Character Is Destiny

If you don’t stand for something, you’ll fall for anything.

MBA Jungle magazine checked into the ethics of 445 business students and published the results in the December 3, 2001 issue of USA Today newspaper. The results were not encouraging.

13% of the MBA students said they would pay someone off to help close a business deal. 26% would let a gift sway a company purchasing decision. 50% would reveal corporate secrets to a spouse or family member. And a whopping 52% of them would buy stock based on inside information from a friend.

On top of all the other crises in our lives, I believe we have an ethics crisis on our hands. Of course, that’s not too surprising. For several years we’ve come to expect and even accept the fact that many of our political leaders lie.

Are we at the point where we should just expect our business leaders to lie as well? I hope not!

Unfortunately, it seems like there are a lot of people who will cheat to get ahead. They’ve just got to have more and more. They take Mae West’s approach to life. Mae said, “Too much of a good thing is wonderful.”

Is it really? At some point in life you must ask yourself a critical question. IS SUCCESS MORE IMPORTANT THAN HAPPINESS, OR IS HAPPINESS THE REAL MEASURE OF SUCCESS? You’re much more likely to have ethical problems if “success” is your ultimate goal. You’re more likely to “bend the rules” to get ahead.

On the other hand, if happiness is more important to you, you’re less likely to have ethical problems. After all, you can’t be happy if you attain your success in an unethical way. As David Adkins, better known as the actor Sinbad, says, “My mother and father taught me everything: integrity, honesty, being responsible. My father told me you can’t be great at anything unless you accept responsibility.”

I also learned the connection between happiness and ethics a long time ago. As a child I stole a few small items from a store where I was trusted to help out in various ways. The items might have retailed for only two or three dollars, but for thirty years that incident kept coming back to mind. I would rationalize that “It was no big deal.” I told myself that I should just forget it. But I couldn’t. It was taking away some of my happiness.

I couldn’t forget it until I wrote a letter to that store and made amends some thirty years later. I confessed my transgression and included more than enough money to pay for the items I had taken. And instantly I received an extra measure of peace and happiness.

All of us have to decide two things in life. We have to decide what we want, and we have to decide if it’s right.

DECIDING WHAT YOU WANT could be as simple as tossing a coin. Literally tossing a coin. It works. As Danish poet and mathematician Piet Hein said, “While the coin is in the air, you suddenly know what you’re hoping.”

DECIDING IF IT’S RIGHT is a matter of asking yourself some questions. If you can answer “yes” to the following questions, you’re probably making an ethical decision.

Ask yourself the legal question. IS YOUR PROPOSED ACTION LEGAL? All of us are pretty good at rationalizing, and so everything we do makes “sense” to us. But the question is, is it legally “sensible?” If what you are about to do is not legal, it’s probably not ethical either. As an old timer said, “Forbidden fruits create many jams.”

Ask yourself the consistency question. IS YOUR DECISION CONSISTENT WITH YOUR CORE VALUES AND RELIGIOUS BELIEFS? You can’t profess one set of beliefs and live another way and expect to have happiness or peace of mind. You can’t be like the hypocrite who complains about all the sex, nudity, and violence — on his VCR.

On the other hand, your values and beliefs could change a bit with age and circumstances. That’s okay, as long as your values and beliefs are right and honorable, and your actions are aligned with them. As Ram Dass wrote about Ghandi, “My understanding of truth can change from day to day. And my commitment must be to truth rather than to consistency.”

Ask yourself the advice question. ARE YOU WILLING TO GET THE ADVICE OF RESPECTED COLLEAGUES, FRIENDS, AND FAMILY MEMBERS CONCERNING YOUR DECISION? If you don’t want to get their input, chances are you’re hiding something. You don’t want them to say “stop” when you want to “go” forward.

On the other hand, seeking their advice not only makes for better decisions, it also makes for better ethics. Dr. Norman Vincent Peale, the author of The Power Of Positive Thinking, said, “An inflow of new thoughts can remake you regardless of every difficulty you may now face, and I repeat — every difficulty.”

Ask yourself the honesty question. ARE YOU BEING COMPLETELY OPEN AND HONEST WITH YOURSELF AND OTHERS ABOUT YOUR ACTION? You can’t be like the fellow who spent a fruitless day fishing and went to the fish market. He picked out three large fish and told the fishmonger, “Before you wrap them, toss them to me, one by one. That way I’ll be able to tell people I caught them, and I’ll be telling the truth.”

Ask yourself the publicity question. WOULD YOU FEEL COMFORTABLE HAVING OTHER PEOPLE KNOW ABOUT YOUR RATIONALE, DECISION, AND BEHAVIOR? If those things were broadcast on TV or printed on the front page of the newspaper, would that be okay with you? Or would you prefer to have these things kept in private? The more you want to hide your rationale, decision, and behavior, the less ethical they’re likely to be. As author Thomas B. MacCaulay wrote, “The measure of a man’s real character is what he would do if he knew he would never be found out.”

Ask yourself the approval question. WILL YOUR ACTION AND YOUR RATIONALE RECEIVE THE MORAL SUPPORT OF THOSE YOU RESPECT? Do those respected people see you as cutting some moral corners? Or do they see you as “right on” morally and ethically. Or as American patriot and revolutionary Thomas Paine said, “Moderation in temper is always a virtue, but moderation in principle is always a vice.” And American humorist Mark Twain said, “Always do what is right. It will gratify most of the people and astound the rest.”

Receiving the support of others isn’t the same thing as having people agree with you. It doesn’t mean people think your action is wise. After all, some things just don’t work even though you have the best of intentions. It just means they think your action and rationale are ethically okay.

Finally, ask yourself the benefit question. IF OTHER PEOPLE DID THE SAME THING YOU PLAN TO DO, WOULD IT BE GOOD FOR SOCIETY AS A WHOLE? Is your decision fair and respectful to all people involved? If your choice tends to benefit you and you alone, while it hurts others, it may not be ethical.

Life has become very complex. Most of your decisions involve lots of alternatives, and knowing what is right may not always be immediately evident. Ask yourself these questions before you decide some of the more challenging issues. They will help you make the right choices.

The motivational company, Successories, says it quite well. “The content of your character is your choice. Day by day, what you choose, what you think, and what you do is who you become. Your integrity is your destiny.”

Action:  Place each of the ethics questions on a 3″x5″ note card. The next time you are struggling with a decision you need to make and wondering if your choice is ethical, go through each of the questions, card by card. Answer the questions for yourself. If you get “yes” answers, you’re probably making an ethical choice and/or decision.