The Price of Integrity

By: Mark Marxer

Where has professionalism, integrity, and common decency gone, in today’s egocentric society? How do these values, or lack thereof, continue to drive the evolution of our culture?

As I approach my 28th year in business, I’ve reflected on how much I have observed in the last 40 years. The last 12 years, in particular, have been filled with enough head shaking moments to fill the pages of several books. I have made a career out of building businesses around high integrity people who have developed unique skill sets. I believe that being a person of integrity is not easy, is seldom popular, and is a rare, but admirable, attribute these days. I think highly of people who are willing to put aside personal gain or those who are willing to make an unpopular decision for the sake of doing what is right for the collective. As hard as we all might strive to attain this virtue, I myself have had my fair share of failures that have left a few scars along my journey, but more often than not, I have learned more from my failures then my successes.

“Integrity is the ability to accept one’s past choices and actions and go forth and act in accordance with ones deepest values from within.” – Lynne Namka

I came from a very modest and humble background, raised by a single mom. My father left my mother, my sister, and me when I was 13, and from that point on we endured purely on survival skills and perseverance, as well as a healthy dose of government cheese and food stamps. I worked every weekend from the age of 13, and during school breaks and summers. I put myself through college and vowed to make better decisions than I had watched my father make. Years later, I learned that my father had challenged and litigated his own father’s will after his passing. Against his late father’s and other family members’ wishes, he somehow pulled it off and became a multi-millionaire, while his estranged family struggled to even put food on the table. I have now witnessed that same estranged father become a victim of his own circumstance, having been preyed upon by others that have committed elder abuse and bilked him out of everything he has while he suffers from late stage dementia. Trying to now right the wrongs of the situation has engulfed me in a legal battle that will cost an untold sum, simply to provide him one of our most basic human rights: to be properly cared for.

Over the years I have witnessed many events and troubling actions within my profession and society as a whole that have negatively impacted our economy, culture and value systems. Events like Black Monday, the Asian crisis, the dot-com bubble, and the tragedy of 9/11 (up close and personal) which was a generational life changer for all of us on multiple levels. Bernie Madoff and the years of wreckage that has followed, observed multiple businesses and Ponzi schemes and unethical behaviors that have crumbled companies and ruined lives. I was front and center during global financial meltdown of 2008 working for Citigroup in New York and personally watched the decisions that were being made and the very real impacts that followed. Ultimately, what drove many of those events, outside of the tragedy of 9/11, were related to excess and greed; a series of events compiled, and small decisions became big compromises over time that caused various disruptions and crises.

Personally, I’ve seen friends destroy friendships to promote themselves, elevate their social status, or subsidize their own agendas. I have seen families fall apart over misplaced anger, blame, and twisted dysfunction. I have seen groups of parents ban together with their own initiatives and damage relationships with fellow parents who are coaches, friends, and community leaders; all due to misguided arrogance, ignorance, and selfishness. I have watched coaches and leaders of athletic programs or clubs destroy their programs as they continue to promote their own political alliances and self-interests; crushing the dreams and enthusiasm of the kids who are there to learn the sport they love. In these instances when I was too close to the fire, I had to step back and look in as an observer; I would try to understand why the people on the other side were acting in such a way. What is the core of what motivated and drove them? Were they predisposed to this behavior? Are they still working through their scars of failure and feelings of being “wronged” from their own pasts? Did they fully understood the damage they were doing to their own relationships, friendships, and children by putting their personal agenda ahead of what is really best in each situation? In some instances I could see it coming, others it took me a tremendous amount of time to understand their perspective, however in each case I would try to look for a more healthy or constructive way to handle the situation that would help to unite people rather than divide.

“May I stress the need for courageous, intelligent and dedicated leadership…leaders of sound integrity. Leaders not in love with publicity. But in love with justice. Leaders not in love with money, but in love with humanity. Leaders who can subject their particular egos to the greatness of the cause.” – Martin Luther King Jr.

Professionally, I have watched business associates who have worked alongside each other for years turn on each other, partnerships, and agreements, all to benefit self-interests. I have seen professionals throw their long-time business partners under the bus, in order to advance their own agenda and cultures that have enabled massive dysfunction. Despite having agreements in place, I have watched businesses with substantial means bully, lie, and manipulate situations to get their way. This all starts with small compromises that string together, eventually creating lapses in judgement which have long term consequences. Buzz words and bad excuses of our generation like “errors in judgment” and “everyone else was doing it” dominate the news about our leaders and idols. I recently watched a business competitor take complete credit in the press for something that was not all theirs to take in collaboration with mutual partners, in the process destroying others credibility. Every time I have seen these types of events unfolding, I have watched to see how the decisions made have affected both the present and future and kept a detailed cognitive log of outcomes. Because of this, I have striven to strictly adhere to my core value system, calculating outcomes and avoiding being pulled into the “grey area/slippery slope” that we seem to revel in as a society. I am to this day, continually dumbfounded by the selfish and unprofessional actions I see people take and the means they use to justify them. Why is it, that in today’s society, we find it so hard to do the right thing? We’re talking about the professional thing, the decent thing, and not just what we might be contractually obligated to do; if we are honest with ourselves, the right thing is what we would want others to do if roles were reversed. Why is the concept of high integrity perceived as coming with such a high price?

What exactly is the ultimate price of integrity? It certainly seems like there is a disproportionate group of people who lack it and are rewarded for it, and yet it can take years, decades, or even longer to uncover it. Many of us have faced, or will face, choices over the course of our careers that require us to choose between our integrity and our ambitions. How do we make the right choice and live with the implications of our decisions without bitterness, regret and fallout? In almost every reference mentioned above, there has been a price paid. The question is, what is the ultimate price? Who has paid it, and what did they gain? A lack of or compromise in integrity may lead to short term success, money, or an advance in one’s own agenda or cause. Short term successes and prosperity based on unethical compromises, fleeting by the standards of ultimate time, can leave a wake of collapsed promises, friendships, businesses, and relationships that ultimately end in tragic fashion. Making high integrity decisions and sticking to one’s value system can be unpopular, can hurt short term and can cause some discomfort at times. It also has the potential to cost one business opportunities, money, friends, even reputation or future business partners who don’t respect your same beliefs or value system. Despite the many obstacles I’ve encountered, I have survived, persevered, and at times thrived by endeavoring to do the right thing at the right time. By striving to stay away from that slippery slope of compromise, I have learned much along the way about the value of integrity.

What can we do to offset the potential repercussions of a society that creates a double standard of integrity at this extremely high cost? We can strengthen our ability to make the right choice by using our previous experiences and knowledge, and anticipating high stake situations in advance in order to understand what is motivating and driving both people and the situation. We then will be able to recognize these unhealthy situations as they begin to unfold; we can take a step back use our experience and see the significance of possible choices and outcomes. Once a decision has been made, we can view the choice and outcome through the lens of time and map out how things could play out. We can imagine then our eulogies by those who know the truth. We can make a concerted effort to stay away from that slippery slope, have the proper perspective, and perhaps step up and do the right thing (sometimes the unpopular thing) even when the situation could go against you. It might come with a price, but in the long run, integrity truly pays off. Even though it is seldom the quick or easy solution, and despite my failures, I have never regretted a situation where I have handled a problem, opportunity or relationship at any level with integrity.

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