By Dennis Lowery
One of my authors called me to ask my thoughts on a topic.
A former Assistant Secretary of the Navy and a former CEO of a multi-billion dollar global company listed on the New York Stock Exchange; his book focuses on corporate ethics and integrity; core values that acknowledge the responsibility CEOs have as stewards and leaders of companies. And how young executives can have that set of values and still grow to become CEOs and senior executives.
He’d been invited to speak at a college on the subject of his book and asked me this, “I believe that for many of these students, they’ve already formed the way they view life—if they don’t have basic honesty as part of who they are… how will anything I say have meaning to them?”
It's a good question—one that I’ve given a lot of thought to and written on in articles and books on leadership and business. I answered Tom with this:
Not everyone understands honesty… but everyone understands punishment.
I believe when a person is in their late teens/early 20s, they are hard-wired by then to either have a core of honesty and integrity that centers them throughout their life—or they don’t. For those that don’t—it’s a void in their character and absent a significant life-changing event—it remains the same for their entire life.
And what rushes to fill this void? All the baser instincts and venal desires that when manifested seem to represent “success” in our society (the type the media feeds on and regurgitates to the public). Celebrity without talent, wealth without earning it (inflated CEO salaries and perks are witness to this) and hypocrisy (many of our political leaders are stellar examples).
So after a certain age, and certainly after the hardening of several years’ experience—if you aren’t honest, deep in your heart and in your dealings with others… “you probably aren’t ever going to be.”
So there it is.
We have those that are ethical and have a code of conduct that guides them and you have the amoral.
Is there any connection between the two other than that one despises the other… and that the other smirks at their naïveté? Is there anything that both understands and acknowledges the power of?
Everyone understands punishment: the consequences and repercussions of our actions.
Honest/ethical people see the “black & white” of this. The others see a “grey” area where they play the odds on their actions not backfiring on them or getting caught.
No one is more remorseful than a politician or CEO caught doing something wrong. Most are a model of contrition… once they’re caught. They find or go back to Jesus... seeking forgiveness. Until then their arrogance knows no bounds (and one wonders if afterwards it merely becomes and remains better hidden).
So what to do when talking with young people who you may still may be able to influence? Or you’re talking to those who have “grey area” thinking or are predisposed to be swayed by the dark side.
Talk about consequences. Talk about punishment.
Even talk about the greater good done for our society when leaders do have a moral center (a real one—not one larded with hypocrisy and created solely for political expediency). Just don’t expect that to resonate with them.
Punishment will make them think.
In a sense, the grandest thieves, liars and cheats are bullies that feel superior to the system—the rules are for the others not them.
The way to deal with bullies is to hit them hard as you can—no blinking—no hesitating. Step up, pivot your feet, rotate your hips into the punch, rotate your fist at the wrist and aim to punch through the point of impact. A clout to the face can be an eye-opener for them (and an eye-closer, in point of fact). A real “put the fear into them” event. Especially to those who’ve never been hit like that before.
Pain clarifies your thinking. It makes you assess.
I don’t know you can convince adults to be honest—they either are or aren’t.
I do know you can affect their decision making by giving them pause to think about what happens after their actions and decisions… maybe not immediately, but tomorrow, next week… maybe even next year or years down the road. Force them to recognize the universal truth that ultimately "what goes around comes around”. Who wants to live looking over their shoulder—waiting for the other shoe to drop? Plant the seed that is no way to live.
Jean-Paul Sartre (1905—1980) once said, “Everything is figured out, except how to live.”
And maybe that is the cautionary tale—the point to make when talking to young people about life. We each have to figure out how to live our life; everything we do, every step we take and decision we make incrementally builds the life we live.
From the Bible we have this piece of wisdom, “We reap what we sow.”
Let's bring that thought forward in time. Perhaps we should go to a classic line from Paul McCartney and make a slight change from, ‘And in the end, the love you get is equal to the love you give'... to this:
And in the end, the life you get is equal to the life you make.