Two seemingly unrelated stories in the news, one in the entertainment industry and one in the world of sports, have me thinking about how difficult it can be to summon the moral courage to do what everyone agrees, in retrospect, should be easy to do. The numerous charges of sexual misconduct against Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein have dominated the headlines, particularly since entertainment and news are a bit hard to separate nowadays. And this week, former Baylor and Cleveland Browns wide receiver Josh Gordon revealed how he was able to pass drug tests while he was a college student and remain eligible to play.
While the scope and importance of these two stories may be fundamentally different, what they have in common is this—enablers are always necessary for someone to escape justice over a prolonged period of time. Weinstein was allegedly enabled by a long line of subordinates and friends, some of whom were likely on his payroll for that very purpose. Gordon claims that an assistant coach provided him with cleansing drinks and taught him how to drink them so that his system would be free of evidence he had been taking drugs whenever he was tested.
Many people would rather spend their lives around successful people than people of integrity. This is true not just because some of these people are dishonest, but because successful people can offer them things that people of integrity may not be capable of providing. These folks want to project that they are successful and that their success is merit based. This was true of numerous people engaged in the Galleon Group insider trading scheme headed by Raj Rajara
tnam, projecting skill in trading when they were really masters of getting people to divulge information illegally. Volkswagen engineers followed the orders from above to design defeat devices for their vehicles that would shut down emission controls and maximize gas mileage, except when the vehicles were being tested by emissions control experts.
No one denies that Weinstein could produce a successful film, that Gordon was a skilled pass catcher, that Rajaratnam knew more about companies than almost anyone, or that Volkswagen upper management knew how to build great cars. And the auditors I train will face the same temptations of being drawn to people of competence and being willing to sacrifice their integrity. I have felt it myself, standing in the presence of a C-suite executive bad-mouthing his auditors, and remaining silent.
Enabling perpetuates the lie that success is merit-based in cases where it is not true. Enablers do what they do because they are focused on consequences, on the enjoyment of what they gain or the fear of what they might lose. Whether that is a part in a movie, a job as an assistant coach or an engineer, or access to market information for trading, the gains and losses dominate enablers’ thinking, and that thinking is almost always short-term.
How do I help develop students with an ethical mindset instead of enablers? First, those who resist succumbing to these predators must recognize a duty to do the right thing based on their position. Then they need to have the strength of character, the virtue, the moral courage to follow through on that duty despite the circumstances. It takes people who will not run away, who will not stay safe, who will not protect their interests at all costs.
I think of my student who is about to start an internship with an organization focused on human trafficking, a student who could just as easily be moving into her role in an accounting firm. While the examples above of manipulation and lying are very troubling, there is a dark underbelly of life in this world that exists solely because of the lack of moral courage men and women have to stand up against it. Though we cannot change the nature of man, we can examine our own lives and see where we ignore our duty to do the right thing because of what it will cost us. And we can develop relationships with others who will give us the moral courage to do what we know we ought to do.
Our vision at Mays is to develop those “others”—transformational leaders with an ethical mindset who advance the world’s prosperity. It is my challenge to find better ways of doing that in the Auditing and Accounting Ethics classroom, and in leading our five-year accounting program. These students, and their choices, will be the legacy of my career.
I have spent enough of my time scolding the bad guys. It is time for me to step in and stand up for what is right, even if it costs me, and to teach others to do the same.
I invite you to join me.