What the Magna Carta Could Teach Corporate Leaders

Thursday, June 4th, 2015

This month marks the 800th anniversary of the signing of the Magna Carta, a document that provided rule-of-law protection for the people. Lord Dening, a 20th Century British jurist, called it “the greatest constitutional document of all time, the foundation of the freedom of the individual against the arbitrary authority of the despot.”

(On the New Year’s Eve of 2013, the United States Archives put an original copy of the Emancipation Proclamation signed by President Lincoln on display on January 1, 1863. As visitors entered the hall, they first passed one of only four remaining original copies of the Magna Carta. It is almost impossible for me to describe the experience of standing in line between those two important documents.)

Daniel Hannan, writing in The Wall Street Journal (5/30/15) said, “The bishops and barons who had brought King John to the negotiating table understood that rights required an enforcement mechanism. The potency of a charter is not in its parchment but in the authority of its interpretation.” Hannan mentions other lofty documents, such as the constitution of the U.S.S.R. that also promise rights such as free speech. “But, as Soviet citizens learned, paper rights are worthless in the absence of mechanisms to hold rules to account.”

That got me thinking about corporate vision and values statements. They often promise so many wonderful things – attention to diversity and inclusion, trust, teamwork, and so forth – but that’s where it often ends. The organizations might live by some of these values when it is convenient, or until conditions change. (Do you remember Enron, the company that became a poster child for corporate malfeasance? Run a Google search on “Enron’s values” and you will find one of the most inspiring set of values statements you could ever hope to read.) Here is a taste of what they wrote:

Respect – We treat others as we would like to be treated.

Integrity – We work with customers and prospects openly, honestly, and sincerely.

I have never seen a serious enforcement component to well-meaning values statements. (Here is where I would love to be proven wrong. Please comment if you know of organizations that back their stated values with “rule of law.”)

If you are thinking of creating a new set of values statements (or are a consultant who is going to help a client take on that task), don’t get swept up in the moment of creation. Talking about the possibility of bringing lofty ideals to life can be heady. And that’s great. But consider demanding that equal attention be paid to enforcement. Remind yourselves of the Magna Carta.