“Once you start down the dark path, forever it will dominate your destiny.”
That quote from Yoda in The Empire Strikes Back has two meanings. The first, and clear, meaning is that once you start justifying bad acts “for the greater good,” when will you stop? As time goes on, you will justify more and more questionable acts. The ongoing risk-reward calculus blinds you and normalizes bad behavior. The second, and subtler, meaning is once you have a reputation for heinous deeds, it will follow you. No matter how many “good” deeds you do, a single “bad” deed will be remembered. It damages the trust others have in you. People will expect you to behave unethically, and will act accordingly.
What can you derive from this? Ethics. Matter.
The popular news is filled with examples. How do you feel about Volkswagon right now? The $2.8B in penalties and resignation of executives is the least of their trouble. How about Uber? Issues with the company’s culture and ethics have leaked out, forcing change. Turing Pharmaceuticals and the behavior of its former CEO? My guess is that no one in business is claiming to be that guy’s friend. These are just recent examples. There are many, many more.
The root of many intentional and unintentional lapses is the pressure to perform. Do it faster, cheaper, or with fewer resources – make more money. These values can become such a part of a company’s culture that individuals are strongly incentivized to short term gain. It’s false economy.
Unimpeachable conduct has its benefits. An article in Bloomberg suggests that ethical companies are stronger and last longer. The Wall Street Journal suggests that companies perceived as ethical don’t reap premium prices, but that companies that are perceived as unethical are forced to sell at a steep discount. Forbes points out it is easier to be ethical than unethical.
The message should be clear. It is best to not only avoid impropriety, but the appearance of impropriety. Reputations are hard earned and easily lost. Ethical lapses can have both civil and criminal consequences. Winning at all costs is not winning, it is just the slow and inexorable deterioration of your professional integrity.
Today’s message is to encourage you to really think about ethical behavior and implement in your daily dealings. Company culture starts with every individual. Lead by example. Don’t wake up one day in a black mask with a breathing problem, and wonder “How did I get here?” Instead, be honest and ethical until it is just second-nature.
Yoda: “Once you start down the dark path, forever will it dominate your destiny, consume you it will, as it did Obi-Wan’s apprentice.”
Luke: “Vader… is the dark side stronger?”
Yoda: “No, no, no. Quicker, easier, more seductive.”
(Disclosure: I work for Microsoft Corporation. Microsoft has a clear, and unambiguous, statement about business conduct. It has yearly training for all employees to reinforce that company culture. As a manager and mentor, I’m a passionate supporter of these policies.)