What does Lance’s confession mean to business?

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The omnipresence and universality of sport in society is undeniable. The life and times of sports stars, whether they are soccer geniuses like Lionel Messi or cycling heroes like Lance Armstrong are so interwoven into the fabric of families, friendships, and business connections that it can be argued that sport plays a role in shaping and dictating companies’ business fortunes.

For example, golf focuses on the honour system and sportsmanship – two major attributes in a business world increasingly making decisions based on trust.

Ninety-seven percent of executives surveyed in “From the Boardroom to the Back Nine: The importance of golf in business”, said that golfing with a business associate was a good way to establish a close relationship.

But they said in the survey that wheeling and dealing on the fairway wasn’t always virtuous – 20 percent of executives said they would let a client beat them if they thought it would get them more business and 82 percent of executives admit to cheating on the golf course.

Even as we all agree that sports teaches values, that those who participate in sport claim they learn respect, responsibility, self-discipline, sportsmanship, and teamwork, there is no doubt that some believe that looking out for one’s own self-interest often seems to trump everything else. So we should not be surprised that Armstrong cheated his way to fame and fortune.

After 13 years of fierce denials, Armstrong admitted to Oprah Winfrey during a recent interview that he did indeed use performance-enhancing drugs to win the Tour de France seven times.

Armstrong said he started doping in the mid-1990s, using blood booster erythropoietin, testosterone, cortisone and human growth hormone, as well as engaging in outlawed blood doping and transfusions. The doping regimen, he said, helped him in all seven of his Tour de France wins.

Two weeks ago a Liverpool soccer star admitted to faking a tackle from an opposition player so that the team could be awarded a penalty.

When Liverpool star Luis Suarez admitted that he had “invented a fall, because we were drawing at home to Stoke and we needed anything to win it”, it was a devastating blow to the coach Brendan Rodgers.

The coach called the striker to his office and told him he wanted his teams to “be winners, but winners in the right way, with the best sporting manner”.

“We have a philosophy here – the team always going into every game looking to win in the best possible way and sporting manner and we don’t want that to change,” the coach told reporters.

“I sat down with Luis and talked to him. He knows how I feel and what we are trying to do. This is a big club, bigger than anyone, and whatever people say goes around the world. He accepts that and understands now.

“I said at the time it was the wrong thing to do. I need to protect the club and if anything puts that in jeopardy I will deal with that. Luis is aware of my feelings,” Rodgers said.

“In fairness to Luis, most players wait until the end of their careers when they are writing their books to put it in. He has been honest enough to come out and say it in the middle of his career.” he joked.

So, in today’s world characterised by corporate executives fabricating financial records, employees cheating employers, and thousands falsifying their taxes, it should come as no surprise that athletes like Armstrong choose to cheat in sports.

Like in sports, the purpose of business is to serve people (the customers) with a good product, employees with fair wages, shareholders with profits and the community through taxes and philanthropy.

Cheating has helped some executives get ahead in life by prioritising themselves, regardless of how much harm they may cause to others.

I am not accusing all executives of being greedy and power-hungry. Many of them are doing wonderful things for many people, and they are building up their asset base to pass on to their children. However, there are those who are so greedy and who have such a low regard for their fellow man that they would steal, lie and cheat to gain material possessions. And then they lavish themselves with the trappings from their ill-gotten gains.

We live in a society in which obtaining a goal or an end can become more important than how you go about obtaining it. Our society is centred on results.

These become so powerful that people lose sight of the means to achieve it. Or they decide that it’s worth the cost.

In fact, the opposite is true. Cheats forget that cheating undercuts a company or an organisation’s value. What profit-making requires is honesty and integrity.

The fundamental principle of business should always be the voluntary exchange of value for value, to mutual advantage.

To succeed, businesses must ensure that what they offer is of consistently high quality. A company whose product is defective, or which seeks to cheat its customers, loses its business.

Unfortunately in today’s business there are pragmatic corner-cutters who ignore the fact that there is value by subscribing to honesty and creating quality products and services and maintaining the company’s reputation over many years – more so than by cheating.

It is a pity that immoral actions seem to be justifiable in pursuit of victory. This is neither a new development nor one limited to the sports or corporate world.

The antics of the executives whose corporate integrity is being challenged damage the reputations of all executives who obey laws, care for their employees and play fair.

When skulduggery is uncovered within companies, it jeopardises not just the money of investors, but the jobs of employees and the public’s confidence in the economic system.

Therefore, having a corporate leader with a strong moral compass is essential. When that’s missing, the foundation of a company is shaky.

Let us learn to recognise and reward the real face of leadership. Let’s continue our education in the art of leadership by reminding ourselves of the difference between celebrities and heroes. Celebrities, as the old saying goes, are people who are famous for being famous. Heroes are people who do the right thing – whether you know their names or not. Cheating has no place in honesty and leadership.

So what is the ethical advantage used by the most successful companies?

n A commitment to performance for all stakeholder groups.

n Leaders who “walk the talk” in their personal behaviour.

n Institutional integrity, so that employees feel free, even obligated, to do the right thing, even if it has a short-term cost.

In his book, Good to Great, Jim Collins says at some time in their tenure, executives face a dilemma: They can do what is best for themselves and their careers – for their celebrity – or they can do what is best for their company.

Without exception, Collins says, chief executives who took their companies from good to great chose the path that was best for their companies. Let that be the lesson.

- Liza van Wyk is the chief executive of AstroTech Training, which offers leadership training.


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