Ethics & Molasses—a Story Safari™

What does ethics have to do with molasses?

Nothing—that’s what I always thought. Until I found the story of the Great Boston Molasses Flood of 1919.

ethics
Boston Post, Public Domain,

Yes, that’s a real thing that happened—back when people stored molasses in giant tanks on the tops of buildings. Tank springs a leak, molasses rushes out—more than 2 million gallons of it—traveling at speeds up to 35 miles an hour. More than 20 people died, along with countless horses. Can you imagine?

I found that story while doing some completely unrelated reading one day. And it just so happened that one of my clients had asked me to find a regional tie for his speech near Boston. A speech about ethics.

What does molasses have to do with ethics? I dug a little deeper into the story and found that people had noticed brown stuff oozing from between the slats of the storage tank. Did the owners investigate? No. But they did take action—they painted the tanks brown to match.

Many people have written or talked about the Molasses Flood. Some of the people in my client’s audience may have even heard of it before. But I doubt they’d ever used it to discuss ethics.

A fresh perspective on ethics

That’s what a Story Safari™ can do for you. Once you learn this technique, you’ll be able to write about any subject—even concepts your audience has read or heard dozens of times before—and bring a fresh perspective to it. A memorable perspective.

Here’s my client’s perspective:

I know this is a fine program you’re participating in, but I have to tell you that I chuckled a little when I saw the title of the program: “Managing Ethics in Organizations.” The word “managing” implies planning and control. And while that certainly is the ideal to which we all aspire, in my experience—and I don’t think I’m alone here—an Ethics Officer’s best-laid plans can be derailed at a moment’s notice.

Let me illustrate that point by offering you a bit of local history. It happened in the early years of the 20th century—and although companies didn’t have Ethics & Compliance officers back then, I think you’ll notice some parallels to the kinds of work we do today.

In January 1919, the North End of Boston was hit by a devastating flood. More than 20 people died and hundreds were injured. The flood caused several buildings to collapse and knocked an elevated train right off its tracks.

You might be thinking, “That’s tragic. But it sounds like standard flood damage.” And you’re right. But this wasn’t a standard flood. It was a flood of molasses.

Now, usually we think of molasses as a slow-moving substance. But when a 2.3 million-gallon holding tank burst that day, it sent the sticky syrup cascading through the city streets at 35 miles an hour. In a wave that some reports said was up to 40 feet high.

Who could imagine that such a thing would happen? It had never happened before (and, thank goodness, it’s never happened since). But it happened once, and that was costly enough.

Could this tragedy have been prevented? The exact cause of the failure was never determined, but it may be that shoddy construction was to blame—the tank apparently leaked from the outset, a fact the company attempted to hide by painting it brown.

It seems to me that the Great Molasses Flood of 1919 is the perfect analogy for our jobs today. Whatever company we work for, whatever industry or profession we work in, we Ethics & Compliance Officers are charged with finding out if there are any leaky tanks in our organizations and fixing them before they cause serious damage.

You might not be writing about ethics, or anything particularly business-related. But chances are, you’re not the first person—or the only person—who has something to say about your idea or issue. Make your words memorable, and get your audiences engaged, by taking them on a Story Safari.™


Join me for a one-day adventure in finding and using stories, this Saturday—March 17th. Register here.


Also published on Medium.