Sure, you might say. We try to live by the Golden Rule when it comes to our personal relationships. But when it comes to business, to professional achievement, the Golden Rule oftentimes morphs into something more mercenary: "Beat the competition at any cost; they'd do the same to you." In this country, competition and winning are our great traditions. Winning, however, has come to be measured solely as having more—and nine times out of ten, we're talking about money. Money is one of the most objective, unambiguous measuring sticks we have for success. And as an entrepreneur, I'm aware of the fact that, whatever else its aims, a company is ultimately in business to make money. It has to be, not only to grow, but merely to survive.
So, does integrity have a place in today's business environment? After all, during the roaring nineties no one complained about aggressive companies; a rising tide lifts all boats, so we were content not to ask how their phenomenal "growth" was being achieved. Recalling the words of Alan Greenspan, our irrational exuberance gave way to infectious greed. It was the eighties all over again, except this time greed's mechanism was the Information Economy and the power of the Internet. We became addicted to money—though some would say we always have been—and one of the hallmarks of addiction is a focus on the immediate payoff, even when the result is longterm disaster.
However, while greed may seem to have tainted the quintessential American values of competition and winning, integrity can bring them back into the light. Sandy Costa, now in private law practice, tells a story of integrity in a competitor:
I had a tough negotiation involving a property matter. It was worth millions of dollars. This lawyer was representing a builder, I was representing one of the companies I work for.
Well, one of our assistants hit a wrong button on the fax machine and accidentally faxed this lawyer a crucial document that we had written internally. So I called him and explained the situation. He put the phone down, walked to the fax machine, sat back down, and said, "I am now tearing it up." And I heard him ripping paper.
To this day, there's no question in my mind that he tore that document up. That's because I had dealt with this person long enough and I was absolutely certain of his integrity. This is the type of person you love to deal with, as opposed to the one who would be running down the hall saying, "Guess what I just got!"
At the end of the day, if you're dealing with someone in any relationship that is at some level contentious—and I don't mean that in a pejorative sense—and yet you find him easy to deal with, it's probably because that person has integrity.
Integrity is not incompatible with competition, with seeking to win and earn a profit. Honest competition brings out the best in us, and profits ensure that an organization endures and is able to impact people's lives, be they customers, investors, or employees.
Santo J. Costa, interview by author, March 17, 2003.