The second point that successful business leaders agree on is that unethical behavior places your other, nonmonetary business goals at risk. As I have noted throughout this book, most people with successful careers aspire to purposes beyond simply making money, important though that is to them. They want to serve customers, develop new ideas and products, create jobs, make a difference in the world. The CEO of a multinational food service company put it this way: “Money is important for a lot of reasons. It’s a psychological reward. It’s a scorecard. It’s financial security for your family. All these things are important, but it isn’t the prime motivator for me.” When it comes to an ethical dilemma such as the temptation to increase profits by cutting corners on safety, this CEO’s response is unambiguous, indeed practically automatic: “Well, I never would compromise the safety of our customers or employees. Period. Never. All of our people know that. We’re just not going to do it. It doesn’t matter about profits, it’s just one of those things you don’t do. It’s a question of ethics. . . . You can’t compromise your standards.”
When you decide that there are some ethical standards that are absolute, that you will never violate these standards regardless of the consequences, it transforms the way you make your choices. In your mind, you make a preemptive determination not to consider taking the unethical course of action. Then everything becomes simpler. There is no wrestling with temptation, no weighing of the risks, no cost-benefits analyses of the low road versus the high road. You do the right thing because you already have identified it as the only option. That is why ethical behavior has an almost automatic quality to it. It becomes as natural as breathing or jumping out of the way of an oncoming truck, as one leader said. People who orient this way to moral choices are in an enviable position. They experience a great peace of mind as they respond to life’s events, and they acquire a well-deserved reputation for integrity and dependability. They can focus their mental energies on coming up with bold solutions to intransigent problems, because they are saved the debilitating equivocation on moral choices that plague people with less stable ethical compasses.