Integrity Matters
September 29 , 2004

Don't stereotype group for one bad apple

Question: (E-141)

Dear Jim:

A 15-year-old recently told his father he couldn't imagine ever going into politics because he assumed every politician was dishonest. Then he asked this question: How can you become successful while being honest -- and without being taken advantage of?


When an energetic, intelligent and motivated teenager concludes that politics is so dirty he isn't attracted to it -- at all -- then those in positions to improve the image as well as the stature of public service need to take notice. Bad apples exist in all professions. This young person is presenting a narrow, naïve and often-inaccurate picture of leadership in our society.

He singles out politics, but he might have slammed any number of walks of life.

Consider the negative stereotypes of management consulting, the world of my own work for the past 25 years. My job is to build executive effectiveness through the diagnosis of leadership talent and the facilitation of team communication. Our organization works hard to do a good job, honorably, every time. However, one description of those who are "consultants" is that when you ask them what time it is, they will borrow your watch, tell you the time and walk away with your timepiece.

Terms like phony, fraud, con artist, sleaze, charlatan, hustler and deadbeat are too often the kindest phrases associated with those viewed more as parasites than as real contributors. So what is one to do to change perception of people who've become cynical about one or more roles in society?

For starters, tell the truth yourself. Do a good job, be a responsible and responsive citizen, on and off of the job. Take the time to affirm the profession you've chosen and share accounts about people in it who've done well by doing the right thing. Bragging about chiseling and beating the system provides further evidence to listeners that dishonesty is the preferred approach.

Fraudulent behavior is not what our world needs. There are good people in all walks of life, and our society -- public and private sectors alike -- need energetic, intelligent and motivated individuals to follow in their footsteps. Sometimes, a little naïveté is refreshing. One wise person suggested he'd rather "buy the Brooklyn Bridge than be remembered for having sold it," which probably means he'd rather be remembered for having been taken in by a sharp dealmaker than being classified as a self-serving manipulator. Me, too!

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