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Last year I spoke to you on Patriotism, the Belief in a Dream. I tried to relate this subject to the commitment one feels to employees, suppliers, and customers from the day they first start their business until it is molded into success, and beyond. I termed Patriotism as a love for and devotion to the success of the business. During the journey of building and running a business there are numerous challenges that test the meddle of the many individuals involved. The foundation of this business must be built on a bedrock of integrity or these challenges will destroy it overnight.
But what is integrity and how can you get it ? Webster’s dictionary defines the word as soundness of and adherence to moral principal and character going further to say that it is a state of being whole, entire, or undiminished, in perfect condition. It is not hereditary. It is more about breeding than birth. It is a “second nature” developed through education, experience, and choice. One needs to pay more attention to virtues like honesty, integrity, responsibility, respectfulness, and fairness to build the character that can help you navigate the ever changing world of business.
Teddy Roosevelt reportedly said, “To educate a person in the mind but not morals is to educate a menace to society”. Rarely has this been more evident than in the past few years where we have seen the highly educated managers of once respected corporations such as Enron, Arthur Anderson, WorldCom and others wreck havoc on our economy. In the last decade we have shown great concern about the low moral code being proliferated by the media, the
entertainment industry, fast rising businesses, and even our top elected officials. I do not see where much has been done to correct a glaring issue that tears at the very heart of American society.
Building Character isn’t easy. It starts with attentiveness but it’s not just a matter of hanging posters or listing virtues. It requires serious and sustained effort to enhance the ethical consciousness, commitment, and competence of our workers and our families. Our domestic school system is thought to be taking the issue more seriously, but most are only giving it lip service. Cheating and disrespect flourish in classrooms and on sports fields; and young people are unintentionally nudged toward moral agnosticism, or a belief that there really is no right or wrong.
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Remember back when we were young. Each generation had their hero. It could be a sports figure, an industrialist, a military leader, an inventor, or even a mother or father. The ones that we remember and that made a difference in our lives all had one thing in common – Integrity. You contrast that with today where the icons are Rap singers, Professional Athletes, Movie Stars, or the C.E.O.’s of high flying companies; the common denominator of this group is wealth. The core common values have been challenged and the message is being carried by an entirely new medium. Previously our souls were molded by the key people who touched our lives daily - Parents, teachers, your minister, and the neighbors of your township. Today our lives and the lives of our workers and children are being driven by the media and the ever present internet. Finding a moral compass with all the options available today is very difficult for educated adults; and you can only imagine how hard it is for the children.
We need to remind our children and ourselves about our roots in a way that nurtures both pride and gratitude so as to not foster a self-absorbed entitlement mentality. Through our daily actions we all build the houses we will eventually live in. Careless decisions, neglected relationships, lies, and insincerity are the shoddy workmanship and inferior materials of life-building. We need to alloy the key elements of character to cast a strong foundation for the success of this and future generations.
Many in this room were good athletes during your school years. This athletic prowess was honed both physically and mentally by your coach. The good ones worked hard on virtues like honesty, integrity, responsibility, compassion, and fairness – aspects of character that make a good person, a good citizen, a good spouse, or a good parent. You had successes, a little fun, made friends, and created a base from which to grow your life. In the drive for athletic results much of this teaching has been forsaken. Often coaches working the mental and physical skills of winning while ignoring moral virtues of honor and decency too often produce magnificent competitors who are menaces to society.
Perhaps coaches of elite athletes not connected with educational or youth-serving institutions can operate in this moral vacuum, but all others have a responsibility to teach, enforce, advocate, and model all aspects of good character. Whether it’s sports, business, or politics, whenever we divorce issues of competence from issues of character we create a class of amoral professionals who think that they are exempt from the common standards of honor and decency. This discredits and demeans the moral standing of everyone involved.
The pressure for results are great. It is easy to compare the way win-hungry boosters blur the vision and undermine the integrity of coaches and administrators with the way money-hungry shareholders stress stock price that promotes accounting manipulation and other ethical shortcuts. In business a new breed of shareholders not concerned with the ethics or long term viability of a company create pressures and incentives that promote short-term decision making undermining the economic and moral health of companies. We need people to act as guardians who understand and will protect the soul of the enterprise.
Why should we show such concern ? For those who measure success and happiness purely in terms of material acquisitions, an unethical life is a viable option; but those who care about other things, about relationships, about peace of mind, about living a worthy life, and about being admired would steer a different course. We have a choice of how we live our lives and how we are to be remembered. Is it to be from shallow successes and short-lived pleasures or in the respect, love, honor, and reverence of a life fully lived ?
Integrity is not for wimps. It is not always easy being a good person, to be honest when it might be costly, to play fair when others cheat. It’s not easy to stand up for one’s beliefs or control opportunistic impulses to prosper at the expense of morals. It’s not easy to have the public see you fail or to loose. But the ability to loose with grace, be happy for the success of others, and to start over is what builds the character we will be remembered for. Anyone can take the easy way out and blame their failures on others, but what have you learned ? What message do you send to your employees and families ?
The euphoria that we felt at the end of the millennium has been replaced by a pessimism which is a pariah to our future. Yes, we have been downsized, and at times the future looks bleak, but the projections for the long term future of our industry are quite exciting. I am very concerned about the desperate moves many are taking to obtain business, the effects of which will be felt for many years. This month marks a three year anniversary of our industry’s drought. Many opportunities have presented themselves to test the moral resolve of management. Did we make the responsible and fair decisions ? How will those decisions be remembered ?
We are the industry leaders in this room. Real leadership requires moral courage, or the willingness to do the right thing despite the risk of failure, criticism, or financial injury. Leadership is not primarily a matter of authority but of the use of power to effect change. We build our reputation and that of our companies on the moral decisions that we make every day. Abraham Lincoln was one of our country’s great leaders. He understood the importance of character and the reputation that spreads forth. He described character as a tree and reputation as the shadow of the tree. Our country is known throughout the world by it’s many leaders whose character trees stand strong and tall spreading a shadow of confidence and integrity over the entire landscape.
Most know the difference between right and wrong. It is the lack of moral conviction that causes us to do the dishonest act. Of course we all make mistakes, that is common, but it is how we deal with these mistakes once discovered which sets one apart and builds the character appropriate to be admired by your peers, employees, friends, and family. Character is what you are in the dark when no one is looking. The test of character lies in how you behave when public approval is stripped away. When you can get away with anything because no one will know except your own conscience. One can consider conscience is synonymous with a moral compass. It gives us direction when we are lost. Without conscience there is no credibility, without credibility there is no trust, and without trust there is no future.
Throughout our careers we will be challenged by many obstacles. The road to achievement and fulfillment is dotted with hazards and tragedies that can wound us, frighten us and slow us down. If we exercise courage, patience, integrity, perseverance, and intelligence we can overcome any adversity. Adversity is inevitable, but suffering from it is optional. To be wronged is nothing unless we continue to live in it. No one can make you feel inferior without your consent. It takes courage and character to choose the future and let go of the past.
Leading with integrity creates the character that we will be remembered by but it also creates trust from those that surround you. The trust plays out in many benefits that are bottom line oriented. Employees experience higher morale, will offer greater loyalty, and will go the extra mile for success. This can manifest itself into greater efficiency and stronger work teams. Suppliers are more apt to work with you as they can trust the sincerity of your conviction. Customers will have confidence that you will deliver and that you can be a trusted working partner. All of which create a competitive edge that is hard for others to disrupt.
This morning I have not told you anything that you do not already know. I just felt the subject important and worth a moment of reflection as we embark upon on 52nd annual convention. The industry is in disarray and many are hurting.. These are the times when our commitment to integrity is tested, do we have the courage of conviction to place principles before profit? Surrounding you today is a room full of friends many of which are competitors.
We have spent a career together in the quest to sell copper products. Let this convention be a platform to further these relationships and strengthen our character. If we treat each other with respect and more often wear a smile Remembering that this special time om earth might only last a little while.