Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Ethics and the Courage To Do What’s Right

On Friday night, I happened to watch Courageous, a powerful movie from the makers of Fireproof about the idea that “honor begins at home”.  I highly recommend the movie although I will warn viewers, even big tough men like myself, that a box of Kleenex will come in handy in a couple of places.

After the movie was finished, I reflected on the importance of honor and ethics in my professional career.  Many times over the years, I had to choose between doing the right thing (potentially impacting myself and my family in a significant, negative way) versus turning a blind eye to a situation in order to “play it safe”.

At one client on Wall St, a household-name in the banking industry, a number of “star players” inside the Bank had been running a significant pornography operation on Bank servers (unbeknownst to senior Bank officers).  So the same infrastructure that ran online banking for customers also provided pornography services to other clients.

When I stumbled upon this, it seemed to me that the obvious thing to do was to point this out and have it shut down.  However, I was immediately cautioned against this by Bank staff, suggesting that since these guys were “the stars” of the organization, the Bank would punish whistleblowers in an effort to cover up the situation while allowing the whistleblowers to go about their business.

So the message was:

It doesn’t matter what you believe is right. Shut up and suck it up like everyone else and everything will be ok for everyone.  If you speak up, the only person who will be punished is you.

It was a time when I couldn’t really afford to be without work and so for a moment, I was stymied as to what to do.  If I did what I knew was right, I risked losing it all and putting my family in financial trouble.

If I chose to do nothing, income would continue to flow but I knew that I would carry an ever-growing burden that I was doing something against my own beliefs.

In the end, my belief in doing the right thing overpowered my fear that I would fall into catastrophic financial disaster and I blew the whistle on these guys.  I stepped out in faith, believing that ultimately good things happen to good people.

The right people heard the message, did the right thing, the pornography sites were shut down, the “stars” were dismissed and I was thanked profusely for having done the right thing.

It also produced many years of abundance, when oftentimes the tie breaker between myself and other candidates competing for the same business was my high level of personal ethics and my courage to do the right thing in difficult times.

As I reflected on this event and other experiences over the years, both my own and those of my colleagues, I realize that the structural tension of “doing the right thing” today is more difficult than ever.

We have many competing pressures in today’s world, not the least of which is taking care of ourselves and our families in challenging times. 

Meanwhile, the professional world is filled with people who use various of intimidation, including reminding people of potential financial or reputational impact if they insist on following their ethics to do “the right thing”.

But as I think back to many situations where I was called to make difficult decisions based on my own ethics and suffered through endless sleepless nights agonizing about “should I do this or should I not”, I realize a few important things.

While the transition through such times was difficult, the long-term rewards were far greater than the short-term “carrot” of keeping the pay check coming in or avoiding a bully who threatened to slam my reputation in an effort to force my compliance to his / her agenda.

Equally important, doing the right thing allows me to stand proud, knowing I did the right thing when many people admitted that they would have “sucked it up” just to keep a pay check coming in, even if they felt guilty about doing it.  I was true to myself, a principle that brings great personal peace to one’s Life.

Thirdly, there were many people who supported my decisions – I was never alone.  Neither are you.

Finally, there are many who look to us for guidance and inspiration.  Our actions not only impact our Life but the lives of many who see us as a model to be emulated …. so we should choose wisely.

Maybe doing the right thing here and there doesn’t mean much to some people.

However, over a lifetime, little things here and there add up to a lot.

It forms the basis for how we will be remembered long after we are gone.

And clients who engage with me know what the rules are before we engage.  I am flexible in every aspect of negotiation and execution except when it comes to my ethics, morals and values.

I’m not perfect by a long shot and have made my share of mistakes.

However, when my end-of-days has arrived, I will have done my best to say that I lived a life with no regrets and I will face my judgement knowing that I did the best I could with what I had.

Are you willing to stand up for what you believe in or are you one of those people who constantly brings the tension home to your family or to your friends at the coffee shop, constantly expressing frustration over a situation while doing nothing about it …..

…. as the structural tension between knowing the right thing and doing the right thing slowly tears you (and potentially others) apart.

In difficult times, it is important to remember that you are never alone nor are you the first person to experience what you are experiencing.  Many people have lived through what you are experiencing and are thriving as a result of the experience.

And knowing this, remember also that the world is waiting for more people to do the right thing, based on a higher level of ethics, morals and values.

The question is …. what are you waiting for?

In service and servanthood,


PS  I wouldn’t be half the person I am had it not been for great mentors in my Life.  I was thinking about a great mentor of mine, Richard Giordanella, whom I last saw 5 years ago just before he died of cancer.  He was a huge proponent of living by a strong code of ethics.  I share a blog entry here that I wrote about him a few years ago.


  1. It is integrity and the knowledge of one's own personal values, then living by these values, which create a life worth living.
    Thanks for sharing another fantastic article, Harry.

  2. Thank you for your kind words, Patti! You are a great example of a strong ethics-driven person. :-)

    Create a great day!