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  Daryl Koehn '86
Daryl Koehn '86

Writing the wrongs
Ethicist Daryl Koehn '86 offers insights to those hoping to avoid a fall from grace

by Rebecca Lindell

The iconic images of victory in Iraq, including a tumbled statue of Saddam Hussein, were everywhere in the spring of 2003.

The seemingly swift resolution to the conflict appeared to have blunted the intense moral questioning that preceded the war. But at least one observer — business ethicist Daryl Koehn '86 — was already pondering the implications for the United States if the weapons of mass destruction allegedly in Iraq failed to materialize.

More than a year later, her remarks to a BusinessWeek reporter in April 2003 seem prescient.

"I don't think we've been very clear about the justification for our attack on Iraq," Koehn said then. "If you can truthfully characterize Saddam as an imminent threat to us, then you can say that the war was justified."

But without the weapons of mass destruction, the Bush administration could find itself creating new rationalizations for the war. And if that happens, she mused, "it's going to cause some problems for us."

"How are we going to prove that Saddam had been actively seeking the weapons? Even if we do, it's a tricky argument. If Saddam has been seeking these weapons for 15 years and never got them, it shows we were pretty successful at containing him. In that case, he wasn't the threat we're claiming he was."

And if the weapons of mass destruction never turn up? "We're going to have a problem with credibility," Koehn said.

The magazine found Koehn's reflections sufficiently compelling to return to her a year later for follow-up commentary on Iraq.

"We should be very honest about what the situation is," Koehn offered in April 2004. "I don't like this language of us 'transferring sovereignty.' Sovereignty means recognized authority, which usually means legitimate authority.

"No sovereignty has been established in Iraq, so there is no sovereignty to transfer. We've got to be clear on that point. Otherwise, it sounds as if we established legitimacy there and handed it over, and then if the Iraqis fail, they're to blame. That's a very misleading way to think of things."

Koehn's cogent take on the crisis in Iraq grows out of a career spent thinking deeply about such issues. A graduate of The Managers' Program at Kellogg, Koehn also holds a PhD in ethics from the University of Chicago and a master's degree in politics, philosophy and economics from Oxford University. She has held academic positions at Illinois Wesleyan University, DePaul University and the University of Chicago, and has written several books on business ethics.

Now the executive director of The Center for Business Ethics at the University of St. Thomas in Houston, her insights have appeared in The New York Times, CFO and CIO magazines, the Harvard Business Review, and in international newspapers and magazines.

Koehn's rise as an authority on business ethics was given an unexpected boost by the collapse in 2001 of Houston-based Enron. Koehn says she found herself at the "second Ground Zero in America," with media around the world asking her to comment on the company's implosion.

For Koehn, the scandal hit close to home. Among her students were Enron employees, many of whom were "blindsided and shocked" by the scandal. For Koehn, Enron's woes suggest a broader ethical crisis.

"The problem isn't that people don't know the right thing to do," she says. "It's that we human beings are infinitely creative when it comes to rationalizing our actions. We develop blind spots. We tend to think our motives are completely pure while those of our critics are completely impure.

"It's very easy to lose perspective when we become self-righteous. Having lost perspective, we unwittingly do horrible things."

As for the businessperson seeking to avoid the hard falls of some high-flying peers, Koehn offers this simple advice: Pay close attention to the company you keep.

"It's much easier to join a good, sound company run by thoughtful, self-critical people than to go to work for a problematic company and have to extricate yourself later," Koehn says. "You'll have a lot less heartache if you look before you leap."

©2002 Kellogg School of Management, Northwestern University