Real integrity is doing the right thing when everyone IS watching
It is de rigueur in the theoretical world of business schools for integrity to be defined as doing the right thing when no one is watching. That is all well and good, but in the real world – especially in politics – true integrity is doing the right thing when everyone IS watching. And, that is more difficult and rare than one might think.
No concept is more parsed, proposed and abused than the idea of “doing the right thing.” Every motivational speech, management book and business class recommends building the foundation of success on this concept. Yet there are few examples of leaders in business and almost none in politics practicing the concept in real life. This may frustrate a lot of us, but we have to recognize that the politico’s definition of “doing the right thing” is different from what we think it is. In politics especially, leaders may espouse “doing the right thing,” but the phrase is little more than a code for doing the right things to get re-elected. And we have no one but ourselves to blame for this attitude.
It Makes a Difference Whose Ox is Being Gored
Most of us would generally say that “doing the right thing” is when a leader takes actions that benefit the whole, even though it may be to their own detriment. If you believe that most leaders – especially politicians – will really live by the philosophy of doing the right thing then you will also believe “the check is in the mail.”
It is not totally fair to blame the politicians for their failure to do the right thing, because most of the culpability for this hypocrisy should rightly fall on us. The truth be told, most individuals don’t really want political leaders to do what is best for the whole, but what is best for them, for their ox. It is a mentality that says: It is the right thing to reduce spending and balance the budget—just so long as I don’t have to pay higher taxes or lose any of the government benefits I receive. Cartoon pundit and philosopher Pogo would have said, “The leaders come from us and they are like us.” The unfortunate reality is that those political leaders who do attempt to do the right thing to benefit the whole are punished by the whole.
Here’s an example. Everyone understands the axiom that in business, family and government, the right thing to do is to be fiscally sound and live within your means. The right thing to do is to have the resources to pay for what you want and buy. In that context, everyone knows (or should) that the current system of entitlements such as Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security are not fiscally sound and the right thing to do is make changes to correct the problem that, if left unattended, could literally bankrupt the country.
This means that the right thing is to either restructure these programs, reduce future benefits, increase taxes – or do all three. We all know that would be the right thing, but how can we expect our leaders to do the right thing, if when they attempt to do so we chastise them out of office?
A few weeks ago I wrote about Paul Ryan (R-Wisconsin) standing up and proposing a budget plan that fundamentally changed the structure of Medicare. The objective was to reduce the costs of the program in order to help balance the budget and begin to reduce the national debt. This effort to do the right thing created an instant firestorm of vitriolic criticism from virtually every segment of society. Not only did the Democrats – including President Obama – skewer Ryan in the petard of doing the right thing, but so too did many of his constituents, virtually every special-interest senior group, the media and even members of his own party.
This is but one example of a multitude that could be offered to demonstrate the negative reaction heaped upon political leaders who step forward and propose doing the right thing. It makes no difference – be it a Republican or Democratic – a leader who proposes actions that are truly the right thing to do is likely embracing political suicide.
Probably the classic example of this dynamic revolves around taxes. Other than accountants, like Diogenes trying to find an honest man, it is difficult, if not impossible to find any reasonably knowledgeable (even someone who is unreasonable and ignorant) person who will not agree that the current tax system is complicated, unbalanced, unfair and ineffective; and that the right thing to do would be to change it. Yet, when proposals are offered by political leaders to do just that, they are met with almost universal recrimination, disdain and contempt.
In 1992, Jerry Brown, then (and current) governor of California, ran for the Democratic nomination for president making tax reform (flat tax) the pillar of his campaign. For this, he was viciously attacked and condemned by the Republicans. Four years later when Steve Forbes was running for the Republican nomination, he also proposed a similar flat tax reform and was roundly criticized by the Democrats. There may have been other reasons that Brown and Forbes failed in their quest to be president, but proposing to do the right thing by reforming a broken tax system certainly contributed to their loss.
And the Moral of the Story …
It is clear by the message we send to our political leaders that doing the right thing is not the right thing to do. It is all well and good to debate the tactics of doing the right thing, but when a political leader is rebuked simply for proposing that the right thing be done, how can we expect our leaders to do the right thing?
We can preach and posture about finding leaders who have the backbone to do the right thing, but until and unless we are willing to do the right thing by supporting such leaders we will continue to be represented by leaders who – like us – are not really willing to do the right thing.