When times are good, it’s easy to be generous, patient, and honest. Unfortunately, the ease with which these virtues are attained leads to a kind of surface-level “goodness”. Can one be said to be courageous when the courage is never called upon? Who is an honest person that has never had to choose between his or her interests and the truth? What is kindness in prosperous times? Clearly, virtues like girders for skyscrapers must be tested for its reliability and resilience.
Today’s financial crisis is the first collective testing of Western society in a long time, and it is troubling to see the steep decline in ethical standards of people connected within the financial sector. A friend in the mortgage industry speculated that there will be more than a few realtors, investment advisors, and mortgage brokers who will lose their license in the coming years.
Now, more than ever, is a crucial time to remind ourselves who we want to be as a person. As you know, people under pressure tend to lose sight of the bigger picture and revert back primate kinds of behaviours. That is to say, might makes right and exploitation becomes acceptable. Do you want to be that blaming, cursing, cheating chimpanzee?
Why is it so important to pay attention to integrity? It’s not simply about following rules because some rules should be challenged and broken. Nor is it about feeling good about ourselves since there are many unproductive ways of feeling good. Integrity is important because acting in open, honest, “reality-facing” ways is what allows all of us to respond to a crisis together. Break the trust or seek only self-preservation, and we descend as a community to the warring tribes of the past.
Furthermore, we must also hold those that violate that trust to account. With the financial oligarchy on Wall Street pillaging taxpayer’s money and executives of even non-profit companies living with a sense of entitlement, these are times to pay attention to our ethical standards, not let them slide.
Short-term business survival is important, but if it is bought at the expense of the “better angels” of our nature, the business and the community surrounding it will fail in the long-run. The challenge in tough times is not just to get through it, but to get through it with dignity and self-respect and new strength.