NiTRO + Creative Matters

Perspectives on creative arts in higher education

When it comes to leadership ethics, truth is stranger than fiction

When Commonwealth Bank of Australia (CBA) internal whistle-blower, Jeff Morris, exposed the actions of ‘Dodgy Don’ – a CBA financial planner who allegedly forged signatures, overcharged fees and created unauthorised investment accounts for his customers without their permission – Morris contributed to setting in motion the 2017 Banking Royal Commission.

By Christopher M. Conroy, Professor Craig Batty, Noel Maloney and Professor Carl Rhodes

When Commonwealth Bank of Australia (CBA) internal whistle-blower, Jeff Morris, exposed the actions of ‘Dodgy Don’ – a CBA financial planner who allegedly forged signatures, overcharged fees and created unauthorised investment accounts for his customers without their permission – Morris contributed to setting in motion the 2017 Banking Royal Commission. It went like this:

Morris: I remember going to my first office Christmas party [in 2008]. It was barefoot bowls, and in the middle of it, the managers started yelling, ‘Hey, listen up everyone! Don’s done it again! He’s got an 86-year-old woman to sign up for $1.6 million and he’s charging her 2 per cent up front – $32,000!’ This is for a boiler-plate financial plan produced in an hour. ‘Where does he find these little old ladies?! Ring the bell!!!’. (Hooten 2018)

Imagine any one of us making $32,000 for an hour’s work, filling out a few “off the shelf” forms with an unsuspecting 86-year-old. Imagine this is your job. A job supported by your manager, your company, your whole corporate structure. A job for which you will be lauded professionally and paid a bonus. Morris recalled feeling “like Alice in Wonderland” within weeks of starting at the CBA: ‘It was this feeling of, “Am I the only one who thinks this whole thing is just wrong?”’ (Hooten 2018).

Dramaturgical flourishes aside, the story of Dodgy Don is not fiction. But it could be. In fact, it is through fiction that we can understand and feel situations … that we can understand and feel organizational leadership.

It is critical that appalling breaches of even the most minimal standards of business and leadership ethics are debated and brought to public attention. To rigorously research and use them to inform the education of the next generation of managers and professionals is central to the public and democratic purpose of our academic profession. But how should we go about studying and understanding ethical malfeasance in today’s business world? In our work we have been exploring how interdisciplinary connections between creative arts and leadership studies offer a meaningful way to address this question.

Dramaturgical flourishes aside, the story of Dodgy Don is not fiction. But it could be. In fact, it is through fiction that we can understand and feel situations – and for us here, that we can understand and feel organisational leadership. Being a leader; being led; witnessing good and bad leadership. As Pullen, Rhodes and Thanem (2017: 106) tell us, experiences like those of Morris “generate affective responses; responses that live on in our flesh, layered as new events unfold that remind the body how it feels to feel.” Creative writing has long been a way that humanity has come to grips with such embodied, emotional and ethical responses to injustice.

In everyday work, stories abound as people relay their experiences to one another in an attempt to make sense of what is going on around them. Genuinely non-fictional organisational stories are stories of the “game” that is played in organisations, on a global daily basis. How then can fiction and non-fiction storytelling come together to research the ethics of leadership? This is precisely the topic of our group’s experimental project that brings together a unique combination of different skills and expertise.

Using artistic forms in a business context allows us to get closer to the whole organizational experience, beyond the “managed”, cleaned-up, instrumental façades and into the messy, day-to-day felt experience.

Working through the inter-disciplinary nexus of our interests has resulted in work that examines organisational leadership through a creative practice research (CPR) lens. A playscript, interwoven throughout thesis chapters that contain more conventional social science writing, produces a “scriptology” (Rhodes, 2018) that works in harmony with the CPR methodology. This approach is based on a cross-disciplinary view that writing is an enquiry method that is central to knowledge creation (Batty et al., 2017; Baker, 2018; Rhodes, 2018) and specifically, “that ‘sense’ in organisation studies can and does exist outside of what sometimes seem to be incontrovertible institutionally powerful confines” (Rhodes, 2018: 8).

Using artistic forms in a business context allows us to get closer to the whole organisational experience, beyond the “managed”, cleaned-up, instrumental façades and into the messy, day-to-day felt experience. Transcripts of events such as the Banking Royal Commission read like a playscript, with the posturing of interrogators circling their hapless banking executive prey in the witness box:

Mark Costello, counsel assisting the Royal Commission: And you know that Commonwealth Bank group entities have charged more fees for no service than any other financial services entity in the country; do you know that?

Executive A: I do know that.

Costello: It would be the gold medallist if ASIC [the Australian Securities and Investments Commission] was handing out medals for fees for no service, wouldn’t it?

Executive A: Yes.

(Commonwealth of Australia, 2018: 1258)

As we read this exchange, the cornering of Executive A is apparent. As with any good dramatic writing, it also touches us. What is it like for A to utter that final, fateful “yes”? What is it like for others to observe this admission? And what is like for us to see this scene end with one simple word sitting alone on the page, a solitary monosyllabic admission of shocking corporate conduct? What we also see here is that while we might be able to distinguish facts from fiction at the level of experience, the way that they are written can have a lot in common.

A study in leadership encapsulates investigations into social, psychological, economic, artistic, political, scientific, spiritual realms such as development or ethics or critical leadership studies or leader-follower relations or politics or communication or change management or power and so on. And this is where the creative arts and creative practice come in – modalities of knowing and doing that can help us build our capacity to relate to other people and things through imagination, attunement and reflection.

The creative writing element of our work comprised a dramaturgical process, whereby factual knowledge and personal experience were translated into dramatic fiction. However, this was not to set fact against fiction dichotomously, but to provide multiple ways of seeing and thinking about leadership. As events, stories and concepts were structured as dramatic scenes and acts, new ways of considering conflicts, motives, moods, backstories and places emerged. Patterns, images and behaviours crystallised.

By welcoming-in creative fictional techniques into business studies, a more holistic sense of reality is possible, making truth less strange, more visible.

References

Baker, D. J. 2018. “Play Scripts as Knowledge Objects.” New Writing, 15 (2): 175-179.

Batty, C., K. Beaton, S. Sculley, and S. Taylor. 2017. “The Screenwriting PhD: Creative Practice, Critical Theory and Contributing to Knowledge.” TEXT: Journal of Writing and Writing Courses, Special Issue 40: 1-17.

Commonwealth of Australia, 2018. “Royal Commission into Misconduct in the Banking, Superannuation and Financial Services Industry.” Transcript of Proceedings 18 April 2018. Accessed October 21, 2018. https://financialservices.royalcommission.gov.au/public-hearings/Pages/transcripts.html

Hooten, V. 2018. “Why Good People Do Bad Things, Good Weekend.” Sydney Morning Herald, July 21. Fairfax Media, Australia.

Pullen, A., Rhodes, C. and Thanem, T. 2017. Affective politics in gendered organizations: Affirmative notes on becoming-woman. Organization 2017, Vol. 24(1) 105–123.

Rhodes, C. 2018. “Sense-ational Organisation Theory! Practices of Democratic Scriptology.” Management Learning, Special Issue, Article, 1-14.


Christopher M. Conroy is a University of Technology Sydney PhD candidate and playwright who combines extensive public sector management experience, university research and teaching to foster the nascent value of arts for business through his plays Work. Life. Balance. (2020) and The Myth of Themanus – 21st Century Leadership in Action (2015).

Craig Batty is Professor of Creative Writing at the University of Technology Sydney, with a specific focus on screenwriting and creative practice research. He has published widely on screenwriting, script development, research methods and the creative doctorate. His latest books are Script Development: Critical Approaches, Creative Practices, International Perspectives (Palgrave, 2020) and The Doctoral Experience: Student Stories from the Arts and Humanities (Palgrave, 2019).

Noel Maloney teaches writing for screen and performance at La Trobe University and has written extensively for radio, television drama and theatre. He researches contemporary scriptwriting in Australia, focusing on script development, narrative genres and collaborative practices, including his 2020 publication in Script Development: Critical Approaches, Creative Practices, International Perspectives.

Carl Rhodes is Professor of Organization Studies and Deputy Dean at UTS Business School. His research investigates the politics of organisations and working life. His latest books are CEO Society: The Corporate Takeover of Everyday Life (Zed, 2018, with Peter Bloom) and Disturbing Business Ethics: Emmanuel Levinas and the Politics of Organization (Routledge, 2020).

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