I do not in any way feel “above” those who have been excoriated for making infamous moral mistakes in business. Rather, I believe that anyone can make such a mistake and, more important, that anyone can learn from that mistake and do better next time. Below is the story of my own first business venture.
When I was in high school, I wrote for a school literary magazine. In those days (to date myself), a town printing shop set the type for these magazines, and I had great fun working with the printers on layout designs for my stories. Indeed, I felt like I had acquired a magical new power to create professional-looking print products (this was long before the days of personal computers and software print shops). One day an entrepreneurial question flashed through my brain: What kinds of print products did I and my friends most need? The answer that occurred to me, unfortunately, was not school literary magazines. It was, rather, phony ID cards, to be used for the sole purpose of buying six-packs of the cheapest beer we could find.
So the business plan was as follows: I got the local printers to reproduce small cards that read “State of Wyoming Operator’s Licence” at a cost of $25 for five hundred cards. (I neglected to note what was being operated and I misspelled license.) I then sold the cards at school for $1 per, netting a profit of $475. What ensued was not pretty.
One of my friends was caught using his fake ID at a liquor store in his hometown. He reported where he got the thing, and I ended up on “social probation” for the rest of the year. As part of my torment, I received stern lectures from two police officers—a “bad cop,” who told me that if he had his way I would be “sent up the river” as a juvenile delinquent for what I did, and a “good cop,” who patiently explained to me that I could have brought about terrible harm, such as causing a deadly drunk-driving accident. I also received stern warnings from every teacher and assistant principal in sight.
Looking back, there is no doubt in my mind that I learned a lasting lesson from my misdeed and its unpleasant consequences. My moral mistake was that there was no useful purpose behind my business venture. The business idea was corrupt from the start, accomplishing nothing more than exploiting a market demand that itself was illegitimate: the drinking-age law was on the books for perfectly good reasons, including the very real risk that underage drinkers could injure themselves and others in a drunk-driving accident. The only goal that I could have possibly had was making a quick buck by exploiting the scarcity of ways that my friends could employ to buy liquor, a scarcity that was, in fact, socially desirable. This hardly gave my venture a noble purpose, by any definition of the phrase.
Although at the time I was far from happy about getting caught, I was fortunate to receive such a stinging lesson while still young. The distinguished psychologist Fritz Oser has found that people learn many of their most memorable moral lessons from mistakes that they have made. Oser calls this the process of “negative morality.” In the course of development, we turn away from behavior that we discover to be wrong, abhorrent, or harmful to ourselves and others. We are lucky when we learn such lessons early in life, for a number of reasons. For one thing, mistakes made when we are young are more easily forgiven than those made when we are older. If the lesson is well learned, it helps us avoid further mistakes. And events encountered during youth are memorable and leave a strong impact on one’s developing sense of morality.
But it is never too late for people to change their behavior after an experience of negative morality. Nor is it always necessary for us to experience the negative example firsthand. In our interviews for this book, for example, the majority of business leaders with whom we spoke referred to “anti-mentors” who demonstrated ways of doing business that the leaders did not want to emulate. Often the influence of the anti-mentor was as great or greater than those who were positive role models. In a few cases, the leaders gave the anti-mentors more credit for (inadvertently) helping them shape their values than any positive mentors they could think of: the moral misdirections were so sharp, and the consequences of the misdirected behavior so clear, that the future leaders felt compelled to build their careers around key contrasts with the anti-mentor.
People can learn new values throughout their lives, gaining knowledge from observing the catastrophes that befall themselves and others. What is needed is a vivid sense that the observed behavior was wrong and a framework of understanding that defines the right direction for the future. Many people improve their behavior because they have learned from their mistakes (this is the educational benefit that Oser has called “negative morality”). My own moral mistake stemmed from a lack of noble purpose in my business venture—or, to put it more baldly, a purpose based on little more than avarice as well as a disregard for the legal and ethical consequences. It was a serious mistake, and I learned a lifelong lesson. It is up to others, of course, to determine whether my adult behavior has reflected that teenage lesson.
Everyone makes mistakes. What is decisive is how we respond to our own mistakes. Do we take responsibility for them, do we make restitution, do we examine and reflect on those mistakes, do we try to do better next time? Even the most profound corruption begins in small steps—a compromise made here, a corner cut there. Without noticing it, we can be well on our way to moral degradation before anything has gone wrong; in fact, the first few steps down (degradation literally means “stepping down”) may feel comfortable, even exhilarating. But it is never too late to stop and step back up. The prerequisite, of course, lies in recognizing the moral mistake.
F. Oser, Moralische Selbsbestimmung: Modelle Der Entwicklung und Erziehung im Wertebereich, Berlin: Klett-Cotta, 2001.