This blog post has been adapted from Dr. John Maxwell’s personal leadership resource, Ethics 101: What Every Leader Needs to Know. John Maxwell has been one of the world’s foremost leadership and personal growth experts for more than 40 years, and this guidebook for leadership development contains invaluable insights. You can pick up a copy here.
During the 2002 season, Coach Mike Slaughter of Alton, Illinois’ Marquette High School had what he called a “once in a lifetime team.”
Their record was 10-0, and they were on track to earn the school’s first state championship. Slaughter was living out every coach’s dream. But then one night, sixteen of his players—all starters—were arrested for underage drinking at a party. And the group included Slaughter’s own son. The coach had always told his players that if they got in trouble with alcohol, tobacco, or drugs, he would suspend them from the team. So he had a decision to make.
He suspended the players.
“It boils down to accountability,” explained Slaughter. “They broke the rules.” And he told his son, whom he picked up from the sheriff’s office, “Son, all I can tell you is you messed up. I’ll always love you, but you need to learn from this.”
The suspended players did learn, and when the big game came, they suited up and sat on the bench to encourage their teammates. And did the second-and third-string players step up and win the big game for their ethical coach and go on to capture the state championship? No. Marquette lost 63-0. But Slaughter has no regrets about his decision. In years past, he had received calls telling him someone he knew had been killed while driving drunk. He knows he made the right decision and says, “It’s strange that we get this much publicity for doing what we consider the right thing.”
Values Above All
Doing the right thing does get a lot of attention these days. Why is that? Because, quite frankly, it’s news. There are lots of things that entice people to cross an ethical line. And most often, it’s one of these five things:
In our fast-paced culture, just about everyone feels some kind of pressure. And with pressure comes the temptation to cut corners or bend the truth. Corporate executives feel pressure to increase stock value. Salespeople feel pressure to make more sales. Students feel pressure to get higher grades. No one escapes pressure. So the question is: How are you going to deal with it? As you face pressure, beware of how you might be tempted to compromise your values, and ask yourself some tough questions:
- Am I going to make rash emotional decisions?
- Am I going to compromise the truth?
- Am I going to take shortcuts?
- Am I going to keep my commitments?
- Am I going to bow to others’ opinions?
- Am I going to make promises I can’t keep?
For decades, people in America were encouraged by the words “If it feels good, do it.” But that attitude has left us with a terrible legacy: runaway debt and bankruptcy, divorce, and drug addiction. The desire for pleasure can be a terrible master. The fact is that the pleasures most of us pursue are short-lived and leave us unfulfilled. The things that tempt us rarely deliver on what they promise.
What is the answer to the lure of pleasure? The first is to run from temptation. In Following the Equator, Mark Twain observed, “There are several good precautions against temptation, but the surest is cowardice.” If you know you are especially susceptible to a pleasure that would tempt you to cross an ethical line, put yourself out of harm’s way. When you see it coming, cross to the other side of the street. The best way to avoid temptation is to prevent it.
The next key is to develop discipline. In Reasons to Be Glad, author Richard Foster writes, “The disciplined person is the person who can do what needs to be done when it needs to be done.”
Many of the recent scandals in American business have developed because executives abused the power of their positions. They began to think that the assets of the publicly traded companies they led could be treated as their personal property. Unfortunately, for many people, having power is like drinking salt water. The more you drink, the thirstier you get. The founding fathers of our country recognized this and created a government with three branches so there would be checks and balances on power. For, as U.S. President John Adams said, “No man is wise enough or good enough to be trusted with unlimited power.”
Power is like a mighty river. As long as it keeps its course, it is a useful thing of beauty. But when it floods its banks, it brings great destruction. How does one keep power in its banks? Take the advice of U.S. President Harry Truman. He recommended, “If a man can accept a situation in a place of power with the thought that it’s only temporary, he comes out all right. But when he thinks he is the cause of the power, that can be his ruination.” Anyone who realizes that he’s guarding his power too much had better start examining himself for breaches of ethics.
Having a sense of worth because of who you are is a good thing. So is having confidence in what you can do. However, having an exaggerated sense of self-worth can be highly destructive.
Nineteenth-century writer and art critic John Ruskin asserted, “Pride is at the bottom of all great mistakes.” What is it about pride that is so negative? Professor, writer, and Christian apologist C. S. Lewis offered a perspective on pride with great insight. He believed that pride leads to every other vice. He remarked,
Each person’s pride is in competition with everyone else’s pride. It is because I wanted to be the big noise at the party that I am so annoyed at someone else being the big noise… Now what you want to get clear is that Pride is essentially competitive, is competitive by its very nature, while the other vices are competitive only, so to speak, by accident. Pride gets no pleasure out of having something, only out of having more of it than the next man.
Pride is not an easy thing to conquer, yet we should work to overcome pride. Not only does it have the potential to undermine our ethics, it can also interfere with our performance. Peggy Noonan quotes a nineteenth-century German diplomat who said that while it may be tough to trick an honest man, it’s easy to fool someone who thinks himself clever. Pride can blind you—to your own faults, to other people’s needs, and to ethical pitfalls that lie in your path.
Jim Collins, the author of Built to Last and Good to Great, has done extensive research into what makes companies highly successful. When he was asked what his research indicated about the importance of ethics in building a successful company, Collins replied, “Our research points to one essential element in any successful company. Those that are the best have built a set of core values and lived by them.”
The same is true for individuals. Any time a person doesn’t know what his priorities are, he can find himself in trouble because he is liable to make poor decisions. German poet and novelist Johann Wolfgang von Goethe advised, “Things that matter most must never be at the mercy of things that matter least.”
What are your priorities? In fifty or a hundred years what are you doing now that will still be important? The house you live in, the car you drive, the vacation you took, and the bonus you made won’t mean much. What really matters? If you haven’t defined your values, I encourage you to do so. Then work hard to keep the unimportant from becoming important, and the important from becoming unimportant.
What are you doing today to develop your core values?
Step 1: surround yourself with others who are just as committed to personal growth and development as you are. The Maxwell Leadership Certified Team is a community of leaders, influencers, and high-achievers who are developing daily and empowering others to do the same. Click here to discover who the Maxwell Leadership Certified Team can help you become.