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When Smart People Do Dumb Things

April 6, 2011

When Smart People Do Dumb Things

In Arizona, where I live, we have new controversy that could have a significant economic impact on the state. It revolves around the former leadership of the Fiesta Bowl. Incredible amounts of corruption, self-dealing, fiscal mismanagement, and sleazy entertainment practices have been uncovered, including illegal gifts to prominent politicians in the state. The ripple effects are wide and deep, including the firing of the Fiesta Bowl’s CEO and other top executives. Several well-known state legislative leaders have rushed to write checks to pay for the perks they gladly accepted over the years. The Fiesta Bowl board of directors, which includes a “who’s who” of local business and political leaders, has been severely criticized for lax oversight, abdicating their fiduicary responsibilities, and not insisting on thorough financial audits. One is quoted as saying it was a “helluva party” and that “everyone had a good time.” Now reality has struck.

Leaders of the Bowl Championship Series, of which the Fiesta Bowl is a member, threatened punitive action, even possibly terminating the relationship. However they backed down after it was revealed that some members of the BCS leadership team engaged in similar practices.

These are just two examples of smart people, who earn a lot of money, getting caught with their hands in the cookie jar and illegally trying to buy influence. It seems every week there is a new headline about someone somewhere doing something similar. Why do they do it? Why do they breach their integrity and take such risks? And the risks are not just to their own integrity and careers, but to local economies and communities that are hurt in the process. Do they feel above everyone else? Do they feel invulnerable? Are they driven by greed and power and willing to compromise their principles or standards? Or have they long ago, and perhaps over time, compromised their values? Did they do it because they thought they could get away with it . . . and that made it okay?

This pattern of smart and successful people acting unethically and selfishly at the expense of others continually repeats itself. Remember Enron? The huge corruption issues surfaced in 2002 but had been going on for many years. Enron’s 1998 Annual Report trumpeted the following values, which were to guide how they conducted their business:

RESPECT: We treat others as we would like to be treated ourselves.  We do not tolerate abusive or disrespectful treatment. Ruthlessness, callousness, and arrogance don’t belong here.

INTEGRITY: We work with customers and prospects openly, honestly and sincerely. When we say we will do something, we will do it; when we say we cannot or will not do something, we won’t do it.

COMMUNICATION: We have an obligation to communicate. Here, we take the time to talk with one another…and to listen. We believe that information is meant to move and that information moves people.

EXCELLENCE: We are satisfied with nothing less than the very best in everything we do. We will continue to raise the bar for everyone. The great fun here will be for all of us to discover just how good we can really be.

These values are similar to those of many companies and nonprofits. However if they are not lived every day and factored into decision making, they are just words on paper. They are just window dressing, especially when top management does not model them or feel they apply to their exalted status.  This is when otherwise smart people who present themselves as exemplary citizens, businesspersons, or public servants fall from grace. And we look at them with incredulity and ask, “How could they have been so foolish?”

There is a lesson in this for all of us. When we think we might be above it all or won’t get caught, we especially need to re-connect with our core values and truly live them. Our integrity depends on it. The values we teach our children should be the ones we demonstrate in our own lives  as well.

J.C. Watts, who represented Oklahoma in Congress for four terms said, “Character is doing the right thing when nobody’s looking.  There are too many people who think that the only thing that’s right is to get by, and the only thing that’s wrong is to get caught.”

The smartest thing is to do the right thing.

Steve Weitzenkorn

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