The Bad Witch: Character Counts

Oz06Wicked Witch of the West: You cursed brat! Look what you’ve done! I’m melting! melting! Oh, what a world! What a world! Who would have thought a good little girl like you could destroy my beautiful wickedness? Oooooh, look out! I’m going! Oooooh! Ooooooh!

The list is long. In fact, let’s consider just a few of the more prominent ones… Enron, Chesapeake Energy, Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia, Countrywide Financial, Groupon, American Apparel, and Best Buy. Want to take a guess as to the mutual point of connection amongst all these companies? Yes, they all are very successful companies financially but that’s not the right answer. In this specific instance my concern is found in another common link. Give up yet? Ok, I’ll tell you. The leadership of each of these companies (in many cases the actual founder) was involved in very questionable (if not outright unethical) behavior that had a tremendous, negative impact on the company. Whether it was insider trading, cooking the books, or illicit relationships with company employees each of these organizations fell victim to questionable choices. At the end of the day their economic achievements were all sabotaged by corruption and poor conduct. They all learned the hard way that character counts.

To be fair the wicked witch was running an outstanding organization. Her kingdom was the standard of efficient and effective management. Her vision and mission had been clearly communicated and her influence was evident throughout the entire company. Everyone knew their proper place and everything was in its proper place. Her leadership was unquestioned, the employees were always in the right place at the right time, and the facilities were spotless (OSHA actually looked forward to their annual visit). On the surface her management style seemed flawless. If anyone was on the path to success, it was certainly our green-skinned manager from the West.

There was only one problem though. The woman had some anger and control issues. Okay, she was an evil tyrant (guess that’s where the whole “wicked” thing came in). Step out of line and you were likely to be killed. Confront or challenge her and she would cast a spell on you or set you on fire. Her rule of fear and intimidation made the Wizard seem like a really good guy. The woman was great on management technique but she really lacked character. And in the end that one singular deficiency proved to be her undoing.

I don’t want to sound “morally superior” but I do want to remind each of us that nothing in life happens in a vacuum. No one lives on an island or in total isolation. This is particularly true in the work world. Our choices and our actions have consequences. What we do and what we say has a tremendous ripple effect upon our company and the people who work both for and with us. We cannot continually hope to separate unethical behavior from corporate impact. At some point those two worlds will collide and the ensuing crash is usually not very pretty. Like a train that has run off the tracks, the result is usually waste, ruin, economic disaster, and sometimes, even loss of life.

Ultimately, the witch’s leadership style was undermined by her lack of character. The reality of “who I am” will eventually either reenforce or deteriorate the foundation of my business decisions. If you don’t believe me, just look at the headlines. Newspapers and TV shows are filled with the stories of once prominent CEOs and managers who sacrificed lasting success on the altars of temporary pleasure and unethical pursuits. They made choices and decisions based on fatal flaws in their own character. And in the aftermath they damaged company images, destroyed their families, and forever destined their legacies to be one of doom and gloom. You wonder that if given a second chance, how many of them would do things differently? How many would say no to the insider trading? How many would redo the books and report the numbers accurately and honestly? How many would say no the illicit relationships and moral compromises that so often accompany positions of power and influence? How many would choose character over compromise?

Misfit managers fail to recognize the value of character. They fail to fully appreciate the importance of concepts like honesty, truthfulness, and integrity. For them there is no question about unethical decisions because ethics plays no role in their decisions. The only moral code to which they adhere is the one that promotes their own personal agenda. In the beginning such an approach may actually work. It can lead to quick pay raises and promotions as the misfit manager elevates himself at the expense of others.

But in the long run such an approach always comes at a cost. Just ask the Wicked Witch if it matters. Her entire kingdom was undone by one ethical little girl with a bucket of water. All it takes is one whistleblower, one courageous person who is willing to stand up and speak out, one person who is not afraid to do the right thing and years of questionable and unethical will be exposed. I’ve never understood why leadership is willing to take that risk. In the end the value of doing the right thing always outweighs the gains of doing the wrong thing. Unethical choices always come at a high cost and character counts.