On Leadership
Video | PostLeadership | FedCoach | | Books | About |
Exploring Leadership in the News with Steven Pearlstein and Raju Narisetti

Coro Fellows
Young Leaders

Coro Fellows

As part of the Coro Fellows Program in Public Affairs, these fellows are engaged in a full-time, nine-month, graduate-level leadership training program that prepares individuals for public-affairs leadership.

The meaning of an asterisk

Question: Despite suspension over honor code violations and an ongoing investigation into his recruitment, Auburn's Cam Newton last week won the Heisman Trophy--an award meant to honor "pursuit of excellence with integrity." The award raises a dilemma faced by many organizations: In dealing with top performers, how much should leaders overlook corner cutting, rule breaking and other integrity issues?

The following responses come from three of the fellows who make up the Coro Pittsburgh 2011 Class

Integrity means following the rules*
Add Cam Newton's reception of the Heisman Trophy to the long list of examples of athletic "excellence" coming before sports "integrity." Many names come to mind, but the quintessential example for me can be found in Barry Bonds. It is fascinating that a league that refuses to give Armando Galarraga his deserved perfect game (after an umpire blew the call) will allow Bonds to sit atop the all-time home run list (after on steroids his muscles swelled to surpass his already enormous ego). Bond's illicit use of steroids will undoubtedly aid in his inevitable ascent into baseball's Hall of Fame, while Galarraga's greatest distinction will be the "Medal of Reasonableness" he received from Jon Stewart. It's a pretty sad state of affairs.

But perhaps I am being unfair. Even before Barry Bond's biceps bulged to inhuman levels, his athletic talent was undeniable. As the only player in baseball history to hit at least 500 home runs and steal 500 bases, there should certainly be some sort of recognition for that tremendous feat. My only question is this: In this broken system where sports leaders make the right calls for the wrong people and the wrong calls for the right people, what incentive is there for an athlete to maintain their integrity? Unless leaders make the hard choices and decide to actually value integrity and the rules when they give out awards like the Heisman Trophy, our sports history books are destined to look like this:

Barry Bonds leads the MLB in Home Runs*
There have been 20 perfect games in MLB History*
The Heisman Trophy is awarded for "the pursuit of excellence with integrity*"

*sort of -- Tim Shaw

The invisible asterisk*
The elite have always played by a different set of rules. Often this principle is
most clearly visible in the world of sports, where the gap between the pros and the NCAA seems slimmer and slimmer. Whether it's the heightened national visibility of world-class athletes (as opposed to HR managers or stockbrokers) or the fact that sports, perhaps even more than business, is a cold game of numbers, we regularly see rules bent and terms like "integrity" redefined to neatly fit just about every situation. This, of course, is just a smokescreen for the fact that incoming dollars truly drive what is and is not deemed "acceptable behavior"--just like in any other business.

In a results-oriented culture, we don't often leave leadership much choice but to make decisions about ethics and integrity based on the bottom line. We love playing the apologists for criminals, fools and liars as long as there's a perceived benefit. Whether that benefit yields more wins for the home team, valuable innovation or financial dividends doesn't seem to matter. Unless you want to lose your job, you quite simply don't get rid of a team member that produces, regardless of what type of team you're on. The same is true in the business world. If your No. 1 sales guy has a tendency to play fast-and-loose with the facts, you may seem outwardly disapproving, you might even formally chastise him, but inside you're probably rejoicing at the consistent movement of product.

Generally, it's public outcry that sets an industry's moral and ethical temperature, and most of the time U.S. citizens seem overly content to go with the flow. Unfortunately, there aren't any real, quantifiable points for integrity; and unless society as a whole begins to reject the ethically suspect behavior of athletes and shrewd businessmen, then there aren't any true penalties for lacking it. If the public doesn't seem to mind an asterisk or two, well, play ball... - Daniel Barrett

The politics of the "prize"*
Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo is a husband, a social activist and a poet. He is also a prisoner and criminal, an outspoken dissident of the Chinese government. This year, Liu Xiaobo took his place in the Nobel lineup among other outlawed activists like Aung San Suu Kyi, the politically charged Burmese woman whose release this November sent shock waves through Asia as supporters flocked to meet her, and Carl von Ossietzky, the Nazi critic whose win prompted Hitler to block any other Germans from accepting the prize in the future. For Westerners, labeling these people criminal is almost romantic--we laud them for their bravery and dedication to the pursuit of freedom. Their crimes are negligible because they are committed in the name of human rights; therefore, the laws that they broke must not have been good ones.

Enter Julian Assange--alleged spy, traitor, hacker and rapist. A terrifying symbol of security breaches in the digital age, and a hero of free speech to others. In his belief that extreme transparency forces governments to be more responsible for their actions, he has garnered much public support. On the other hand, while his website WikiLeaks has released documents which have forced proud public figures to hang their heads in shame, and which have demanded military leadership to rethink their responsibility to the public, he is still portrayed solely as a devious hacker in official statements by Obama and Clinton. He is also currently awaiting trial in England for sex crime charges, though his website lives on through hundreds, if not thousands, of mirror sites.

Russia has suggested, somewhat tongue-in-cheek, that Assange be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. If the Nobel Peace Prize is awarded both to those individuals who have assuaged tension between nations and to those who have aggravated them, then why is freedom of speech formally honored in activists such as Xiaobo, but harshly condemned in troublemakers like Assange? Perhaps the lack of boundaries between actions which are characterized as rule-breaking and those which are valued for their integrity is best described by Liu himself in his poem "Daybreak":

what is the difference between the light and the darkness that seems to surface through my eyes' apertures, from my seat of rust I can't tell if it's the glint of chains in the cell, or the god of nature behind the wall daily dissidence makes the arrogant sun stunned to no end
-translated by Jeffrey Yang

So, the question may not be about how much leaders should overlook the corner-cutting, rule-breaking, and integrity-compromising issues of high performers, but rather about who makes the rules and is arrogant enough to believe that they themselves are not breaking them. -- Sophia Yeung

Return to all panelist responses

By Coro Fellows

 |  December 13, 2010; 11:28 PM ET
Category:  A leader's team , Corporate leadership , Ethics , Failures , Leadership personalities , Leadership weaknesses , NFL , Organizational Culture , Pop culture , Quarterbacks , Sports Leadership Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
Previous: Strong character trumps perfection | Next: One strike and you're out

Post a Comment

characters remaining

RSS Feed
Subscribe to The Post

© 2010 The Washington Post Company