Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Character, Values and the Price of Success

Knowledge will give you power, but character, respect. - Bruce Lee

Weakness of attitude becomes weakness of character. - Albert Einstein

No amount of technical administrative skill in laboring for the masses can make up for lack of nobility of personal character in developing relationships. - Stephen Covey

In the middle of a large deal, my team and I had the opportunity today to meet with one of the top lawyers in the mergers and acquisition space.  With only a few minor minefields left to navigate, we were told that this person would be one of the best people to represent us in bringing our “little baby” in for a soft landing.

As is always the case, I always perform significant due diligence before such meetings and I was cautioned by more than one person to be careful of a peculiarity that this person had and so I went to the meeting as prepared as I possibly could be.

Sure enough, part way through the meeting and in the middle of his song and dance about why he was the best person to represent us, he suddenly started speaking with a fake Australian accent, telling us about how his clients had lived in fear and terror in such deals until he came along and “saved the day”.

The accent threw me off and I thought perhaps he was having a stroke but then the moment I had been warned about materialized.  He reached into his bag and said “And when the other side brings a knife to the negotiating table, I say ‘That’s not a knife, this is a knife’” and he laid a large, Crocodile Dundee-like knife on the boardroom table.

No one said anything for a moment before I leaned over the table and said, “This is a friendly acquisition.  Why do I need you to bring a knife, even if only symbolically, to the table?”

“You missed my point”, he said, somewhat aloofly, “I help people to get over their fear by showing that I have their back.”

“Really?”, I asked, “Why do you think I should accept the insult that you believe we would be shaking in fear without you or that intimidation is the best way to complete a friendly business deal?”

He said nothing and then I picked up his knife and asked him, “Would you put this knife up to your throat and shave yourself with it?”

“Of course not”, he replied, “That would be crazy.”

I nodded and laid his knife on the table.  I had been warned of his presentation style and props and so I reached down into my bag and retrieved something specifically for the moment.

I laid my straight razor on the table beside his knife, its viciously sharp, unforgiving blade gleaming in the boardroom light. 

“I shaved with this blade this morning”, I said, “Now tell me why I should be afraid of whatever it is I’m supposed to be afraid of and how you are going to guide me past this fear.  And when you are done explaining that, I want you to tell us how intimidation trumps respectful dialog.”

I paused before continuing.  “My point’, I said, “Is that suggestions of fear or intimidation becoming part of our team and how we interact with others are not welcome here.  If you have anything else to offer, let’s continue otherwise the meeting is over.”

The meeting continued for an hour or so before we decided to take a break.

Everyone left the room except for one of his team who stayed behind.

As I caught up on my emails, she started some idle chatter about the need for the team to be at the airport before evening but as luck would have it, she was staying overnight.

I made a perfunctory response but she pressed the point, indicating that perhaps we could get together for dinner and drinks to smooth over any misunderstandings between myself and her boss.

I focused on my emails and she went for broke.

The offer, which I won’t get into here was direct and specific.  The only thing I didn’t know was whether I would be allowed to stay in her hotel room for the rest of the night or if I would be dismissed after “the smoothing of misunderstandings” process had been completed.  I also wasn't sure what complexity the wedding band on her finger would offer, if any.  It didn't seem to get in her way.

Plan B was in progress, given that the meeting itself was not going well.

I took out my phone, Googled some of the sex shops in the area and showed her the search results.

“Here’s what you need”, I said, directly, “The stuff they have in these stores is more in alignment with what you need.  They don’t have any character or values either – they just exist.”

She was very angry and said that she would take this up with her boss.

“Go ahead”, I replied, pointing to the device in the center of the conference room table, “You forgot that we are recording this session today.  I will play your offer to the team and invite you to explain it.”

She left the room without a sound but returned a few minutes later with “Crocodile Dundee”.

In the confrontation that ensued, it turned out that he wasn’t unhappy with what I said to her.  However, he was VERY unhappy with the fact that I had turned her down.

“I get it”, I said, feeling my blood pressure rising, “You’re both deal closers.  She closes the deal with me and then you close the larger deal for me.”

“Whatever it takes”, he replied.

I leaned in towards him, close enough to smell his cheap cologne.

“I don’t do whatever it takes”, I said, staring him in the eye, “I do whatever my values, ethics and character call me to do to deliver the best result possible for everyone around me.”

At the moment, the team began returning to the conference room.

I turned to the team and announced that we had decided that it was in our best interests to not work together and that he and his entourage would be returning to the airport ahead of schedule.

There were a few cries of surprise and as he left, he held out his hand.

“Sorry”, I replied, “I only shake the hand of people I respect.”

He left and I explained to the team what had happened, replaying the recording of both her offer and the lawyer’s subsequent challenge to me.

I wonder how many more out there are like him …

… or who don’t have the courage or the willpower to turn people like him away.

Meanwhile …. related and not ….

I had two interesting conversations with colleagues in the last week regarding similar subjects.

In one, a Government Minister whom I have the HIGHEST regard for in regards to character, values, ethics, Life purpose, service to others and other noble attributes, lamented that their results were being compromised because of the fine line they walk, where the balancing act of accomplishing great things for their constituents while towing the party line was difficult to manage, with the latter being complicated by the skullduggery, backstabbing and yes, adultery going on all around the Minister.

I challenged the Minister to live by their character and values (which far outshine the Minister’s colleagues).  I will be curious to see what happens next - courage requires small steps at first.  However, I was encouraged today when I received an SMS from the Minister, quoting Ruth Gordon:

Courage is very important  Like a muscle, it is strengthened by use.

In the other conversation, a friend of mine, a subject matter expert on guiding organizations through change and transition, suddenly found herself being talked around in a meeting otherwise attended by only men.  Even though SHE was the subject matter expert in the room, they talked around her as if she didn’t exist.

She reached out to me for advice on how to deal with such ignorance in the 21st century and this is what I told her.

“Go to a local adult store and buy the largest phallus you can find.  Bring it to the meeting but leave it put away.  If the same level of disrespect occurs and you can’t get yourself inserted into the conversation, take it out, place it on the table and express gratitude that you brought yours to the meeting also and thus deserve to be heard.”

“Or”, I continued, “buy the smallest one you can find, take it out during the meeting and make an observation that having presented the largest one in the room, you now have a right to speak and to be heard.”

After she expressed gratitude that I used comedy to give her the best laugh she had had all day, I replied that I wasn’t joking.

We must always take a stand against the ignorant and those who choose to limit the result of others who champion character, values, ethics, respect and higher standards.

We must do it directly and respectfully.

But we must do it.

The price we pay for not doing it is too high and grows every time we choose not to take a stand.

The Bottom Line

In thinking through my event today, I wonder how many people would have taken the lawyer’s assistant up on her less than generous offer, especially if they thought they could do it without anyone knowing about it.

I could have accomplished that easily and no one would have been the wiser.

But I would have known - how could I demand that others live to a higher standard if I chose to live to the contrary?.

And an Authority that judges me would have known.

I wonder how many people may have turned down the original offer but then succumbed to the pressure that her boss attempted to exert under the confident “whatever it takes” banner.

Success is a tempting mistress and human frailty has undermined many a good human being.

The point is that when people collaborate with us or represent us, their character becomes a projection of ours.  So when they sit before others at the boardroom table, no matter how much I try to live by a higher standard, the only thing the other people in the boardroom would remember me for would be this person’s character and values …. or lack thereof.

We are the company that we keep or whom we allow to speak on our behalf.

This lawyer’s projection on my behalf wouldn’t be acceptable to me.

Would it be acceptable to you that someone else would do “whatever it takes” in order to get something done?

Are you willing to literally do “whatever it takes”?

Are you willing to reap the harvest or pay the price for how you live your character and values (or how someone else represents them)?

Are you sure?

In service and servanthood,



I looked up her husband and discovered that he has a successful practice in Toronto.  I wonder what would happen if I sent him a copy of the recording of his wife "in action".  Would he be offended, hurt or would he respond with a "So?  What's your point?"?

The young lady was also potentially setting herself up.  What if I had agreed to the rendezvous just to use her and then turn down their offer to represent us?  What if I was a nut who caught her by surprise and hurt her?

Then there's the possibility that if I had succumbed to such an offer, a recording of the event could have placed me (or them) in a professionally compromising position.

And finally, what if we had agreed to team up with this bunch of miscreants and the same tactics were used with the people we were negotiating with, potentially costing me a sale, a friendship or both?

The sad reality is that they likely had enough previous experience with some sense of success to believe that this was going to be a successful option today.   What does this say about the people they collaborated with in the past?

So many possibilities, all of them wrong, but the possibilities having been created with the first terrible choice.

Coal miners often had a canary in the mines with them and if the canary died, it would be a warning that the air was unsafe and so they had to evacuate immediately.  As a colleague said to me today, events such as this one are a "canary in the coal mine" in regards to how society is evolving (or devolving).

What do you think?


  1. You write very well. I was impressed on how you articulated the issues of software development in the article: Software–Complex Solutions to Simple Problems.

    This article is interesting in that it speaks to your beliefs and biases. You seem trustworthy; however, I have concerns that this trust only extends to those you feel deserve your respect -- everyone else is admonished, threatened, and insulted.

    I'm unsure why you believe your behaviour was better than the lawyers? The lawyer didn't intend to insult you, but you didn't recognize this. Why did you need to express any self-rightiousness at all? Why did you not simply bid your farewells when you recognized the lawyer wasn't up to your standards? What where you trying to prove?

    Character, values, ethics, respect and higher standards are all personal, cultural, and religious matters that are very subjective. Society isn't falling apart, it's always been this way; it just has more media exposure now (I debate whether this is good for us).

    I don't agree with the lawyers behaviour. I'm also not sure if I could trust that you have the compassion to accept peoples differences.

    There is always consequence to our actions; and I believe it's the best, and only teacher. The consequence to the lawyer was that he lost your business. The consequence to your behaviour is that he may (unjustifiably) slander your character, or maybe simply adjust his business negotiation tactics.

    I'd suggest just walking away next time with a simple "thanks for coming, we'll let you know if we're interested"; however, the choice is always yours.

    Please continue to eloquently express your opinions...without impositions :-)

    1. Thanks for your kind words and for taking the time to respond, John.

      As for this piece speaking to my biases, we are all a collection of biases. If what I or you do doesn't speak to our biases, we could be accused of being broken or inhuman. :-)

      I don't admonish, threaten or insult others. However, when I am insulted or intimidated, I choose at that moment how to deal with the situation. Sometimes I defuse, sometimes I deflect and sometimes a stronger action is required. As a human being with the same flaws and weaknesses of other human beings, I make the best choices I can at the moment based on the circumstances, the context and such.

      I do NOT accept people who are willing to hurt others for their own personal gain. What this lawyer was offering created that potential - deliberately. I made a choice to not accept it and to express my opinion strongly.

      Curiously, your point that my behavior appears to be judgemental of the lawyer becomes a self-referential point in that you judge me in turn. I made a choice to stand up against immoral and unethical behavior. I would do the same if confronted with it again. People who are allowed to continue their behavior believe that their behavior is "not that bad".

      As for the subjectivity of character, values, ethics, respect and higher standards, I agree 100% with you. However, the offer for me to sleep with a woman in order to close a deal crosses the lines of most people - myself included. Some things extend beyond subjective analysis or personal perspective.

      As for compassion (or lack of) to accept people's differences, you are making this observation with little data or context for my day-to-day routine, in service to the people I work with, in service to my family and in service to those who need a hand-up, whether they be the homeless, the disenfranchised, the battered or those who believe they have no voice. I would caution you against making such judgement in absence of this data. Private email me and I would be happy to give you some context - a public description would be seen as bragging by some.

      As for the lawyer, he won't slander my character. I have the evidence that would destroy his practice. As for adjusting his behavior, perhaps if more of us stood up to people like him, he would be forced to CORRECT his behavior and not just adjust it!

      I appreciate this interaction, John. I always welcome differences of opinion when delivered respectfully (which you did).

      The ability to experience respectful discourse is important. :-)

      Create a great day, John.


    2. I do have a follow-on question for you, John.

      What do you stand up for and what are you willing to do to stand up for it? :-)