I got into a discussion the other day with my good friend Tony Alibrio about some of the elements of a civilized society that seem to be in short supply these days, such as character, empathy and ethics. Tony knows his stuff, having spent about 37 years as a senior executive in the healthcare industry before retiring in March 2001 as chief of the healthcare division of Sodexho Marriott, where he managed a workforce of 75,000 people and serviced some 1,000 hospitals and long-term-care facilities. And he did so with the highest integrity, an example for others to follow.
Tony and I agreed that any successful relationship-be it in one's business or personal life-must involve trust, for which you have to have all three of the elements I just mentioned and more. Trust is an endangered species in our society, from Capitol Hill to the boardroom to the workplace and even to our schools, with disastrous consequences for all.
The reason that Tony and I got on this topic is obvious. Look at what is happening in corporate America. The selfishness, greed and egomania of those involved in some of the most egregious scandals of the past few years have been mind-boggling. The philosophy of those involved-including some in our industry-seems to be self-aggrandizement at all costs.
The pattern keeps repeating. In communications, energy, financial services (mutual funds being the latest), government contracts, medical products and services, sports and just about any other business, you can find people who have forgotten about everything but getting rich. They are willing to flout the laws, endanger their companies and even hurt their own families in the mindless pursuit of dollars they did not earn.
I wonder what happened to these people. I want to know when they lost their moral compass, their sense of duty, their concern for consequences. Did it happen when they were little kids, when they may have been given a sense of entitlement? In college, where they may have skirted the rules and gotten away with it? In their early careers, watching others get paid more handsomely? Maybe the excesses of the "me generation," with its focus on individualism, have come home to roost and we are witnessing the payoff. Whatever it is, these people seem to have had life experiences that taught them that they are not subject to the rules everyone else must follow. They are incapable of contemplating the possibility of disgrace until it's too late.
I know people who roll their eyes when I start talking about trust and ethics, even those in healthcare. But I often wonder how anyone in the business of caring for others cannot understand the need for values. This is a values-based business, after all.
I am absolutely convinced that character, empathy and ethics have to be taught at all levels in schools. We have to teach early and then reinforce the notion that giving in to the temptation to bend or break the rules, even if it seems nobody is watching, is never a good idea-for you or for those around you.
Another part of making our system more ethical is leadership. Great leaders regard themselves as servants to others, not as the font of all wisdom or the only important person in an organization. It is their example that guides an organization, and when the leader lacks strong ethics, that is when things begin to unravel. I submit that one of the reasons for the resurgence of older executives returning to run businesses is because of their value systems. They are bringing back that old-time spirit of the Golden Rule, honesty and integrity.
Perhaps there will be a turnaround in what we have been seeing in our news pages of late, as those who don't feel they should have to abide by the rules of good citizenship and business ethics are weeded out of the leadership posts. Most companies, after all, don't define success as one person getting rich at the expense of everyone else. They view success as the organization as a whole becoming more profitable and productive.
Leadership can only go so far if people aren't willing to be accountable. Those who work in healthcare and other industries have to map out their own mission, values and vision. It helps to have good leaders, but ultimately it is up to everyone in corporate America to honor each other and to work and live honestly.
Tony Alibrio has those values and spent a career inculcating them in others. He has been a super role model for healthcare. In turn, I have always been proud of being involved in healthcare because of the values that 99% of people in the industry bring to taking care of their fellow human beings. Thank you, Tony, for giving me the idea for this column and reminding me what being in business is all about-sharing our common values.
It's a privilege,
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Lauer is the author of two books, Reach for the Stars and Soar with the Eagles, and is an experienced guest lecturer available for public speaking engagements. For more information, visit www.chucklauer.com