Published: September 5, 2008

By Jim Lichtman
Read More

“Abramoff Sentenced to 4 Years in Prison for Corruption”
“Two Brokers Accused of Securities Fraud”
“Former KBR Executive Pleads Guilty to Bribery”
“Detroit Mayor Pleads Guilty, Resigns”

All four of these stories appeared in yesterday’s (Sept. 4) Washington Post and New York Times.

Whenever we read stories like these, it’s hard to avoid becoming cynical.  And whenever stories like these come out, I hear the same comments: “See, they’re all corrupt!”  “Their only interest is self-interest.”  “Everybody does it!”

The problem with that kind of thinking is that it unfairly tars people within a group who do good, honest work with the brush of those who act dishonestly simply because they are part of the same group.  Worse still, it lowers the ethical bar for all of us. “If everyone is doing it,” the reasoning goes, “then it’s okay if I lie or cheat just a little bit.  After all, there are others doing far worse.”

Cynicism destroys any hope for virtue because it plays to the worst we can be instead of the best.

When we hear stories about “me-first” corporate CEOs that steal millions, we’re angered because of all the good workers that go unrewarded.  When we watch a political leader or lobbyist being marched away in handcuffs for fraud and corruption, we’re incensed when they are released and have to wait months or years for the wheels of justice to finally catch up to them.  (We’ve had to wait two years to finally see lobbyist Jack Abramoff sentenced.)

Cynics will tell me that I’m unrealistic, too idealistic.  “Wake up, Jim!  You’re living in a fantasy world.”

In fact, the president of a large retail company came up to me after a talk and said the following:

“Sitting out there listening to you, I was wondering — is this guy living in the real world?  Does he have any clue about the competitive pressures we face?

“Then I thought, what if I caught one of my own people fudging the numbers, deceiving me about our business in order to meet a goal?  That’s when I realized how important my example and the example set forth by my managers is to our long-term success.”

This guy gets it.  He realizes that his actions and those of his managers are watched and carefully analyzed by others within the organization, and that, ultimately, it is their example that others will follow.

What kind of example do you want to set for your co-workers, your friends and your family?



Leave a Comment