How Will You Choose?

When Lance Armstrong realized that nearly every winning cyclist in major cycling was doping and that he would have to start doping to beat them, he started doping.

When Mark McGuire realized that scores of top home run hitters in the major leagues were doping and that he would have to dope to stay among the major league’s elite power hitters, he started doping.

Steve Cohen, one of the world’s most successful investors, has now had six current employees and six former employees indicted for insider trading.  Hedge fund managers by the score, including now-imprisoned billionaire Raj Rajaratnam, have been indicted and convicted of insider trading in the past few years.  Did they conclude that insider trading was the only way to “earn” outsized gains in the supercompetitive investment world?

It appears that there are places in the world where in order to get an oil concession from government officials or to receive government approval to build a facility, one must bribe those officials.  Numerous companies with publicly-stated commitments to integrity and corporate social responsibility, such as Wal-mart, have found themselves embroiled in Foreign Corrupt Practice Act investigations recently.

What are ethical people and well-meaning companies to do when they find themselves in an atmosphere of pervasive corruption?

I tell myself that, unlike my erstwhile hero Lance Armstrong, I would choose not to dope.  That is, of course, easy for me to say because I have never invested huge amounts of time and energy to put myself in a position to be competing for prestigious cycling championships.

I tell myself that I would choose not to dope in order to play baseball, but although I loved playing baseball, I was terrible.  Steroids would never have helped me enough to make me a decent player, so I never faced the temptation to use them.

I tell myself that I would choose not to engage in insider trading, but I can barely balance a checkbook and have not educated myself to pursue a career in finance.  How would I feel if, after several years of education and paying my dues in the industry, I finally had the opportunity to run my own hedge fund but learned that I could not honestly match the performance of most of my competitors who were cheating?

I tell myself that I would not pay bribes, but as a college professor I do not have bosses or shareholders to answer to if I do not hit profit targets.  What would I do if my career was on the line and I had a family to feed?

It is obviously easy for me to say what I would do (or not do).  In these cases, I will never know for sure.  But I am pretty confident that Armstrong’s former teammates such as Tyler Hamilton and Floyd Landis now wish they had made different choices.  I bet Lance himself wishes he had not doped.  I believe Mark McGuire and even Barry Bonds now wish they had chosen differently.  Raj Rajaratnam, scores of hedge fund managers who have been convicted of insider trading, and even many hedge fund managers who have cheated but not been caught likely wish they had acted differently.

How we frame our choices affects the decisions we make.  If we focus solely on whether we will win the bicycle race, hit more home runs, or have the hedge fund with the highest rate of return, we will make different choices than if we ask ourselves whether we are acting honorably and consistently with our own values.

Clayton Christensen of the Harvard Business School asks:  “How Will You Measure Your Life?”  The metrics by which we gauge our success should always prominently feature whether we have acted with honor and whether we have lived up to our own values.

 

Clayton Christensen’s How Will You Measure Your Life? (Harper Business 2012) is a quick yet insightful read.

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