Milgram And The Moral Fiber Of Leadership

Four year ago (7 November 2007), I wrote a blog called The Milgram Experiment And Enterprise Architecture, which discussed lessons from this experiment in terms of the awesome responsibility that we all have, but especially people in leadership positions, to do the “right thing.
Today, I sat with my mouth agape seeing the Milgram Experiments repeated 50 years later in a study for television, conducted by the Discovery Channel, where they asked “How Evil Are We?”
I watched one participant after another administer what they believed where painful shocks to a another person with a heart condition screaming and begging for the experiment to stop.
Of 11 people, only one women stepped up, stood up, and refused to participate, saying that she could not harm another human being.
All the rest, continued to administer what they thought were painful shocks to an unwilling screaming participant having heart pain, simply by being prodded by a man in a lab coat at the back of the room saying “the experiment requires you to continue” and “it’s absolutely essential you continue.”
To the viewers horror, the participants continue to to push the lever to shock the other person at an even higher voltage!
When they ask the people afterwards who administered the shock, who would’ve been responsible if the person receiving the shock had a heart attack and died? one lady immediately turns around and points to the other man in the lab coat.
Like in the evil Nazi death camps, “authority remains a decisive force” and people will do horrible acts saying they were “just following orders.”
In the Discovery program, when they add a second person to the experiment who stops the shocking and refuses to go on, only then does the other person refuse as well. 
So aside from the lesson that we must always safeguard our own moral compass and do the right thing even in the face of others prodding us to do things that are immoral, unethical, or illegal, we can also learn that by speaking up when we see something wrong, we can indeed influence others to do what’s right as well, and in essence “lead by example”.
My hope and prayer is that all of us can overcome negative impacts of nature and nurture to see with clarity when something is not right and have the courage to stand up and say and do something about it.
Like the sole participant who refused to administer the shocks and said that she couldn’t go home at night and look herself in the mirror if she did these bad things, we too can live our lives so that when we go home to our maker, we can look at our lives with our consciences clear and at peace, and perhaps even having made a real and lasting difference in this world.

>The Milgram Experiment and Enterprise Architecture

>Milgram experiment—“a seminal series of social psychology experiments conducted by Yale University psychologist Stanley Milgram, which measured the willingness of study participants to obey an authority figure who instructed them to perform acts that conflicted with their personal conscience.” (Adapted from Wikipedia)

The experiment:
In the experiment, participants were told they were engaged in a study of memory and learning and were paid $4.50 an hour. Participants, as “teachers,” were put in charge of a “generator [that] has 30 switches in 15 volt increments, each is labeled with a voltage ranging from 15 up to 450 volts. Each switch also has a rating, ranging from ‘slight shock’ to ‘danger: severe shock.’ The final two switches are labeled ‘XXX.’ The ‘teacher’ automatically is supposed to increase the shock each time the ‘learner’ misses a word in the list. Although the ‘teacher’ thought that he/she was administering shocks to the ‘learner’, the ‘learner’ is actually a student or an actor who is never actually harmed…At times, the worried ‘teachers’ questioned the experimenter, asking who was responsible for any harmful effects resulting from shocking the learner at such a high level. Upon receiving the answer that the experimenter assumed full responsibility, teachers seemed to accept the response and continue shocking…Ultimately 65% of all of the ‘teachers’ punished the ‘learners’ to the maximum 450 volts. No subject stopped before reaching 300 volts!….Milgram’s obedience experiment was replicated by other researchers. The experiments spanned a 25-year period from 1961 to 1985 and have been repeated in Australia, South Africa and in several European countries. In one study conducted in Germany, over 85% of the subjects administered a lethal electric shock to the learner.” (

The studies’ conclusion:
Stark authority was pitted against the subjects’ [participants’] strongest moral imperatives against hurting others, and, with the subjects’ [participants’] ears ringing with the screams of the victims, authority won more often than not.” (The Perils of Obedience by Stanley Milgram)

The study was seen as validating how the Nazi’s “followed” their leaders’ orders to commit unbelievable atrocities against humanity.

What can User-centric EA learn from these shocking studies (no pun intended)?

  1. Leaders have a tremendous responsibility to lead—the Milgram studies demonstrated that people actually follow leaders, even to commit acts against their personal conscience. Therefore, leaders have an imperative to lead with wisdom and rectitude. Leaders need to be held to a higher-level of integrity and accountability to match the authority that they yield. Leaders should serve as examples for others. Enterprise architects, as organization leaders and change agents, need to lead not only with conviction, but with integrity to really do their best on behalf of the organization and stakeholders they serve.
  2. Target architecture needs to be “righteous”—enterprise architects need to ensure that the targets they establish for the organization lead not only to the organization climbing the proverbial ladder of success, but also that the ladder is up against the “right” wall. Why? Because, once the target and plan is established, and the troops rally behind it, they will move out. So, enterprise architects need to be confident that the targets they establish with leadership and subject matter experts are going to take the organization where it really needs to go. That’s an awesome responsibility!