Humanity is facing a crisis of moral leadership - men and women of character who can choose wisely and well in the difficulties, dilemmas and complexity of contemporary business and government.

St John's College at the University of Sydney… a nursery for boofheads since 1857

One of the biggest risks we face today is an assumption that because people share or subscribe to our corporate values, that they in fact share our moral perspective. Enron, LIBOR, AWB, unanswered questions at Note Printers Australia, and any number of examples would indicate immediately that is not the case.

The public travails of St John’s College and its students throw into stark relief the need to ask questions of potential employees to gain an insight about their moral outlook. It would be foolish of any organisation to assume that academic prowess equates with sound character.

Many commentators attribute the GFC to a general loss of moral consciousness and the divorce of markets and morals. But such a loss involves people and their actions, not some amorphous being called the market. Moral failure occurs in an individual - like Nick Leeson at Barings - or a group of individuals like the senior executives at Enron. And moral failure exposes firms to potential sudden and catastrophic collapse, as these examples demonstrate.

The character of individuals, and the moral frameworks and perspectives they bring to the firm, are crucial to brand, reputation, and potentially survival.

The academic disciplines undertaken by students at St John’s undoubtedly run the gamut of courses offered at Sydney University. This once esteemed College is educating the doctors, lawyers, engineers, leaders and managers of tomorrow.

Yet at the same time, the personal disciplines being pursued by students at St John’s appears to run the gauntlet of assault, bullying, misogyny, harassment, lying and vandalism. Georgie Carter publicly masquerading as a first year student to fight the allegations has inadvertently become the face of the problem, since she was outed as a third year student and a member of the 2012 house committee. A moment’s thought before going on national television posing as a ‘fresher’ would have indicated her lie would be uncovered.

Reports indicate that her actions resulted from a plan hatched by the committee. Is this another proof point about the moral failure at the College, where some students seem oblivious to the consequences of their actions?

Academic success provides an entrée into leading organisations, as firms compete each year for the best and the brightest from our universities, launching them onto well defined career paths. But is academic achievement the best marker?

There is no doubt that intellectual horsepower is a critical component for success. But character is just as important. Character is intimately linked to our moral compass, which guides us through moral dilemmas and safely past those obstacles where we can stand for something or fall for anything.

When a firm adopts a set of values they need to be sure that these are more than mere words, and that the associated behaviours are clearly understood at every level of the organisation. Shared corporate values do not mean shared moral perspective. For example, we can both agree profitability is important, but can have very different views about what constitutes acceptable behaviour to achieve that profit.

What could happen if a graduate of Sydney University, among the top percentile of their course, who has just spent three or four years at St John’s College, joins your firm? Their experience may have taught them that vandalism, assault, lying, bullying, covering up and harassment are acceptable. They may have learnt that rules are made to be broken, responsibility is to be avoided, and that if something goes wrong the best defense is sticking together, going on the attack, and then winning control of the governing body.

Your firm’s values may be very similar to those espoused by St John’s, which include: “Fostering a positive ethos that values and respects individuality, leadership, contribution to College and community life and rewards the achievement of results.” While the staff and students at St John’s may well ascribe to these values, what matters are the beliefs and behaviours that surround those values.

To the casual observer it appears that some students have deeply flawed beliefs about what constitutes community life and effective contribution to that, how rewards are won, what leadership means, and the relationship between individuality and peer pressure. A chasm seems to separate the reported culture from one that fosters ‘a positive ethos’.

Moral risk is perhaps the greatest risk facing organisations today. To assume that people joining the firm will act in the right way when confronted with a moral dilemma is to expose the firm to considerable risk. The moral compass of new hires could be so out of kilter that the way they live those values could seriously undermine the brand and reputation of the firm.

And if you employ someone with a broken compass, you are unwittingly releasing a moral cancer inside the firm. The risk of catastrophic failure makes this issue too big to ignore. But in the meantime, it would be wise to ask new hires - at every level - how they have navigated the moral dilemmas and complexity of life to date.

Comments on this post close at 8pm AEST

Most commented


Show oldest | newest first

    • Al says:

      12:27pm | 07/11/12

      I can see one main issue with the point you make re “need to ask questions of potential employees to gain an insight about their moral outlook.”
      That being that as in a large number of cases a persons morals are based around their religous, cultural and/or political opinion that by not hiring someone on the basis of answers to these questions could actualy result in cases of Adverse Action (not hiring a potential employee) and Discrimination (on the basis of their religon, culture and/or political opinion ).
      So while a don’t disagree overall, at the moment it would be difficult to implement without opening the door to legal challenges.

    • acotrel says:

      02:42pm | 07/11/12

      Where is your sense of humour ?  Nothing appeals more to Australians than a good scam.  Bondie was never denigrated,  because he did it so well and took his bumps with good grace.  Asking new employees questions to detect shadiness of character - you must be joking !  You have obviously never met a good conman. I’ve met about four experts in my lifetime and picked up on them fairly quickly, but you could never do that by asking questions at interview - they would be ready for you.

    • AdamC says:

      12:29pm | 07/11/12

      As a Melburnian, I know nothing about this Sydney College. However, the author here does an excellent job of blowing what would seem to be a misguided PR stunt totally out of proportion.

      The GFC was not caused by a failure of moral leadership. You could say it was caused by greed, in so far as just about everything is. That or fear. Or both.

      The fact is that, from what I can gather, organisations and their leaders are far more engaged with ideas like values and ethics than they ever have been before. They are also subject to ever more compliance and corporate governance requirements. Does the system work perfectly? No. Could it be improved, incrementally? Of course. Do the antics of the newly-adult denizens of a nationally-obscure Sydney College have anything to do with anything? I cannot see how.

    • Pattem says:

      12:51pm | 07/11/12

      @AdamC,  well what is greed if not a moral failure?

      The behavioural patterns at St John’s College are further endorsed by the attitude of parents.  “Oh, my Little Johnny is being threatened with two weeks of Community Service.  Time to bring in the lawyers.”

      What type of lesson does that teach Little Johnny?  So long as you can legally cover your backside you can do whatever you want to get where you want?

      @Anthony, great article.  So much emphasis is now on intellectual prowess and qualifications in this country that other attributes, such as: integrity, honesty, moral fibre, etc., are, if not seen as weaknesses, are seen as non-issues.

    • AFR says:

      12:29pm | 07/11/12

      Fairfax has been trying to make something out of the non-issue of St Johns college for a week. I was wondering how long it would be before News joined in.

    • Pattem says:

      12:53pm | 07/11/12

      @AFR, how is bullying, intimidation, and what constitutes something akin to frat-housing, a non-issue?  Please explain.

    • Fay says:

      12:54pm | 07/11/12

      The fact that you think the near death of a young girl, as well as the countless other acts of bullying and vandalism are non-issues says as much about your moral character as the acts themselves say about the character of the perpetrators.

    • AFR says:

      01:08pm | 07/11/12

      Good to see some of you have bought into the hype.

    • Pattem says:

      01:41pm | 07/11/12

      @AFR, my question still stands.  How is what is or is not going on at St John’s a non-issue?

      I saw some footage on the 730 Report which showed an exercise ball used as part of a ‘charging’ game.  People bouncing off clearly landed unconscious.  How is that a non-issue?

      Please enlighten me as to what is going on at St John’s.  You must have some inside knowledge to know that what has been reported is hype.

      Please validate your appraisal of what is going on at St John’s!

    • Blind Freddy says:

      01:42pm | 07/11/12

      AFR’s real objection is that some of his Liberal hero’s have been schooled under the “ethical standards” of St Johns - and you don’t have to look very hard to spot them.

      AFR knows that this reflects poorly on the character of Abbott et al.

    • AFR says:

      02:31pm | 07/11/12

      Sure i’ll bite….

      How do i validate it, you ask? Well, I am someone that went through the Sydney University College system (not Johns, but before it and others went co-ed, and thankfully in an era before wowserism and before everyone had a camera on their phone).

      Now, during my time at my college, we had the usual rituals and hazing etc (show me a 150 year institution that hasn’t).  However, nobody “almost died” and I highly doubt the women in this story did either.

      Nobody was forced to do anything, and plenty of people opted out of things (and to be honest, college life probably wasn;t for them. It is not a dorm, it is a community). But for those who wanted to participate in and take full advantage of college life, did. We got too drunk, did some silly things, but I would put hand on heart and say that incidents of violence and other serious matters were substantially lower than that in the inner city that surrounds Sydney Uni. Even though a Chopper hated a Shithead or a LaLa, when the chips were down, you would stick up for one another (much akin to Kiwis and Aussies).

      2 minutes of footage on 7:30 does not represent the actions of 1000 young men and woman across the whole system. All I see is every few years, Fairfax tries to start some sort of story about the goings on at what is essentially a private institution, under the guise that it is somehow “exclusive” and secretive. Years ago it was Drews with alleged vomiting competitions, later it was Pauls with curry dinner, and now this.

      And to close off, I have never voted for the liberals, didn’t attend a private school, and have no powerful connections. What i do have, however, half a life later, is a bunch of mates who will always be there and will do anything for you. A handful even married their college sweethearts (mostly Sancta girls). Not one is divorced. Try finding THAT in general society.

      But go on, believe the sensationalist drivel being served up here if it enables the inner keyboard warrior to come out and encourage you to t tut about something you know nothing about.

    • Blind Freddy says:

      02:53pm | 07/11/12


      But, you say you didn’t attend St Johns College where apparently many of the things that you say didn’t happen in your college did happen - so you have no idea either.

    • Pattem says:

      03:30pm | 07/11/12

      @AFR, you state: “(not Johns, but before it and others went co-ed, and thankfully in an era before wowserism and before everyone had a camera on their phone)”.

      Before it went co-ed, and before wowserism.  So, it seems like you were not there (St John’s), and some time ago at that.

      How do you know what the culture is like at St John’s, now?

    • AFR says:

      03:58pm | 07/11/12

      Trust me, the “reputation” of my college in the mid-late 90s was much the same (probably rougher if anything) as what Johns is like today, same as they were 50 years ago, and will be for decades to come. I am not interest of going into specifics of some of the things i got up to, as they are in the past, and, like all but a tiny minority of things that go on in college life, none of anyone’s business.

      Of course every now and then clueless hipster arts students who used their six votes to get themselves on the SRC scowled and wrote their criticisms in Uni Publications nobody reads, whilst feeling smug and superior whilst they looked down on college students from their tables at manning bar where they navel-gazed their way through their degrees. I only ever saw it as jealousy, as we strolled the 5 minutes from bed to lectures with our hangovers and actually had a life, and would later use he bonds formed from our college lives to build our networks in our careers.

      But those outside the circle won’t get it. Haters gotta hate I suppose.

      What the hell do people expect when they enter these places? A shiatsu and a camomile tea?

    • Anubis says:

      12:30pm | 07/11/12

      You can’t dis Georgie Carter too much. Judging by her ploy and deliberate misrepresentation it would appear she has modelled herself on Australia’s No. 1 female role model - Julia Gillard. Similar moral and ethic vacuum.

    • subotic says:

      12:55pm | 07/11/12

      Morals? Ethics? Pish posh!

      Now, where’s the beer & the remote…

    • Tubesteak says:

      01:01pm | 07/11/12

      “Many commentators attribute the GFC to a general loss of moral consciousness and the divorce of markets and morals”

      and they would be dead wrong. It was the parasitic hand-wringers of the gimme club that caused the GFC.

      Enron was more about failure of government to regulate and understand what was going on. The people at Enron just took advantage of their lack of oversight. No point blaming the fox if the farmer left the chicken coup open.

      If St John’s houses the gamut of teaching at USyd then why are you just focusing on business?

      Morals are a nebulous concept. Leave it to others. As long as you don’t do anything that will get you convicted, you’re sweet.

    • Louise says:

      01:43pm | 07/11/12

      “Morals are a nebulous concept. Leave it to others. As long as you don’t do anything that will get you convicted, you’re sweet.”

      Ohh noo, Tubesteak, spoken like a true (bad stereotype of a) lawyer, and a postmodernist one at that - “morals are nebulous”?? Some people’s perhaps.

      To the author: thank you for this, an important article.  If everyone agreed with you and saw clearly, there’d be no question this government would be voted out when we finally get the chance. (Sadly, instead, we’ve even had the vice-chancellor of the Australian Catholic Uni recently suggesting that morality ain’t got nothin’ to do with it.)

    • Shane From Melbourne says:

      02:05pm | 07/11/12

      @Tubesteak- Enron illegally cooked the books. And yes some of the leadership at Enron did get convicted.

    • Tubesteak says:

      02:25pm | 07/11/12

      Well, I am a lawyer. Doesn’t seem like you know what “nebulous” means though.

      Enron were setting their own market for energy as they were the only player in that market. The government had allowed them to do this after they had deregulated the market. Enron could charge anything they wanted. They then sold these rights to future income to their own companies and then on-sold them to various investment banks. Nothing illegal in this and not exactly “cooking the books”. Some of the directors went to gaol for other frauds during the investigation.

    • Louise says:

      02:52pm | 07/11/12

      Tubesteak, yes, I know - you’ve said it before. That’s my point.

      Morals are only ‘nebulous’ if you have a postmodernist view of them…or if you don’t really care about them at all.  (I don’t think you should be lecturing on word meanings - didn’t you back the wrong horse in an argument on the difference between ‘it’s’ and ‘its’??)

      I prefer it when you’re humorous.

    • Tubesteak says:

      03:32pm | 07/11/12

      Morals are merely something imposed through cultural teaching. We no longer have cultural teachings. Therefore, morals are now just something you adopt personally. There is no over-arching “moral code”.
      Morals are nebulous.
      I can lecture on the use of a word. The link I provided that day showed that you can use either “its” or “it’s”. Moreover, it seems illogical that “its” is the exception to the rule when talking about possessive apostrophes.

    • Pattem says:

      04:45pm | 07/11/12

      @Tubesteak, the ambiguity of the use of “it’s” and “its”, even according to the article you quoted, was a case in point from 150 yrs ago, IIRC.  Since then the use has been consolidated into how they are typically taught in schools - it’s (contraction), its (possessive).

      Morals themselves are hardly nebulous.  Kohlberg’s stages of moral development would suggest they are moreso hierarchical, or progressive.  It is people who are nebulous in how they choose/don’t choose to apply them - or where they draw the line in the sand to establish their moral ground.  That line is rarely a neat circle, or a straight line (depending on how you draw that line in the sand).

      Kohlberg’s theory is Justice-Centred, which surely hints at the notion that there is a relationship between Law, Justice and Morality.

      Whether you agree with his theory is a different matter, but I think Kohlberg clearly starts from moral development being something measurable; ertainly not nebulous.

    • Louise says:

      04:59pm | 07/11/12

      Tubesteak, I don’t do postmodernist arguments; I don’t subscribe to moral relativism.  I don’t know what “cultural teaching” is, and you’ve contradicted yourself in the first paragraph of that last post, after washing your hands of the whole question of morals in your first post.

      I can tell you’re a very clever bloke but, please,  ‘it’s’ = it is / it was / it has (contraction); ‘its’ is the possessive.  I didn’t read your linked piece, but can only think it came from something like the Macquarie Dictionary.

    • Tubesteak says:

      06:02pm | 07/11/12

      Morals are nebulous in that it’s only the invention of social construct and the majority adherence to that construct. The majority no longer follow anything but themselves these days. Therefore, there are no longer any morals other than what you choose as an individual.
      There are a lot more theologians out there other than Kohlberg, such as Black and Hart. I would not consider one to be the be all and end all.

      There was no contradiction. I’ve said the same thing all along. Morals are not a fixed entity. They are not physical, either. They cannot be defined. They exist only in the prism of a given society, as I just said to Pattem. There is no longer any such thing in this society. Therefore, I only subscribe to what keeps me out of gaol.

      As for the “it’s/its” distinction it is not resolved (quite frankly there is no way to resolve it as there is no definitive ruling anywhere). I would not rely on Macquarie Dictionary to back up an argument considering those intellectually bankrupt people just changed a definition of a word in accordance with the popular belief of feminazis that was not subscribed to by anyone other than them.

    • Joan says:

      01:39pm | 07/11/12

      Obviously wisdom does necessarily come automatically with age- this piece reads like some flawed 18 year old utopian world view - the same type who would dare to muck up at college or hoon dragging in street, or boozing up at cricket or football, partying and doing raves - like most youth do at 18 when testosterone runs high and life is in front, and begs to be lived in excess and a ball. hey old man -  perhaps you missed out at being 18..

    • Pattem says:

      01:58pm | 07/11/12

      @Joan, people can be stupid at any age.  The true measure of any person is how he/she deals with temptation, i.e., confronted with the opportunity to do something reckeless, dangerous, silly, etc., but demonstrating the strength of will to say NO.  Many times the right decision, or better decision, can be the harder one, because you have to stand up for something!

      Excuses for bad behaviour, are just that…excuses.

    • PsychoHyena says:

      03:13pm | 07/11/12

      @Joan, I’m sorry but I never did any of those things at 18… I valued my life too much to risk it. If you did then bully for you, you must be so proud of those wasted years (pun intended).

    • Dee says:

      01:58pm | 07/11/12

      i figured the “beat-up” was an smh attempt to out -tabloid the tabloids. There are many decent young people at John’s who are becoming increasingly stressed by the “alleged” harassment by the press in the week leading up to their exams. Who is doing the bullying here?

    • Pattem says:

      02:21pm | 07/11/12

      @Dee, if it is just a “beat-up”, why have 5 priests quit the Council at the behest of Cardinal George Pell?

    • Borderer says:

      02:13pm | 07/11/12

      A lack of morals arises from not taking right actions every day. People point at various reasons for a lack of morality, pornography, video games, alcohol etc. and the answer is always staring back at them in the mirror. You are responsible, no list of laws will every truly quantify morality as it is the concept of doing what you should do as opposed to what you can get away with that defines it.

    • Two Cents worth says:

      03:18pm | 07/11/12

      @Borderer - Sorry Borderer, it seems that you have missed the Ten Commandments. If they don’t truly quantify morality then where is mankind headed?
      Whether people are “religious or not” the Ten Commandments are the foundation of Law. Everything else has just been added to them.Judging by our system of Law and Justice these days it sometimes seems that we have allowed parts to be subtracted.

    • Borderer says:

      04:36pm | 07/11/12

      Two Cents worth
      Laws are codified rules at a point in time, morality is a living version of how we interpret right or wrong in the present. So it is up to us as individuals to be moral ourselves as the rulebook is always playing catch up.
      So for example the ten commandments and the current laws do not say it’s wrong to purchase something from someone at a very low price and sell it at a vastly inflated price, it’s good business yes? Now what if you’re taking advantage of the vulnerable, still legal but is it right?
      Being moral is doing the right thing, obeying the law is merely avoiding prosecution.

    • Two Cents worth says:

      06:15pm | 07/11/12

      @ Borderer - couldn’t agree more with most of what you say, unfortunately in this modern world we call stealing by another name, excessive profit, gained through “vastly inflated prices” and while it is not against the law it is most certainly unconscionable.
      Look at where our efforts to gain the big bucks have led - subprimes, bubbles,GFC, all in the name of greed.
      I have been on this earth for over six decades and have seen things become worse as we progress?? . For far too long people have been walking on the edge in an endeavour to “get away with” it, IT being the prime motivator for many/most - $$$$$$.
      The mighty dollar has become a god to many and the Ten Commandments state: “There shall be no other gods before me”.
      You can keep all your “codified rules” because the Ten Commandments cannot be reduced to a code, they are the lifeblood and belief system for those that believe in and follow them.
      To follow God’s laws first ensures that we adhere to every rule that Man has added

    • Two Cents worth says:

      03:08pm | 07/11/12

      @ Tubesteak - The difference between the Fox and Enron is one employs instinct and cunning, the other greed and cunning. You be the judge of which is which.
      The Fox does not employ morals in its natural ways, however we humans should, and do have a moral compass. Sometimes this moral compass follows magnetic greed and travels with the pack. That does not make it right.
      If by nebulous you are suggesting that morals are not clear cut then you might want to check your own magnetic setting. Our moral fibre should be as clear as crystal.

    • ProfoundBS says:

      03:53pm | 07/11/12

      It’s amazing how many employers hire the fast-talking guy who looks and sounds confident, knows what to say etc. It is a reflection of the moral ineptitude of those doing the hiring just as much as it is the guy who is bullshitting his way in to the job.
      Employers should look at the overall experience of a candidate - the crap jobs listed on the resumes and all - to assess the candidate’s character, and do a thorough check of references.
      Too many employers just see what they want to see. They have to be able to pick the ones who are real as opposed to the ones who are just bluffing.

    • bananabender says:

      05:57pm | 07/11/12

      I went to university with a guy who cheated on every single exam. He is now a full Professor at a major university. One of his teaching spcialties is corporate ETHICS. Oh the irony!

    • Thomas says:

      06:59pm | 07/11/12

      You’re ignorant, misinformed and irrational. You’ve spent too much time reading eamonn duff I think -  generalization, sensationalism and exaggeration; Duff written all over it. And you both claim moral authority?

      You cannot claim knowing one current student first hand, so your opinions are forged through fairfax. Do you know them first hand? Maybe you should have a coffee with eamonn, he’s an ethical bloke.

      Only thing I’d agree with is - yes, the majority of the students will end up being more successful, wealthier and happier than you. Jealousy’s a curse.


Facebook Recommendations

Read all about it

Punch live

Up to the minute Twitter chatter

Recent posts

The latest and greatest

The Punch is moving house

The Punch is moving house

Good morning Punchers. After four years of excellent fun and great conversation, this is the final post…

Will Pope Francis have the vision to tackle this?

Will Pope Francis have the vision to tackle this?

I have had some close calls, one that involved what looked to me like an AK47 pointed my way, followed…

Advocating risk management is not “victim blaming”

Advocating risk management is not “victim blaming”

In a world in which there are still people who subscribe to the vile notion that certain victims of sexual…

Nosebleed Section

choice ringside rantings

From: Hasbro, go straight to gaol, do not pass go

Tim says:

They should update other things in the game too. Instead of a get out of jail free card, they should have a Dodgy Lawyer card that not only gets you out of jail straight away but also gives you a fat payout in compensation for daring to arrest you in the first place. Instead of getting a hotel when you… [read more]

From: A guide to summer festivals especially if you wouldn’t go

Kel says:

If you want a festival for older people or for families alike, get amongst the respectable punters at Bluesfest. A truly amazing festival experience to be had of ALL AGES. And all the young "festivalgoers" usually write themselves off on the first night, only to never hear from them again the rest of… [read more]

Gentle jabs to the ribs

Superman needs saving

Superman needs saving

Can somebody please save Superman? He seems to be going through a bit of a crisis. Eighteen months ago,… Read more



Read all about it

Sign up to the free newsletter