normal institutional vulnerability. Slogans on posters don’t mean a thing without consistent, visible, and effective enforcement. People will internalize and perpetuate behavioural standards only so long as they see consistent cause-and-effect relationships between compliance and reward and between deviation and censure. When norms are enforced, the few inevitable nonconformists who like to push against restrictions will quickly be spotted, corrected, and brought back into line. Along those lines, people left adrift will quickly abandon their externally-imposed behavioural standards starting with the ones that that demand the most effort to uphold until and unless corrected by someone in authority. Consistent leadership is crucial to keeping team members on the straight and narrow.

One last take-away from Tender is that normal human failings aren’t aberrant; they’re normal. People are complex, often contradictory creatures. We screw things up. We misunderstand what’s right in front of us. We twist reality into knots in order to rationalize our really stupid decisions. That’s why leading people can be frustrating. That’s also why organisations have to create and enforce rules of behaviour; you can’t just tell people to ‘do the right thing,’ leave them to figure out what ‘right’ entails, and assume that everything will work out for the best. Social pressure is required. It doesn’t need to be heavy-handed and should never be abusive, but it does need to be constant and fair.

One more thing: remember that Elvis’ character in Tender let his irrational jealousy scramble his thinking, pitting him against his big brother when they should have been working together to undo the robbery mistake. That led to his character being shot down like a dog at the end of the film – an entirely preventable situation that the audience knew could and should have been avoided with just a few changes in others’ conduct at the start of the film. That’s why it’s a tragic story (for a musical).

More important, though, is that the love triangle tragedy would never have happened if some nameless clerk in Confederate Army HQ hadn’t screwed up the casualty rosters and mistakenly sent a KIA notification to the family. If the characters back home hadn’t been misled, Elvis’s character wouldn’t have tried to woo his big brother’s fiancé. It’s a sin to put temptation in the path of an honest man. Don’t put your people into positions where their ethical strength needs to be tested, and you won’t have to find out just how vulnerable they are to a metaphorical shove down the wrong path.


Title Allusion: Robert D. Webb (writer), Love Me Tender (1956 film)


POC is Keil Hubert, keil.hubert@gmail.com

Follow him on Twitter at @keilhubert.

You can buy his books on IT leadershipIT interviewinghorrible bosses and understanding workplace culture at the Amazon Kindle Store.

Keil-Hubert-featuredKeil Hubert is a retired U.S. Air Force ‘Cyberspace Operations’ officer, with over ten years of military command experience. He currently consults on business, security and technology issues in Texas. He’s built dot-com start-ups for KPMG Consulting, created an in-house consulting practice for Yahoo!, and helped to launch four small businesses (including his own).

Keil’s experience creating and leading IT teams in the defense, healthcare, media, government and non-profit sectors has afforded him an eclectic perspective on the integration of business needs, technical services and creative employee development… This serves him well as Business Technology’s resident U.S. blogger.