Integrity Matters
October 5, 2005

Loss of integrity begins with just a single step

Question: (E-185)

Dear Jim:

The great Chinese philosopher Confucius is quoted as saying, "A journey of a thousand miles begins with but a single step." What little things numb the consciences of young executives and lead them down to such colossal failures of integrity?


Stealing can begin with simply taking more than the agreed-upon time for lunch. Lying can be as easy as not fully alerting a potential customer to a product's weaknesses. Cheating may occur on a golf course or on the tennis court. Chatting with friends instead of attending to assigned duties is yet another violation of trust, a form of thievery. Tardiness at meetings, likewise, is a form of "stealing" time from others.

From this short list of "understandable and expected" so-called modern business behaviors, there is in some circles an easy transition to more serious violations of social and economic responsibility. Legitimate business lunches evolve into expensive galas for friends and family. These compromising executives feel the company really owes them - and why not share their good life with people they like? Lying to customers may roll over into asking for kickbacks from suppliers. Pretty soon, the busy and already compromised corporate executive will be less likely to see any harm in asking for loans from the company for personal use.

The power lunches, the extravagant parties, the luxury yachts, the elegant offices - all can become entitlements, unrelated to the productivity or the effectiveness of those engaged in leveraging the position for lifestyle perks and organizational impact. If many lower-level folks lose their jobs during tough times, that's just too bad.

Are business executives really this irresponsible? A few are. Read the headlines and then turn to the pages that list thousands of companies that are never discussed, never associated with fraud, greed or misappropriation of funds. Most leaders go to work to do a good job, each and every day. They are good stewards for their respective enterprises.

Addictions such as lying, cheating and stealing are habit-forming. Individuals' integrity can be measured in just how easily (and cheaply) they will compromise in order to win. When someone will cheat for a dollar or 10, how vicious might he or she become when the stakes reach into the thousands and millions? Along time ago, a wise teacher suggested that people who are good stewards over a small sum can be expected to wisely steward much larger amounts, with respect for the concerns of all stakeholders and never for self-serving gain.

Prudent stewards, including responsible executives, avoid the slippery slope because they know integrity matters. Learning early the pitfalls of greed can pay great dividends in lives well spent, organizations well served and societies improved.

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