Laurent Ledoux's blog

It is too soon to say of course. It is clear however that his worldwide appeal and victory are, at least partly, due to the image of integrity, of moderation and care he successfully projected during the campaign. This more than compensated for the apparent weaknesses and lack of substance in his campaign program. During France’s presidency of the European Union coinciding with the climax of the financial crisis, Sarkozy was also praised for having acted as a “strong” leader. Still, given what we know about his personal life and the way he talks and acts, few would be ready to qualify Sarkozy as “wise”. In the UK, Gordon Brown’s leadership image has widely fluctuated in function of recent events. Closer to home, in Belgium, many Banks CEO’s have been heavily criticized for their leadership (or lack of) while others, although they apparently made similar financial mistakes, succeeded in keeping the respect of their employees and of the citizens at large.

These few examples show how important it is to reflect today about leadership and more precisely about leadership ethics. We live in a world where leaders are often ethically or morally disappointing. Meticulous biographers sometimes diminish the image of great leaders by probing their ethical shortcomings. It’s difficult to have heroes in a world where every wart and wrinkle of a person’s life are public. Ironically, the increase in information that we have about leaders has increased the confusion over the ethics of leadership.

In this entry, I would like to set the scene by raising a few questions related to leadership and ethics. This will be an opportunity to praise two radically different but complementary books about ethics (Mark Strom’s “Arts of the wise leader” and Joseph Nye’s “The powers to lead” and to pay a tribute to one of the “wise leaders” of my life, Bill Tracy, a wonderful father and successful businessman and politician.

Leadership is not a person or a position. It is a complex relationship between people, based on trust, obligation, commitment, emotion, and a shared vision of the “good”. Ethics, as we have seen in more depth in another entry (see Should you develop your imagination to be ethical), is about how we position ourselves in an environment, how we pursue a particular art of living the “best possible life”, how we make decisions, how we distinguish between good and bad. “Ethics lie therefore at the heart of all human relationships and hence at the heart of the relationship between leaders and followers”, as Joanne Ciulla argues in a very interesting book, “Ethics, the heart of leadership” (part of what follows is directly inspired by her introduction to this book).

In this Ciulla follows James McGregor Burns, an American historian and presidential biographer who coined the term transformational leader in his book “Leadership” considered by some as the best one on the subject. Burns describes leadership as a relationship in which leaders and followers morally elevate each other. What does he mean with that? For Burns, the values of moral leadership are those of the Enlightment – liberty, equality, and community. This is of course a big-picture view of the ultimate ends of leadership. Most authors on leadership probably believe in these ideals, just as they would agree that leaders should be honest, fair and just. Nevertheless, in ethics, as with many other things, the devil is in the details.

This shows in the following questions:

  • Most people agree that coercion is not leadership, but what is coercion and what is a willing follower?
  • How do we draw the moral line between free will and subtle forms of manipulation, deception, and the pressure that group norms place on the individual?
  • If the leadership relationship is one that morally elevates both parties, from what to what does it have to elevate?
  • Who determines which moral values are better and what are the criteria for better values?
  • What if they incorrectly understand the common “good”?

Overall, one can investigate three very general facets of leadership ethics:

1. The ethics of the means:

  • What do leaders use to motivate followers to obtain their goals? In other words, how do leaders get people to do things (impress, organize, persuade, influence, and inspire) and how is decided what is to be done (forced obedience or voluntary consent, determined by the leader, and as a reflection of mutual purposes)? Are leaders more effective when they are nice to people, or are leaders more effective when they use certain techniques for structuring and ordering tasks? (for some reflections on how to motivate people see this blog’s entry How do you motivate staff in the public sector?).
  • What is the moral relationship between leaders and followers?

2. The ethics of the ends:

  • What is the ethical value of a leader’s accomplishments?
  • Did his/her actions serve the greatest good?
  • Who is and isn’t part of the greatest good?

3. The ethics of the person:

  • What are leaders’ personal ethics?
  • Are they motivated by self-interest or altruism?

These may all seem like obvious questions until you consider cases in which a leader is ethical in some of these areas but not others. For example, some leaders may be personally ethical but use unethical means to achieve ethical ends (remember Machiavel); other leaders may be personally unethical, but use ethical means to achieve ethical ends (Clinton?), etc.

This of course raises the question: Do leaders have to be ethical in all three areas to be ethical? Some might argue that the only thing that matters is what the leader accomplishes (consequentialist or utilitarist ethics; for more details see slide 9 on the following presentation, already introduced in this blog’s entry, titled Should you develop your imagination to be ethical). Others might argue that the means and ends are ethically important (kind of “ethics of responsibility”), but the personal morality of a leader (“virtue ethics”) is not.

Whatever the answers you provide to these questions, one can argue, together with Ciulla, that a greater understanding of ethics should improve our understanding of leadership. There are today in academic circles (as witnessed by Strom and Nye’s books reviewed below) big debates about the definition of leadership. But one can argue that these debates are really debates over what researchers think constitutes “good” leadership. The word “good” refers to both ethics and effectiveness. What is important to note is that these “academic” debates influence the “real” world: the definitions of leadership used in managerial books influence the image they form about their role and how they should act while “the witness of moral leadership” plays an important role, more and more recognized by researchers, in improving the standards of business and everyday life. The question of what constitutes a good leader lies at the heart of the public debate on leadership. We want our leaders to be good in both ways. It’s relatively easy to judge if they are effective, but more difficult to judge if they are ethical because, as mentioned here above, there are many factors and possible views which are relevant to making this kind of assessment.

Yet, given the central role of ethics in the practice of leadership, it is remarkable that there has been little in the way of sustained and systematic treatment of leadership ethics by scholars. As Ciulla argues: “The state of research on leadership ethics is similar to the state of business ethics 20 years ago. For the most part, the discussion of ethics in the leadership literature is fragmented; there is little reference to other works on the subject, and one gets the sense that most authors write as if they were starting from scratch. […] It’s hard to tell when researchers are not explicit about their ethical commitments. The point is that no matter how much empirical information we get from the ‘scientific’ study of leadership, it will always be inadequate if we neglect the moral implications. The reason why leadership scholarship has not progressed very far is that most of the research focuses on explaining leadership, not understanding it.”

During the Christmas holidays, I read two excellent and complementary books about leadership: “The powers to lead” by Joseph S. Nye, Jr. and “The Arts of the wise leader” by Mark Strom. They are very different but complementary books.

Crisp, compact and yet wide-ranging, “The powers to lead” provides a good mapping of the different styles of leadership and the various hard (ability to bully and bargain,…) and soft (emotional self-awareness and control,…) power skills that can be used and combined to lead “smartly” (understanding evolving environments and adjusting style to context and followers’ needs,…). It also provides criteria to help distinguish “good” from “bad” leaders, eg. Gandhi and Hitler. A leader is for him “someone who helps a group create and achieve shared goals”. So, for Nye, Hitler is a “bad” leader but a leader nevertheless (unlike McGregor Burns who would not consider Hitler to be a leader but a just a “mis-leader”, a tyrant).

Inspired and inspirational, “The Arts of the wise leader” (for more info see is at first glance more limited in scope. It focuses on what it takes to be a “wise” leader, in Strom’s words. Strom therefore tends to disregard “less positive” (eg. machiavellian or bullish) styles of leadership or the use of “hard” powers. He explicitly refuses to define leadership (“Wisdom is like love: it’s about engagement, not definition. So is leadership. Love has as many faces as the personalities of those who love, but we know it: we know it when we see love, when we experience it, and we feel when it is absent. […] It is a work of wisdom, common sense, intuition or a word from another that helps us distinguish love from its imitations. So is it easy to define love in all its manifestations? No. Is it necessary to define love in order to love? No. But ought we to love? Of course, and to love well. And nobody loves well from a dictionary or a recipe book. It’s the same with leadership. Definitions are not nearly as important as doing it well.”). One can nevertheless easily deduce from his book that the scope he gives to leadership is broader than Nye’s: he seems to consider a father can be a leader a leader for his son. That would probably not fit Nye’s definition.

In a future entry I will provide a more in-depth analysis of these two books but in the meantime, I would like to stress my belief that Strom’s book, despite some weaknesses and lack of rigorous definitions (unlike Nye’s), is a great help to “understand” leadership and to become “wise” leaders (which does not mean we should always lead – as Storm writes: “to lead wisely is to pay attention [among other things] to how a person comes to the fore in one context and gets behind someone else in another”)

Now, whatever the theories, a good way to help you make up your mind about such questions is to ask yourselves the following question: who has played the role of a “wise” leader or mentor in my life so far? Such questions, like many other suggested by Mark Strom in his book are kind of “spiritual” exercises. In these challenging times, these exercises give interesting new insights about leadership and more specifically about who you are and who has shaped you.

For me, answering this question has been an opportunity to pay, in my thoughts, a modest tribute to these wonderful people. Many of them probably don’t even imagine the importance their example has been in shaping my character and my view on the world (actually I even did not meet a few of them but what I read or heard about them has been so powerful for me I felt the need to include them in my “list”). The exercise of identifying who has been so far a “wise leader” in my life helped me to realize how lucky I have been to cross the path of so many interesting and challenging persons. In a previous entry to this blog, I already referred at length to a great mentor in my life, François Vassart (see What does it mean to ‘become’ human?). Future entries will probably also provide an opportunity to explain why others have played and still play such an important role as leader or mentor in my life.

In any case, among these “wise leaders”, one has a particular place in my heart: Bill Tracy, my American foster father who welcomed me some 25 years for a year, as an exchange student, in his wonderful family. Bill is for me a particularly “wise” leader because, in my eyes, he has been a model and mentor to many people, not only professionally and politically but also privately. Bill not only succeeded with his brother, cousins and sons to develop and diversify a large farm (which grows cotton, potatoes, almonds, pistachios, cattles,…), the Buttonwillow Land & Cattle Company. He also entered politics and became Deputy Secretary of California Agriculture (the 10th biggest agricultural “country” in the world if I am not mistaken). He also served as chairman of many national associations and environmental committees. Last but not least, he and his wife Susie succeeded in happily raising 4 children (2 from each previous marriages) and found even the time to welcome for a year a fifth teenager from an obscure little country, Belgium. I will never forget those wonderful evenings when Bill and I went jogging across the cotton fields around the house, under the rose and light-blue sky.

He generously shared with me his wisdom. One of his most memorable lines, which is common knowledge among farmers, is “Nature always fills a void”. A simple sentence but full of insights and that you can ponder on during a lifetime. Just like “Nature loves to hide”. Pierre Hadot (see my favorite thinkers) dedicated decades of his life studying this sentence and wrote a wonderful book about it, “Le voile d’Isis” (translated into English: “The veil of Isis”). Or “Nature is infinite in time and space”. Marcel Conche (see also my favorite thinkers) dedicated a big part of his life and works to explain what this sentence means to him and to other authors (as some of you know, I currently translate one of his books on this subject – I’m more than halfway through – very soon, I will publish on this blog some chapters for review).

Some of you might wonder from where comes this urge to pay tribute to so many people, in such a “discrete but public” way (this blog is indeed open for reading to all but unlikely to be regularly read by other people than friends or relatives). Here are possible answers to this question:

  1. This is not exactly new from me. From a fairly young age, I have felt the need to thank people for what they meant to me (I remember how often I thanked Bill & Susie Tracy for having as an exchange student while I was there). It is not only a question of making them feel good: it also makes me feel good. It often feels like my “body and soul” are filled with so much love and gratitude that it spills over 😉 It needs to get out of me. I guess it is an expression from my love for life which crystallizes this way. There are worse ways to do so, I guess ;-).
  2. There is nothing new about this way of expressing publicly gratitude. It is an old literary genre. I don’t remember if it is Plato or Aristotle who starts one of his major works by thanking a legion of people for all what they have taught him.
  3. In my early forties, I am at a time of my life when one usually makes a balance of his life so far and when, having received and absorbed so much is getting ready to give to others in return. That is an ideal moment to express gratitude. But it is also a good way to start reflecting upon those for whom I could play the role of leader or mentor. I’m not just talking about managing a team. I’m talking about “coaching” people, setting an example, supporting others to grow. As I will argue at more length in another entry discussing the works of Howard Gardner, this is a crucial role we kind of have forgotten in many of our restructuring, in pursuit of efficiency,… something we crucially need if we want to help young professionals to have the strength of character to behave ethically.

So, before detailing in another entry what Strom means by “wise leader”, what does it mean to you? Wherever you live, in the European Union or elsewhere in the world, who are the leaders (politicians, CEO’s,…) in your country or abroad you view as “wise” leaders? Is Obama (potentially) a “wise” leader?And, more personaliy, who are the “wise leaders” of your life? And, perhaps most importantly, for whom are you or do you want to be a “wise” leader?

With these hopefully stimulating questions, I wish you a very happy new year 2009!

Author :


  1. Should leaders *be* ethical?” Hmmm.

    When you suggest that good (i.e. ethical and effective) leaders need a greater understanding of ethics, and that “a greater understanding of ethics should improve our understanding of leadership,” I hope you’re focusing on the concept of ethics, rather than a prescriptive set of social agreements. You note that it’s difficult to judge if leaders are ethical because there is “confusion over what factors are relevant to making this kind of assessment.” If defining leadership is as difficult as defining love 🙂 Then trying to evaluate *whether* a leader is ethical is like evaluating whether someone is loving. It all depends on the eye of the beholder.

    I very much enjoy the idea of reflecting on the leaders of our own lives, as each of my own mentors have viewed ethical behavior differently. I think my *first* mentor was my now ex-sister-in-law. I’m much younger than my siblings, so my brother taught physical education at the junior high school I attended. During my 8th grade year, he fell in love with the 8th grade student counselor (Judy). She was my first feminist influence. She stated her opinions (which were crazy by small town standards) loudly and confidently. And she always found such humor in those who would condemn her.

    Thanks for the chance to share. I hope others will too.

    P.S. So what *do* you think about Obama?

  2. Jen,

    Thanks for your comments and sharing of your thoughts regarding your “wise” leaders.

    Of I’m focusing on the concept of ethics, rather than a “prescriptive set of social agreements” (that would be, in my eyes, to discuss the morality of a leader, according to a well-defined morality: christian morality, morality based on human rights,….). As I discuss at more length the slides attached in “Should you develop your imagination to be ethical”, there are many different ethics, that is a way of living the “good” life, even within the boundaries defined by a particular morality.

    So you’re right, it is particularly difficult to judge whether a leader is ethical or not and it is always quite subjective given the many ethical viewpoints you may adopt to do so. You’re right to write that it all depends on the eye of the beholder. And still, despite all the difficulties, I believe it is worthwhile, for a leader and for his followers or observers, to ask themselves if he/she is ethical: the final answer (yes/no) is always open to debate and not really important. What matters is to reflect upon it and to debate about it. That, by itself, may already help us, as leaders or followers, to be more ethical, whatever our viewpoint. To be ethical is before anything, in my eyes, to reflect about ethics, to contrast our views with those of others, to enrich our views by so doing and to try to adapt our behavior in function of these reflections.

    The fact, as you rightly write, that we may appreciate equally different “wise” leaders in our lives while they have very different ethics is another demonstration of this.

    Following your remark, pls note I have expanded Strom’s quote about love and leadership. I hope it will clarify what he meant.

    Regarding Obama, as I wrote, it is way too soon to say anything meaningful. I don’t know enough about him. Overall, I was not too impressed by the details of his program, especially regarding economics but he more than compensate this by the integrity he projects. So, yes, I give him full credit at this stage. He represents a big hope for a better world. He could become a great president, for the United States and for the world.
    He could also give back credibility to politics, to the idea that there are people capable of grabing the highest powers and use them for the sake of their followers and citizens rather than for themselves. Amid the current economic and financial turmoil, he represents a big shining star. And the fact that he is black makes all this symbolically even more beautiful. America is a great country for having elected such a man. That he greatly contributed to make this possible will probably remain as the best legacy of G. W. Bush.

    I really appreciate your regular comments. They make me think further about what I write. Thanks again.


  3. Hmmmm… my own personal pick on Obama: there are several indications that he is rather a Machiavellian type of leader:

    – Recorded “double-faced” positions from him on the Israel/Palestine issue + his confounding (infamous?) silence on the matter.
    – His appointment of former rival Hillary Clinton as Secretary of State (“better have your enemies next to you and working by your side than far away from you”).
    – His not 100 % transparent campaign funding.
    – His prudent management of the Blagojevich scandal.
    – His 63-unit-strong questionaire for selecting the members of his team (useable either to eliminate potential conflicts of interests or… potentially to blackmail and tie those who might be subject to such conflicts: “I keep silent over the issue but in return you know whom you have to serve…”).

    This does not make him any less of a potential hope given the ethical character of his ends, for what we know at least. And according to me, some Machiavellian character is even required for such a position as head of state – and especially at such a level.

    But I would not credit him with an angelic, naive character. Those who started by trying to dismiss him as “Obambi” were clearly wrong.

    Which I do not consider negative in that context. Sanctity is not a quality when it comes to politics.

    A naive politician is a dead politician – metaphorically or otherwise. Politics are a jungle, and in order to be efficient you must first know how to survive.

    Obama is maybe one of those rare leaders we hope to find Machiavellian 🙂

  4. Dear Jackieh,

    Thanks for your insightful comments. You’re spot on: I fully share your hope to find Obama “machiavellian enough” to “succeed”. I guess this is one of the messages of Nye’s book, an issue not enough adressed by Strom in my eyes (this is not a criticism: he can’t cover it all in one book…).
    I’ll take your remark as the starting point of the next entry, reviewing in detail Nye’s book.

    Thanks again for taking the time to comment.


  5. In thinking about additional qualitities of leadership, (and perhaps an approach that could serve as a lifeboat for Obama) I asked my friend (Bassey Eyo) about a leadership concept he teaches here at the university. Here is his response.

    I’m hoping it will be of interest,

    “Parentage of “Servant Leadership” belongs to Robert GreenLeaf. GreanLeaf’s idea of Servant Leadership is way of being (Ontological) and Metaphysical frame for leadership praxis. Servanthood is rooted in humility, in courage and authentic service to others over self interest. The Other-Orientation in servant leadership illumines the selfless, de-centered self eager to serve and dignify others and those we lead just like extraordinary servers in a restaurant, or dedicated nurses in the hospital, or profound professors like you measured by your commitment to students! This wisdom and people-centered service ethos with boundless energy stands in contrast to mechanical, ego-centric, selfish and power-centered worldview on Leadership which puts ego and power first, not people and meaning. ML King was a quintessential servant leader. Over the years I have come to frame for the students the idea of “Leadership as a Humanity” specifically as servanthood, as stewardship, as vision, as situational, as ethical praxis, as strategic, as holistic-relational, as co-extensive with followership, etc, etc and as rooted in rhetoric and communication. Here is the question: Do those we teach and lead become smarter, wiser, more confident, more authentic, more positive, more caring, more civil, and more commited to selfless service in organizations within our national context and global imperative? That is the question servanthood seeks to elevate.

    A good lead into Servanthood reading is “Leadership Jazz” by Max DePree.”

  6. You speak about ‘wise leaders’, but I think ‘wise followers’ are equally as important. I don’t know anyone who is a good leader in all circumstances. The follower has to decide who to follow and when.

    Leadership is like public speaking in a way. It is about the speaker, the audience and the subject. A wise leader in that sense needs to have a consistent approach to those 3 dimensions, and know what are the limits of his own leadership. I’ve been taught in some leadership classes that a group has often several leaders. One emotional leader that people will speak with when there is an emotional conflict in the group, another leader to define the purpose of the group, maybe another one to manage the day to day activities. Ethical leadership is one type of leadership among others. Mother Teresa, Barack Obama, my grand mother, Oprah Winfrey, the Queen of England, my boss, Woody Allen, are all leaders and I’m not sure they have necessary something in common. The question is then not so much ‘how to lead’, but ‘what do I want to / can I lead’… It is for me the first sign of wisdom, not trying to be the hero of every situation.

  7. Another thought on leadership is that the concept of “leader” seems to me often mixed up with other concepts that are akin to it but not identical with it, and I think the article highlights it well. A coach, a mentor, a manager, an inspiration can be all characterised as “leaders”, but does what they do really consist of “leadership”?

    I think the concept itself deserves some thinking about a definition.

    Is a leader someone who sets someone else’s (the follower’s) agenda? Someone who tells other people what they should do and what they shouldn’t? Soemone who enforces their own will on other people? Someone who “shows the way to go”, “walks the talk” and inspires others? Someone who convinces of his ideas and objectives? through their speech? through their example? through both? Someone who coerces? Someone who settles problems and conflicts? Someone who tells and/or decides what the law is? Someone who takes charge of what is to be done in a given context? Someone who develops someone else’s character? Someone who tells and shows someone else how to reach a specific objective? etc…

    The point is not about defining styles of leadership (as Nye or Strom attempt to do) or even forms/contexts of leadership (as Christophe does) but about defining what the very concept of “leadership” is exactly about.

    Jen, your input on Servant Leadership looks astoundingly Christian to me (“to lead is to serve”)…

  8. Jackieh,

    Yikes, I didn’t see a religious overlay. However, I haven’t finished reading the book my friend recommended, which apparently also addresses the issue of followership. But I’ll be on the look out for a Christian framing as I read.

    – Jen

  9. I would like to start by thank you for having the time to share with us your personal thought and analysis. I think that is thanks to people like you that helps the young’s like me to help to become wise leader.
    I’m very interesting to comment on what does it meant to you “wise leader”? Who are the “wise leader” of your life? And whom are you or do you want to be a “wise leader”?
    Certainly, I have less experience than you in life, a simple person, with high motivation and hope. Where my dreams are to help people, contribute in something meaningful in live.
    My Innate behaviors were shaped by private and professional past experience, shaped by my “ancestors where I had the opportunity to grow up in open-minded family where freedom where daily present. Before I used to consider as granted to have this freedom environment, something that we get used of it and that does not require to reflect on it. My philosophy changed tremendously when I had the opportunity to work in Saudi Arabia. This freedom does not involve the capacity to alter the course of neural causation by an act of pure mental determination; it simply means acting on your desires. Desires that could not be act in the same way that we are used to Europe for instance, but nevertheless the desires are more complex to understand in this particular region such as Saudi. Where my thought, emotional empathy, flexibility, beliefs, behaviors have changed forever. What make me to succeed in this wonderful experience is equally thought as Strom’s quote: “Is my love to help people, try to understand their difference and collaborate together.” It appears so simply, but is require enormous effort on yourselves. As Strom’s quotes “This loves could not be find in a dictionary or a recipe book”. It does require having strong conceptions of ourselves that are most important to us without losing your integrity and your identity. By doing so, I believe that everybody should cultivate an open mind in order to go and find some other more reliable grounds for either believing or disbelieving moral propositions. One of my favorite quote by Peter Carruthers argues:” …true belief has immense survival value for any organism, such as ourselves, much of whose behavior is caused by the interaction of beliefs and desires. For in general an organism’s projects will succeed if based upon beliefs that are true…Wholly false beliefs will not have survival value in the long run, and in evolutionary selection it is the long run that matters. What seems undeniable is that organism (of the sort that acts on beliefs) will survive, in general and in the long run if they base their actions on beliefs that are true, or at least close to the truth. So if any innate beliefs have arisen through natural selection, we should expect them to be at least approximately true…it is possible to imagine case where an innate false belief would be an aid to survival. For example, an innate belief in the magical properties of a particular plant, which in fact contains a powerful medicine, might prove very useful to those who live in the region where that plant flourishes. But such cases are rendered unlikely when one remembers that in order to have been selected through evolution, a belief would have to prove useful over a time-span that is extremely long in comparison to human history, and in a wide variety of different circumstances”.
    For me a “wise leader” is a person who beliefs that loves, sharing, cooperation, help and understanding without any negative judgment are the true beliefs and that will contribute on our positive evolution in the long run.
    Today, I had the opportunity to work in various Belgian’s companies as a young professional, what Laurent stated on point 3 : “That is an ideal moment to express gratitude. But it is also a good way to start reflecting upon those for whom I could play the role of leader or mentor. I’m not just talking about managing a team. I’m talking about “coaching” people, setting an example, supporting others to grow. As I will argue at more length in another entry discussing the works of Howard Gardner, this is a crucial role we kind of have forgotten in many of our restructuring, in pursuit of efficiency,… something we crucially need if we want to help young professionals to have the strength of character to behave ethically “ .
    Something that is missing today, unfortunately to often I hear, “I don’t have the time”.
    How we can built a better world, a better leader without taking the time to simply help others?
    – To answer in your question who are the “wise leader “of your life?
    I think that in each step of my live, somebody was there to put me in the right track in order to find my way. A “Wise leader” is not only one person, is about the whole context, the environment you are in and your personal desires that shape my motivations. Of course, I have much to learn from myself and from the others.

    [WORDPRESS HASHCASH] The poster sent us ‘1055386704 which is not a hashcash value.

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