How the West Point Cadet Honor Code applies to your business
”God grant that men of principle shall be out principal men.”
– Thomas Jefferson
Few of us would doubt the wisdom of “will not lie, cheat or steal”, the core of many of the values we learned as children. One of the other things we learned as children, though, was, “don’t be a tattletale.” Be loyal to your friends, don’t snitch on them, and don’t go running to mommy when you observe a small infraction of the rules. It doesn’t help that we’ve seen countless movies since then where a snitch ends up on the wrong side of the grass.
Thus, the controversial phrase, “or tolerate those who do.” You might consider that this is related to the subject of “conduct unbecoming,” which we discussed last time, as the high standard of conduct expected from military officers and gentlemen. In many ways, however, “conduct unbecoming” is an easier standard to meet because it focuses on conduct that you can control … your own! It’s an even higher expectation that you will refuse to tolerate such behavior in others.
What does this mean exactly? Does it mean we’re obligated to report every single infraction we observe regardless of the consequences, to others or us … and how does that square with our childhood belief that “telling on our friends” is the worst of all sins?
Stealing is a recognizable offense, and bears few excuses or apologies. When someone steals our bicycle and we see him or her do it, we don’t hesitate to report them to whatever authority is in power. But, what do we do if we “heard” that Johnny stole our friend’s bicycle? Is that enough to report it, even though there’s absolutely no corroboration of the story? What if we’re pretty sure it was Johnny because we know he’s grabbed other kids’ bikes in the past? Do we report it then? What about if Susie says she thought she saw Johnny with the bike? Is that enough? How much do we “tolerate” before it’s time to cough up our story?
While reporting thievery can get a bit messy, what about instances of cheating and lying (which is the area where the scattered West Point cadet scandals have occurred over its more than 200 year history?) I imagine all of us have witnessed a fellow student cheating on an exam, whether he had an answer written on his hand, or she had tucked a small piece of notepaper somewhere and glanced at it occasionally. I also imagine that most of the time, we didn’t report it, figuring it was his loss not ours, and it wasn’t our place to report him. Likewise we’ve probably sat still while a friend of ours told a lie, comforting ourselves with the notion that he wasn’t really lying, just “stretching the truth” slightly, or telling a “white lie”, or maybe leaving out part of the story because no one asked. We’re often willing to call it a meaningless or insignificant “fib”.
These days, there are countless examples of misfortune, arising from both the failures of those who tolerated inappropriate behavior, as well as from those who have faced the firing squad from other truth-tellers. Scott Thompson, now the former CEO of Yahoo, was recently ousted after admitting to an erroneous academic record, uncovered and revealed by an activist investor. More recently, the chairman of Best Buy, Richard Schulze, resigned after an internal investigation revealed that he knew about a former CEO’s improper relationship with an employee but did not report the affair to the board of directors, a sanction visited upon not only the founder but upon the man who was CEO for almost 40 years.
The notion of the West Point credo is to avoid the double standard of justice, where the rules apply to one person and not the other. It is an effort to establish a very high standard of ethical behavior that accepts no less from others than is demanded from us. In spirit, it reflects the kind of values we are all proud to uphold, in others, and ourselves but it does pluck the strings of our childhood dilemmas about being a tattletale.
Where do these issues fall in the pantheon of values and behaviors that your organization demands? What do you expect of others when they observe inappropriate or unethical behavior? Should it be tolerated? Do you simply hope they will take action or have you made your expectations clear to everyone?
Perhaps this is a good time to consider your standpoint on such issues. You can be sure someone is watching.
Lary Kirchenbauer, President of Exkalibur Advisors, is an Experienced Executive Coach, Educator, Author & Public Speaker. Lary works closely with senior executives and their middle market businesses at the intersection of leadership, finance and business strategy. “Like” Building a Business on Facebook and benefit from his exclusive newsletter, or visit the Exkalibur web site at www.Exkalibur.com, where you will also find a library of valuable resources.
Copyright © 1988–2013 North Bay Business Journal
View the policy for linking to website content.