Something has happened to our values. We are supposed to be a highly civilized society; instead we are confronted daily with rampant selfishness, insensitivity and ignorance. More and more people are unaccountable for their behavior. If something goes wrong, it's someone else's fault.
Society is the loser in all of this, because once we lose the ties that knit it together, we cease to be civilized. We seem to be on the precipice of that right now. Everywhere you turn you see or hear about someone cutting corners professionally or in their private lives. What seems to be behind it is a lack of empathy, an inability to see that there are other people in the world with needs, feelings and interests. If you abuse others it will come back to haunt you, but everyone is living as if that won't happen.
Thus, it was interesting for me to read Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan's comments the other day to the graduating class of the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School of Business. Greenspan told the students that their greatest responsibility was to be honest and fair in their future business dealings. "Material success is possible in this world, and far more satisfying, when it comes without exploiting others," he said. "The true measure of a career is to be able to be content, even proud, that you succeeded through your own endeavors without leaving a trail of casualties in your wake."
Greenspan urged the class to hold itself to a higher moral standard and not fall into the trap of cutting corners. He made it clear he felt that corporate scandals such as those at WorldCom, Enron and Tyco have shown a need for an even greater emphasis on trust and personal reputation, and made those qualities even more important. "In virtually all our transactions, whether with customers or with colleagues, with friends or with strangers, we rely on the word of those with whom we do business," he said. "If we could not do so, goods and services could not be exchanged efficiently."
Most people would nod in agreement with Greenspan's words, but I wonder if they really would understand them. When I hear about business dealings these days, it seems that there must always be a winner and a loser. Trust and integrity seem to be old-school values irrelevant to success in business.
Negotiations on business deals and working with colleagues should involve the same attitude. Yes, you want to get ahead in your career, but your success shouldn't come at the expense of everyone around you. The best business deals are win-win situations. If nothing else this is self-preservation. After all, you never know when someone you have treated unfairly will turn out to be someone in a position to hire you or someone you need to get a deal done.
Treating others well and being an honest broker are part of the same package. Even common courtesy is disappearing. All of us are in such a hurry to get to places or to receive a promotion or to make a sale we forget that manners make an impression on everyone. So often I am in contact with people who fail to say "thank you" when I do them a favor. Others won't hold open a door for someone. It's almost as if it costs them something to be nice to people.
Believe me, good manners are still very much in vogue with many successful people. Today, as a matter of fact, many companies have instituted programs in which, before hiring a potential applicant, they will take that person out for a social occasion to see how they behave in public. In many cases how a person behaves in a social setting can be the difference between making a sale or losing one.
I go further in hiring. I want to know how a prospective employee would approach clients in business deals. Do they believe they can succeed without costing their colleagues and clients? There is nothing wrong with healthy competition, but success should come from superior skills, products or services instead of underhanded dealings.
Greenspan's comments made a lot of sense to me. Hurting others and lying and cheating to customers and colleagues are no ways to succeed in the long run. His words should resonate with business leaders, many of whom are themselves insensitive to their employees' needs.
Effective leaders don't order people about just to exercise their power or feather their own nest. Instead, they think of themselves as helpers. They listen, mentor, encourage and expedite. They take their colleagues on a journey with them and along the way make sure their people have all the things they need to do their jobs more effectively. That's real leadership, and it is not necessarily written in a job description.
Those who understand the problems we face in society today have an obligation to do everything in their power to effect change. It can be something small, such as making a show of holding open a door for someone else or saying thanks when someone does something for you. It can be large, such as mentoring others, insisting on ethical practices in corporations or giving back to the community.
We owe it to future generations to be agents of change, threading back together our frayed social ties.
It's human nature,