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Mark McGwire's 'confession' in a culture of entitlement

John Baldoni
John Baldoni is a leadership consultant, coach, and speaker. He writes the "Leadership at Work" column for HarvardBusiness.org, and his most recent book is Lead Your Boss: The Subtle Art of Managing Up.

It's not about the juice. Anymore.

Mark McGwire, the former home run slugger, came "clean" last week when he confessed the worst-kept secret in major league baseball: he used performance enhancement drugs. Ever since McGwire told a Congressional committee in 2005 that "I'm not here to talk about the past," he has lived a life in baseball exile.

Now that the St. Louis Cardinals have hired him as a hitting coach, it was obligatory that he talk about his usage. But his confession, despite his tears, seemed oddly hollow when he said the drugs did not help him hit home runs, only to stay healthy. "I don't buy that for a second," said Travis Tygart, executive director of U.S. Anti-Doping agency. "It's sort of disappointing that you don't come clean, take full responsibility."

McGwire's avoidance act is not unique. Such avoidance of responsibility was of course on display in the financial crisis of 2008. Seemingly trustworthy executives put their companies and shareholders at great risk and then, incredulously, many insisted on receiving bonuses despite mind-numbing losses. Saying sorry and making things right weren't in their repertoire.

The lack of accountability continues. Managers at financial firms that were rescued by federal bailout funds are now acting as if nothing had happened. They are receiving six-, seven- and even eight-figure bonuses. In some cases the amount of the bonus pool is equal to what the government pitched in.

So what is it in our culture that makes avoidance of accountability so easy? You might say we have created a culture of entitlement. Too many of us feel we are owed things. As a result too many of us feel that we can do what we want when we want. And I am not talking about criminal behavior, but more devil-may care behavior.

My late father was a family practice physician in a small town. Occasionally he would express frustration that a few of his patients would ignore conventional prevention advice about smoking, unhealthy eating and alcohol overindulgence, and then, when stricken with a self-inflicted disease, would expect "modern medicine" to cure them.

Dad's patients aside, most people do not avoid accountability in their personal lives. Most citizens are loyal to their families, spouses, jobs and communities. They are also solid citizens. Look at the outpouring of aid to Haiti in the wake the earthquake. Community volunteerism is an American hallmark.

But somehow the accountability we hold for ourselves does not extend to "big shots." If so then Mark McGwire never would have appeared on television with noted broadcaster Bob Costas to make his public confession. And the many financial executives who received bonuses despite their dismal performance would have had those funds impounded.

The solution is straightforward. Insist on accountability and most important its consequences. Easy to say, but hard to enforce!

One thing we can do is teach our children that accountability matters. Despite what they see on television, the differences between right and wrong do matter. We also need to draw the thread between cheating in sports is the same as cheating in business. There should be consequences. If our kids do see people get away with things, we can use this as a lesson that life is not fair but that is no excuse for our personal failings. Accountability begins in the home.

As of now McGwire's denial seems in keeping with our times. He and the financial executives who are stuffing their pockets at federal expense are as "clean" as we expect them to be. Let's change that expectation, at least for our children.

By John Baldoni

 |  January 19, 2010; 1:55 PM ET |  Category:  Sports leadership Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
Previous: Overcoming our disaster myopia in Haiti | Next: Bob Gates, an unsung leader

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Where is the commissioner of baseball in all this? Silent.

Posted by: tjhall1 | January 21, 2010 12:01 PM

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