Bottom Line Ethics - Part 5

Lead Story

Harambe and Polyanna

Michael K. Shaub, July 21st, 2022

I recently wrote an essay describing my view of the impact of the accounting profession’s latest cheating scandal. My basic view is that we have proven repeatedly as a profession that we do not deserve to be self-governing, with the latest example being firm personnel cheating on CPA ethics exams. Some people in the profession who like me have been checking on my emotional health after reading that piece. Others just doubt my mental acuity and would consider my view of expecting truth-telling and honesty in the profession as being a “Polyanna” approach to our problems.

My friend Matt Morton recently spoke about the incident a few years ago involving Harambe the Gorilla (may he rest in peace) at the Cincinnati Zoo. When a little boy fell into his enclosure, Harambe decided to investigate, dragging the boy around and not heeding the zookeepers’ calls to come inside. This led to a difficult decision for the zookeepers, who shot the gorilla for fear that a tranquilizer would not work quickly enough before the boy was harmed.

After this incident, people blamed the zoo for the exhibit’s design and fencing, and the mother for losing track of her child. Some even blamed the existence of zoos. The hashtag #JusticeForHarambe circulated on the internet. But no one blamed Harambe because, in Matt Morton’s words, “That’s what gorillas do.”

This reminds me of the argument being made to explain the behavior of young professionals and students who get caught up in cheating scandals. You must expect that people are going to cheat given the opportunity because they must keep up with their peers or they are biologically inclined to do so by evolutionary responses to their environment. All we can do is put in the types of controls that will be effective in preventing and detecting it, hoping to reduce the opportunity, or even the motivation, to cheat. Telling people to be better is just spitting in the wind. Those who hold these views do not consider themselves cynical in the same way that I do not consider myself naïve. We may both be fooling ourselves.

But I have seen throughout my career, and particularly post-Sarbanes-Oxley, many students whose perspectives have been changed through an extensive consideration of their duties as CPAs, particularly in the accounting ethics course. A recent paper by Zach Kowaleski of the University of Texas and his co-authors provides evidence that financial advisors who receive more training in rules and ethics actually behave better.

In fact, I think it is silly, and an abdication of responsibility, to say that we cannot significantly influence the ethical behavior of our students or of those under us in the accounting firm. We influence studying behaviors, love for the material, and student interaction behaviors every day in the classroom. Accounting firms influence employees’ views of working late, teach them to sell better, and force feed them technical skills. Why are people’s moral views somehow unassailable by those who lead them?

There is nothing magical in moral learning that is less able to be shaped than any other type of learning. Of course, there are powerful incentives internally that cause people to cross lines, and human nature is unreliable when it comes to doing the right thing. Give a child no moral direction and see what happens.

But the claims of powerlessness in moral education and training are overstated. I have heard for many years that students are fully formed morally by the time they reach the university, and there is little that you can do about it. This has been a sort of received wisdom applied to no other area of reasoning. Despite that, numerous student organizations are designed entirely to change people’s views on a variety of moral issues—to morally educate them.

I need moral education. There are ethical issues I have not encountered yet and that I need to be prepared to navigate effectively. I need to be a better moral leader for people who come from a variety of backgrounds and viewpoints. This is not easy work. But in the accounting profession, we are used to undertaking difficult tasks without complaining, of adapting to environments without losing our north star, of overcoming obstacles, of speaking the truth even when it makes others uncomfortable.

We have a chance to preserve something important, not given over to the cynicism of the day, but battling against it by relentlessly speaking truth into society in reliable ways that require others to pay attention. It also requires not undermining our objectivity by selling out to the inevitable temptation to be a hanger-on rather than a true friend to our clients. We need to be “trusted advisors” not because we will tell them what they want to hear, but what they need to know. And the same holds true for us to be “trusted professors” who will help to preserve a profession we all love. We need to tell our students, our clients, and ourselves when we are crossing lines that harm others and undermine a society and an economy that rely on being grounded in truth.

You are not going to learn this on social media. Some will learn the principles in their families or in their faith settings. But you certainly ought to be able to learn it in the accounting classroom. And it is incumbent upon the Big 4 firms, the AICPA, and the rest of the accounting profession to make it a priority to do this before we lose our trusted role in society.

Call me Polyanna if you like. But I am not teaching Harambe in my classroom. I am teaching incredible minds capable of doing far more than settling for whatever makes them richest or most “successful,” regardless of the impact on others or on their own souls. And for as long as I am in the classroom, they are going to be treated with that level of respect.

I may not change a profession. But I am going to change some lives.

Perhaps I have been teaching auditing and ethics too long, but it seems like my life consists of reading story after story about rule benders and enablers. The latest and greatest example in the world of sports is the allegation by ESPN that NFL commissioner Roger Goodell ordered evidence destroyed that implicated the New England Patriots and coach Bill Belichick in a long-term cheating scandal prior to the famous Spygate game in 2007. The allegation is that if the public knew that the Patriots’ filming of other coaches’ signals was a multiyear, not a one-time, event, it would damage the image of the league and of one of its bellwether franchises. Goodell’s recent harsh punishment of quarterback Tom Brady and the Patriots for deflating footballs prior to last year’s AFC Championship Game was seen as him fulfilling his promise to harshly punish anyone who stepped over the line again. But Brady’s punishment was overturned by an arbitrator.

In this saga, the Patriots are the rule benders and Roger Goodell is the enabler. But the other 31 NFL owners, who allegedly knew of the document destruction, were also enablers if they acted to protect the value of the league and, thus, their own franchises. In my world, it is audit firms that enable their clients to misstate their financial statements and refuse to exercise the necessary professional skepticism to prevent frauds, like the recently announced sanctions against the auditors of General Employment Enterprises.

Major League Baseball seems hesitant to marshal any strong response to the FBI investigation of the St. Louis Cardinals’ hacking of the Houston Astros’ player evaluation database. The Cardinals fired their scouting director in early July, about two weeks after the hacking was announced. But two days after the announcement, an attorney hired by the Cardinals months before to investigate the hacking called a press conference to assert that there was no link to upper management. Major League Baseball waited until that investigation was done before the accusations became public. Of course, the FBI investigation and the Cardinals’ own internal review may lead to identifying all the culprits.

But I am not holding my breath. Stories indicate the fired scouting director may accuse Jeff Luhnow, the Astros’ general manager, of stealing the database from the Cardinals. If so, these issues would be in the papers for months. Major League Baseball and its owners, perhaps with the exception of one, want to move on and clear the decks. They appear ready and able to enable cheating in baseball, just as the NFL is alleged to have done with the Patriots. Who wants to talk about cheating with the playoffs coming up? They might do what’s right. But I am skeptical.

What triggered me writing this blog was a Twitter post claiming that it was unfair that last year’s U.S. Little League champions were stripped of their title for using players a mile out of their district, but Tom Brady got away with cheating. Those who bend the rules to their own ends rarely worry about the common good, and the way their stories are used by others to excuse their own cheating. But the Patriots and the Cardinals are simply the insider traders of professional sports. With insider trading, there is a stock exchange that is persuaded not to enable this behavior, and there is an SEC to investigate the traders, and to punish the stock exchanges if they cooperate with the traders. Unfortunately, in professional sports, the league is both the potential enabler and the investigator.

We already have an idea how well that worked with the NFL, and Major League Baseball is in the on-deck circle. But in a competitive world, cheaters get rich, and enablers get rich off the cheaters. For those people, it often smells like success. But for a society that values justice and fair play, it is corrosive. And, in my book, the enablers are just as bad as the cheaters.

Categories: Uncategorized

I love Blue Bell ice cream. When we lived out of state for a number of years, I remember it being a legitimate choice to consider having it shipped to us in dry ice rather than settling for Blue Bunny, or some other inferior northern brand. On one visit home to Texas, driving between Austin and Houston, we stopped at a barbecue place in Brenham. We asked if they could make us milk shakes out of Blue Bell. Barbecue places don’t make milk shakes. But on that day, for a displaced Texas family, that one did. And it was the highlight of our trip.

I also love baseball and Texas A&M, and you cannot think of the two of those together without thinking of our beautiful Blue Bell Park. The Kruse family has been a great friend to this university, and Blue Bell CEO Howard Kruse even spoke to my son personally when he was considering his college choices.

But today, in real time, Blue Bell is grappling with one of the biggest crises in its long history. The presence of listeria in food is not a new thing, and it is one of the risks a food creating and food handling business develops systems to guard against. Obviously, at some level, those systems have not been effective enough at Blue Bell, and that is true in multiple locations. And when people are harmed, any corporation can expect its motives to be questioned and probed.

But corporations do not have motives; people do. The people who run Blue Bell have built up tremendous goodwill over the years through the way they have run their business. Still, as news stories develop over weeks and months, light will be shone on the best and the worst of habits in the company, because that is what makes interesting news. The evidence that seems to point to slow moving calculations of effects will be criticized. Aggressive assumption of duties will be lauded.

Blue Bell’s overriding duty in this situation is to prevent harm from coming to people through the company’s products. That is why the decision to recall all Blue Bell products has been generally praised. It is a defensive decision, one that is designed to prevent harm at any cost. But this is not what companies like Blue Bell are normally designed to do.

Companies that produce ice cream are designed to maximize pleasure, not minimize harm. And companies that are designed to maximize pleasure run on calculations. Some companies are more utilitarian, calculating the greatest good for the greatest number, and these are often viewed as socially responsible. A stadium or theater venue that holds certain numbers of seats at a low price, or those that give back to their communities, fall into this category. Others only calculate the benefit for the company and its shareholders, generally with the goal to maximize profits. Even if they are involved in charitable giving, it is only as a means to protect the bottom line. But whether they are utilitarian or egoistic, virtually all companies that maximize pleasure run on calculations.

Blue Bell is one of these, and the initial response to the evidence of listeria was guarded; it was targeted to head off the harm without unnecessarily disrupting operations. It was the rational response of a pleasure maximizing entity. But there was a point where Blue Bell’s role changed, since they were effectively put in a position where they were the only party that effectively could prevent harm. The question at that point is, “Will the corporation shift its point of view and assume its overriding duty to prevent harm to consumers?” More precisely, will the people who run the company assume that overriding duty and bear the costs that go with it?

When companies make decisions like Blue Bell did, people will still say that companies are calculators, and that they pull their product to avoid lawsuits. While this is potentially true, it is hardly a criticism to say that people are rational. When the calculation aligns with the overriding duty, the decision is an easy one.

Had it reached that point at Blue Bell? No one can say for sure. But since there is obviously no motive to harm consumers, and management progressed rather quickly from a broad partial recall to a total recall, the decision looks to be one of willingly assuming that overriding duty rather than risking further harm to consumers. Blue Bell changed its role from pleasure maximizer to harm minimizer.

There are other duties that Blue Bell needs to fulfill in order to prevent future harm, and their press releases indicate that they are aware of those. I would imagine that systems put in place in the next six months will be markedly different than the ones that have been there for decades. Until these are completed, the public will be wary.

But doing this well will allow Blue Bell to return to doing what it does best—maximizing pleasure. And that includes providing milk shakes for all those Texans who wander home and remember why it is they love this place.

Categories: Bottom Line Ethics

Barry Minkow is a classic rags-to-riches American story. Or maybe it’s more like a rags to riches to orange jumpsuit to crime fighter to clerical collar to fraudulent short-seller to multimillion dollar church embezzlement story. He is currently serving a sentence for insider trading related to false accusations against homebuilder Lennar Corp. that drove its stock down while he shorted it. But he also pled guilty last week to embezzling $3,000,000 from the church he pastored, San Diego Community Bible Church. Even now, after all I have known about Minkow through the years, his chutzpah floors me. He was able to convince the court that he committed the Lennar fraud to fund his addiction to Oxycontin, potentially shortening his sentence because of his participation in a drug treatment program. If I was a guard, I would be checking his cell every thirty minutes.

About the time Minkow was pulling off his first major scam by taking the company he started as a teenager, ZZZZBest, public, I was busy in a Ph.D. program learning the ins and outs of accounting ethics and fraud. His very public fall, and the subsequent video interview he gave in prison to Joe Wells, helped to jump start Wells’s Association of Certified Fraud Examiners and the CFE designation. His folksy discussion of how easy it was to fool people, particularly auditors, brought home the need for serious attention to forensic accounting. He was the face of fraud for CPAs, giving a dry science a red-blooded American mythical character. And he was able to build on that reputation after he was released from prison by helping search out numerous frauds and founding the Fraud Discovery Institute. He also rebuilt his personal reputation by serving first as a pastor of evangelism in one church, and then as the senior pastor in the San Diego church.

And he wrote books. Oh, did he write books. Ever the self-promoter, Minkow was involved in numerous book projects that all told essentially the same story of his rise and fall. I found a number of copies of one of his books in a second-hand bookstore and gave several away to my graduate students to read. Of course, he was always the hero in the books, whether he was the bad guy pointing out how incompetent financial professionals were, or the repentant criminal mending his ways. Throw a little gospel in there and you broaden your audience. In fact, before the Lennar conviction, Minkow was the star in a motion picture about his own life that was about to be released. The movie co-starred James Caan, Mark Hamill (Luke Skywalker), and Talia Shire (Rocky Balboa’s wife). It is quite possible that he used church funds to support the Fraud Discovery Institute and church members to fund the movie.

I have to admit, even though I teach professional skepticism, I fell for some of his shtick after he got out of prison the first time. He spoke broadly, but I never invited him to class, in part because of the cost, and in part because of a nagging feeling about him. There are reasons for people to tell their failure stories, and I have found that my students are able to identify with what many of them have gone through. One speaker I had last spring gave what was clearly the most influential talk of the semester by sharing her story and accepting responsibility for her choices. But Minkow has always had a different feel to him; none of the others I have come across has been as obviously self-interested as he is.

Yet even now, after he has done untold damage to the two groups I most closely identify with, CPAs and Christians, I find it hard to be angry with him. I am not sure why that is true, because it seems like I ought to be very resentful. He has besmirched the names of many trusting people. He also loves to talk about himself, which must be extraordinarily irritating to those who have known him well.

But his career has paralleled mine, and it is like having the thread of a single life that is hopelessly intertwined with my own story. I was warned in graduate school about pursuing accounting ethics as my research emphasis because it would marginalize me in my field of accounting. But when I looked around at the choices I had for investing my intellect and my research skills, the only one that I could see holding my attention for decades was accounting ethics.

And that, indeed, has held true for me. I have dabbled in several other areas of research, even overinvesting myself in one or two of them in the hopes of being seen as more mainstream. But only accounting ethics has consistently awakened my passion for research, and it does so because of the complexity of the stories involved. Accounting ethics is at the nexus of rational markets and human failure, and studying it has invariably led to rich stories that are easy to make into parables. I suppose that I have a liberal arts flavor to what I teach that is largely unavailable to many of my business school colleagues.

Sometimes these stories play out as Greek tragedy and sometimes as farce, but the truth is that my life would be incomplete without the Barry Minkows of the world. While my faith always makes me hope for redemption in people’s lives, Minkow has already lived the cat’s proverbial nine lives. I have not seen the movie, but I am guessing it is both interesting and a lie. Its investors were only one more group of suckers Barry Minkow left in his wake. They should have known that it was a film that would never be completed. Because with a Barry Minkow movie, you can never really write an ending.

Categories: Bottom Line Ethics, Society

I often write about establishing and maintaining values, but I rarely speak about passing on values. Last weekend afforded me a remarkable opportunity to observe what values have been passed on to my children, and made me reconsider who I need to be today. My wife and I gathered with our five children to attend a University of Nebraska home football game, something we had not done since I was an assistant professor there 20 years ago.

The trip allowed me to wrestle with what it is to be content, to look regret in the eye and stare it down. But mostly, it made me thankful for what I had then, and for what I have now. And it helped me to focus on three things I hope will guide me in the last third of my life.

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Remember the Past

Our trip to Lincoln included a tour of old sights, including homes, schools and restaurants that were important to us. We were able to renew faithful friendships that have endured through the years and have significant conversations with people important to us. We laughed at old memories as a family, some that were triggered just by driving by a location. We searched in the half-light of dusk to find a brick on campus dedicated to my mother shortly after she died. I wrestled far less with regrets and mistakes than I might have expected, perhaps because there was such joy in what we were doing together as a family, and in part because I am so happy doing what I do today.

Embrace the Present

I soaked up every moment of 36 hours I spent with people, drinking long and deeply of relationships. Everywhere we went, from our first night’s dinner with old friends to the last gathering of 25 of us for pizza after the football game, was rich with laughter and remembrances. We were even witnesses to a Hail Mary miracle touchdown on the game’s last play that secured victory for the home team and set off bedlam in the stadium. The word serendipity came to mind.

Anticipate the Future

My wife and I became empty nesters less than three months ago after 35 years of children at home, and we are still navigating what it means for it to be just the two of us. Recent health challenges in our family have reminded us of the brevity of life and of how important it is to live each day fully. But while we cannot insure a life free of pain, we can live with anticipation that the ways that we have invested our lives over the last three-and-a-half decades will bear fruit in beautiful ways. I couldn’t help but think that was true as I stared at my precious 3-year-old granddaughter who was on the trip, and thought of her brother and two cousins. I have lived to see – and enjoy – my children’s children.

But I said this column was about passing on values, and these are the values I observed in my children. First, people are more important than things. The kids sacrificed financially in significant ways to be there, and there was not a note of regret that this might have been as expensive a trip as they had taken on a per-hour basis. Second, listening is more important than telling. I looked around the room at Valentino’s Pizza’s party room and saw all my children engaged in deep conversation, just as their mom was. (Obviously I wasn’t, since I was looking around the room.) I think they realized that some of these conversations were ones they might not have the opportunity to enjoy again.

And, importantly, remembering where you come from matters. My children have attended five different universities, and they have each developed their own allegiances, just as I have. But there was a time when we all wore the same color on Saturdays, when we were together in every sense. Our two youngest, one of whom was born in Lincoln and one just after we left, were able to experience for a few hours something of what that unity felt like. Nebraska didn’t give us our faith or our core values, but our older children will say it is where we became, fully, a family. And this trip was a tip of our cap to that place, to that time and to those people.

There is no place I would rather be today than Aggieland, but last weekend I was reminded that there was a different place that helped shape my children into who they are today. In remembering, I found myself overflowing with gratitude.

Categories: Bottom Line Ethics, Family, Friends, Texas A&M

Helen Sharkey is a felon. That sentence seems in every way to be wrong, even as I write it. Helen Sharkey is a mom of Tae Kwon Do twins, a loving wife, a faithful friend. She is a diminutive dynamo, energetically expressing truth, thoughtfully responding to questions. She is a star, a top accounting graduate of Southwestern University with a Big 4 pedigree who had a rising career in the energy industry. But, there it is again. Helen Sharkey is a felon.

In perhaps, the most eloquent expression of remorse that I have heard in many years, Ms. Sharkey told the story in my Ethics class of her fall from grace at Dynegy a decade ago. She spoke of the people who influenced her, of the pressures she felt, of the key turning points when failing to “listen to her gut” diverted her life in ways she could never have imagined. She became, with her decisions, what in retrospect is the one thing she never wanted to be: Googlable.

And that Googlability is what triggered the introspection necessary to allow her to speak about her experience to a broader audience. Since she got out of federal prison in late 2006, she has quietly raised her children with her husband and led a “normal” life out of the public spotlight. She has established the connections that have allowed her to flourish, perhaps influenced by a reticence to trust broadly that comes both from being “perp walked” and from watching others more involved in your crime never get indicted.

But her eyes were opened to the fact that in a fully searchable world, her sons were quickly coming to the age where she would have to explain that, in her own words, “Mommy is a felon.” This not only permitted introspection, it made that process urgent. Ms. Sharkey needed to understand her story so that she could explain it to two boys coming of age. And the result of walking through that process is a lucidity to her message that few people can match.

Being in that room was like watching a match dropped on dry tinder. In the midst of a draining week, I was locked on each word of her story, as was virtually everyone in the room. She spoke in measured tones, but she was able to convey the changing emotions of each stage of her ordeal in her voice and in her eyes. Standing behind a podium meant to protect her, she opened her heart and her life to a group of students I am asking to examine theirs. And she opened them to me as well.

She did not have to dramatize, because the room was walking with her through her boss’s detachment from correspondence related to the structured finance transaction that was her downfall, and through the New York meeting that sealed the deal when her boss did not backstop her. Her stomach in knots, she said, “For the first time in my life, I gave up on myself.” We could feel the impact of the Wall Street Journal article revealing the transaction, the subsequent criminal investigation, the tightening noose of the indictment, with the U.S. attorneys referring to her as “smart and articulate,” as an “alchemist.” What followed—Dynegy cutting off legal funding, losing her job at Chevron, being alongside of her father as he died of cancer—are the things that make any reasonable person shudder. She did not have to serve the five-year sentence that could have been her fate based on her guilty plea. But she felt the incalculable pain of leaving her twin babies to walk into a federal prison.

It was hard to pull the students away from her after class. I heard one say that she would stay all day if she could. Until she came to my class, I had never met Helen Sharkey. I have dealt with these issues professionally for many years. I am not purely clinical, because I care deeply about people’s outcomes. I am always rooting and praying for my students to avoid these paths. But, if they walk down them, I want to be a redemptive voice who gives them hope that there is more to life than their failure.

I have never known how to do that effectively. But I know someone who does. Her name is Helen Sharkey.

Categories: Bottom Line Ethics, Business, Crime, Politics

As an NBA fan, officials are not high on my favorites list. As a San Antonio Spurs fan, one official, in particular, draws the ire of all Tim Duncan supporters: Joey Crawford. Crawford is famous for throwing Spurs star Tim Duncan out of a late 2007 season game against the Mavericks for laughing at his officiating calls from the bench. But the referee was suspended for the rest of the season and playoffs, apparently for challenging Duncan to a fight in the confrontation. Crawford has recently said that the event caused him to reevaluate the way he refereed and to seek more extensive counseling to deal with anger management.

What Crawford, a skilled, veteran referee had lost with respect to Tim Duncan was objectivity. This week a similar incident came to light when former NBA referee Ed Rush, now the supervisor of basketball officials for the Pac 12 Conference, allegedly offered $5000 or a trip to Cancun to any official who would give a technical to or eject Arizona coach Sean Miller during the Pac 12 tournament. It may have been in jest, but according to one official, Rush reiterated the focus on Miller during a meeting on the tournament’s second day. In fact, official Michael Irving called a late-game technical on Miller for yelling about a double-dribble call, and UCLA went on to beat Miller’s Wildcats, 66-64. While Pac 12 Commissioner Larry Scott agreed that it was “completely inappropriate” and reflected “very, very poor judgment,” he concluded that it was not an offense worthy of Rush being fired. In fact, he concluded that “[t]here was nothing unethical or a breach of integrity.” His conclusion is dead wrong.

Actually, these comments are not unprecedented for Rush. After he finished his NBA officiating career, he served as the league’s director of officials. In January of 2002, Dallas Mavericks owner famously said of Rush’s leadership, “Ed Rush might have been a great ref, but I wouldn’t hire him to manage a Dairy Queen. His interest is not in the integrity of the game or improving the officiating.” Cuban tweeted after the latest incident, “Not surprised…It will get worse.” Former NBA referee Tim Donaghy, who famously sacrificed his own objectivity and career by gambling on NBA games, accuses Rush of making comments about Cuban to NBA officials similar to the ones he made about Miller. Of course, Donaghy’s own lack of credibility comes into play here.

Whether the comments were made in jest or not, Rush provides strong evidence that he has lost his objectivity. And the power that he wields over Pac 12 officials gives the appearance that his loss of objectivity contributed to unequal treatment in a tournament game. The issue is not that Miller was treated badly; it would have been just as bad if he had been favored by officials, or an insinuation had been given that someone should be helped. What is wrong here, and what drew Larry Scott’s ire, is that Ed Rush was not objective.

It makes no sense for Scott to claim that integrity was not sacrificed; in officiating, integrity and objectivity are inseparable. You cannot be “whole” or “true” in your evaluations as a referee if you are biased, or if you introduce that bias as a person in authority.

The same is true for auditors, the people I train for our profession. It is not enough to be technically competent, as all three referees in this story arguably are, or were. You must also be a person of integrity and objectivity. And, what is critical, you must be objective not just in fact, but in appearance. If you lose the appearance of objectivity, you have lost the trust of those who rely on you for unbiased judgments so that they are not misled, whether in the financial statements or in the final score of a basketball game.

The bigger danger with auditors, and with those who supervise them, is to lose objectivity by becoming cheerleaders for their clients, not by harshly and unfairly judging them. Many accounting firms have found out that juries are apt to punish auditors harshly in the case of audit failures when it is obvious that they have lost objectivity and become their clients’ advocates.

The jury may still be out on Ed Rush’s objectivity. But, if the accusations are true, Commissioner Scott’s conclusion that Rush did not sacrifice his integrity by making those statements may come back to haunt him.

Categories: Athletics, Bottom Line Ethics, Texas A&M

I have hesitated to write about this past week’s revelations about Manti Te’o and Lance Armstrong until I had some time to process them, and until I gave the Te’o story a little more time to play out. What these two stories have revealed is remarkable in a lot of ways. But the two words I keep returning to are gullibility and sincerity.

Of course, Manti Te’o demonstrated incredible gullibility in emotionally embracing a woman he had never met and who, as it turned out, never existed. But he is by no means the first to do this, and it was being done long before there was an internet. The combination of wishful thinking, distance, and a longing for a meaningful relationship has resulted in heartache throughout the generations. In Manti Te’o’s case, however, it was not just the cruel people who apparently pulled this trick on him who were liars. Someone has either lied or misreported the facts and circumstances of the case—perhaps one of the authors of the multiple stories, perhaps Te’o or his father. The details about meeting his “girlfriend” at a Stanford game and about her travelling to Hawaii on multiple occasions are irreconcilable with the other details that have come to light. So this is not just gullibility at work here.

But there is every indication that Te’o is sincere. Everything revealed in the back story points to a genuine young man who cares about others and is largely selfless. Of course, many think that he covered up details to minimize embarrassment, and some have said he was ensnared in the Heisman hype. But this does not seem to be someone whose life is primarily oriented toward self-aggrandizing behavior.

On the other hand, if insincerity was an art form, Lance Armstrong would be Van Gogh, only with two ears. I found it painful to watch his conversation with Oprah Winfrey; it reminded me a lot of the interviews I have watched with a litany of business executives who have “come clean” far too late to make any difference, except perhaps for their own conscience’s sake. Listening to Lance Armstrong is enough to make you instinctively reach for your wallet. He is the epitome of a calculator, using others for his own gain until there is no gain to be made. He may have made a bad calculation this time because he went from a rich person no one trusted, to a rich person no one trusted who is about to be sued for all past and future earnings. I generally don’t believe in wage garnishment but, in Lance’s case, I will make an exception.

On the other hand, I am probably wrong about what will happen to him. Lance Armstrong is a master calculator, and he has almost always had those calculations work out according to plan. I would not underestimate his ability to generate cash flows from book and movie rights that are more than adequate to cover any additional liabilities arising from his “transparency.” He was able to keep the ruse going sufficiently to win seven consecutive Tour de France titles, even though many were suspicious of his doping from the very beginning. And he systematically sued his enemies, into oblivion if necessary. If you are dealing with someone ruthless and insincere, my advice is to watch your back.

But there will always be those who are gullible, because a life of trust is preferable to a life of constant suspicion. And, in our culture, we love liars. We love them because we want to think the best about people, but we also love them because they flatter us, and because we prefer fantasy to reality. We want to believe the unbelievable. And we bow down and worship these people who fulfill this unreality we seek. We avoid the hard questions that would point to who these people really are.

Actually, in some ways, gullibility goes hand-in-hand with sincerity. The same qualities that made Manti Te’o susceptible to an internet love affair cause us to embrace those who somehow fill the crevices of disappointment in our lives. The public was as gullible about the Te’o story as it was about the magical accomplishments of a cycling cancer survivor.

How do we keep from doing this over and over again?

Be sincere, but don’t be gullible. And remember that the real heroes, the ones who can actually make your life better, are sitting at your dinner table, and in the living room, and behind you in the classroom. They are working tirelessly in obscure pulpits and elementary school classrooms and fire stations. They will never talk to Oprah, because she would not be interested, and they would have nothing to say to her. The protection for these sincere people is that they are content, and they do not need the Lance Armstrongs of the world to make their lives worthwhile, and thus they are not gullible.

These people are my heroes.

Categories: Athletics

One of the most frequently encountered questions for an ethics professor is the basic one: “Can you teach ethics?” This, of course, is mildly threatening if you are a self-interested prof whose very role depends on the answer to that question being “yes.” How can anyone teaching ethics answer that question objectively? I think that there are good reasons to believe that you can teach ethics. First, if you cannot, it is virtually the only realm of education that is held to be unteachable. Second, if you examine the argument, what people are really saying is that you cannot teach ethics “up”; everyone knows that you can teach ethics “down,” as evidenced by the extensive cheating reported in colleges and the failures in business ethics that insure that I always have a job doing what I do.

I find myself in the awkward position of saying that ethics are not fully formed when students get to college, so they can be taught. That makes me uneasy, because I would prefer that they would be fully formed. But if they are not fully formed, it is quite possible that they are well formed when they get to college. By that I mean that a student is sensitive to what is right and wrong, and that student reaches informed judgments based on a defensible structure for ethical decision-making. I also mean that person has the moral motivation to do the right thing when it would be easy to choose otherwise, and then has the strength of character to follow through and actually do the right thing.

The best evidence of that to me is the picture above, which includes the three men in my life who are most important to me, my father and my sons. My dad, Ken, is an Iwo Jima veteran, and at 92 is still my hero. He taught me many things, but two of the most valuable were that hard work and commitment to my calling was my daily responsibility, and that there was no substitute for honesty. I wish that I could say that I saw those two things reflected in my life. But somehow, for all my shortcomings, I see them reflected clearly in my sons.

Kenny, my father’s namesake, is six years out of college and on the fast track with his multinational corporation. In fact, he is about to launch out on a significant career opportunity overseas that will take him far from us. Of course, I am happy for his successes. But I admire his quiet determination to work with uncompromising excellence, and to lead in the same way. I know that, day after day, he rises early in the morning to meet his commitments, and I have never heard him make excuses in the midst of trying circumstances. In fact, he has spent a good piece of his young career supervising people my age and trying to help them adopt the same commitment to excellence that he pursues. In all of this, he adds energy to any group of friends with his happy spirit and sense of humor. When he comes home, he demonstrates tremendous compassion and kindness to his younger siblings and his parents, and he takes a genuine interest in our lives.

Nathan, ten years younger, works just as hard. But I admire his focused search for truth, and his willingness to confront hard questions and to be uncomfortable in that search. He does not accept things at face value, and he has a habit of examining his own motives for why he does things. I think that will serve him well in the long run as he tries to maintain his character when he leaves home. He looks up to Kenny for many things, including his work ethic and his energy. No foosball table is safe when those two are on opposite handles, and Thanksgiving has been a stream of shouts and laughter as they have played together.

We will send Nathan off to the college classroom of someone like me. Nathan’s values, if not fully formed, are very well formed. And he is teachable. My hope is that his ethics professor will activate that search for truth and not undermine it.

But as I look at the picture above, I see the imprint of my father in my sons. My Dad was not a perfect guy; neither am I, and neither are my sons. But he is a man of integrity who has demonstrated lifelong commitment—to his family, to his work, to my mother. He has given my sons a great gift of which they are only partly aware.

Can you teach ethics? Yes. My father is living proof. It may not come with an assigned catalog number or classroom. But, life on life, we change those who are important to us. And I am grateful that one more time, last night, my sons were able to hear his voice and see his face.

I only hope he has a sense of how his life will reverberate in the generations to come.

Categories: Family

Would you like a recipe for driving yourself crazy if you are a control freak? Then follow your fantasy football team on the Sunday before a national election. It is hilarious for me to think that I have any control over how anyone on my fantasy football team will perform. Not only do I get incensed when Philip Rivers throws another interception, I somehow attribute it to his character, as if he was a bad guy. (By the way, I will never play him again unless, of course, that no-good Josh Freeman fails me today against the Raiders.) It is equally useful for me to read every story on both Fox News and MSNBC about how the latest “most important election of our time” will turn out.

When I was younger, I thought that I had a lot of control over my environment, and I pushed forward with decisions as though I did. This often works out well, because in areas of a person’s environment where no one is actively intervening, there is little resistance to imposing your will. For example, people will allow you to be slightly impolite or endure your mild insults that help you to get your way. In the short run this leads to the belief that you have more control than you do. In the long run, it can lead to habits of thinking that can drive you slightly bonkers. It also leads to unrequited anger, which includes muttering short syllables under your breath in traffic, random honking, and yelling at referees.

I have had multiple experiences in the last year where I have felt that my life was completely out of my control. I move from challenge to challenge, and I start noticing that more people are asking me about how I am feeling, which is never a good sign. Though I acknowledge their concern, I quickly move on to the next assignment, the next event, the next class. In a cause-and-effect world, it makes sense for me to do what I know to do. Where I can choose, I want to choose well. It is in the times that I do not get to choose that I am concerned about my response.

I am not suggesting that I should just lie down and let the world roll over me. Though my faith is central to me, I have a responsibility to act. What scares me a bit is that I can consciously recognize that a situation is beyond my control, and yet still emotionally react as if it ought to be something I fix. I think that this is unhealthy, and I see it reflected in a number of scandals in the business world.

Insider trading is an attempt to control the uncontrollable, or at least to control what is not justly supposed to be controlled. Raj Rajaratnam was a master of the game in his years running the Galleon Group, mining all the information he could regardless of the legalities that might be barriers to obtaining it. He used many people, including the former Goldman Sachs director, Rajat Gupta, to help provide him with the ability to control the uncontrollable. And after his conviction last month, Gupta will be joining Rajaratnam in federal prison as a result.

Corporate executives are often expected to control the uncontrollable. Public companies receive annual opinions not just on their financial statements, but on their controls. Of course, the quality of their planning will impact the company’s results. But pervasive economic trends, taxing structures, and commodity prices can only be planned for to a limited extent. There is no way to eliminate all of the uncertainty, despite marketplace expectations. Many corporate executives have crashed their companies by misleading investors, trying to give the impression they were overcoming forces beyond their control. (For those of you who are concerned, I am currently tied in my fantasy football game because two of my players are totally worthless.)

As a father of five, I see this tendency manifested in my attempts to control my children in areas where I ought to give them choice, even though they are transitional adults closing in on independence. When children are younger, we can control much of their environment, and we make many of their choices for them. We cannot protect them from every harm, but it is reasonable for parents to intervene and make choices that will help prevent serious damage. We can control where they go to school, who they play with, and what they eat. But we have to transfer that control to them, and our attempt to retain control beyond the days they are entrusted to us can only lead to long-term dysfunction and their inability to stand on their own. Even though our youngest son is a high school senior, we are still learning in this area. (While I was writing this paragraph, Josh Freeman completed two passes totaling 84 yards to Vincent Jackson, who is also on my fantasy team. I am now ahead by 21 points, and I am, by the way, a genius for having them both on my team. Sit down, Philip Rivers!)

If I am convinced that it can lead to various negative outcomes, how do I stop trying to control the uncontrollable? I would love to hear from you on how you have learned to let go of those things that you cannot control. Meanwhile, I need to go check and see what the polls say about the swing states so that I can question the credibility of the sources that disagree with me.

Categories: Athletics, Business, Politics

The picture above looks innocuous enough. Students are often in line—waiting to get into an exam or a class, waiting for tickets to a football game, waiting for a bus. But this line was different. Without my knowledge, my TA emailed my class and told them she would have a get well card for my wife, who has been challenged with heart issues over the last few months. What you see is my TA’s snapshot of the 30-minute-long line that ensued.

These students are currently in my class. Except for one or two, I have only known them for four weeks, and I am still learning names and faces. They have never met my wife, and they know her only by her official title, The World’s Most Beautiful Woman. We have not mentored them or invested in them. In fact, I have not even given them an exam yet.

What you are seeing expressed is honor. Honor is why we blow Silver Taps every month to remember fallen Aggies and why we softly call the Muster. I saw it last Saturday night at Kyle Field, as the entire stadium rose to honor the oldest living Aggie. I saw it even more intensely as everyone rose to applaud for a small group of disabled veterans who were sitting in the end zone bleachers. And the crowd repeated it, section by section, as those veterans moved by on their way out of the stadium in the second half.

Honor, freely given, is a powerful antidote to cynicism. I have observed that one of the characteristics most frequently mocked by detractors of A&M is our unflagging optimism, even in the face of contradictory evidence. I teach professional skepticism to young auditors like the ones you see standing in this line, so it is easy for me to let skepticism devolve into cynicism. But the experiences of my life since coming to Texas A&M have changed me, and I think for the better.

I am looking harder to find the good in things, and I am reconsidering my views when they are not well-informed. I am sitting still more often and taking a step back, rather than immediately trying to solve everyone’s problems. When I receive criticism, it still hurts, but I am less likely to lash back at the critic, and more likely to consider how I should change.

I do not mean to imply that being here has fixed my character problems. (If you cut me off in traffic, I will probably still honk.) But it has undeniably made a difference in my life. These voluntary expressions of honor—by my TA in arranging a card, by my students standing in line—have made it impossible for me to just careen into being a grumpy old professor.

Today I am trying to figure out ways that I can do things better and make the classroom experience richer for my students.

I keep going back to that picture of the line. What do you see there? Boredom, texting, a smile or two, conversation. What do I see?

I see the reason I invest my life at Texas A&M.

Categories: Texas A&M

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