“First you get on, then you get honest, then you get honors.” — Lew Wasserman
Q: Why doesn’t Tiger Woods cheat?
A: He doesn’t have to.
It would appear that rumors of Tiger Woods’ career demise are premature. The former “Tiger” manchild is back as a man, and professional golfers are feeling nervous.
Why doesn’t Tiger have to cheat? Because he has a huge competitive advantage over every other golfer.
What’s a competitive advantage? There are three things going on when you’re playing against Tiger (and the same was true of Jack Nicklaus 30 years ago). One, you know Tiger can beat you. Two, Tiger knows he can beat you. And three, Tiger knows that you know he can beat you. That is a competitive advantage.
Competitive advantage or lack thereof is the key to ethical behavior in sports, in business, and in life.
Sometimes it is the perception of one’s own competitive advantage rather than the reality of it that is the greatest determinant of that individual’s behavior. It is a foregone conclusion that Bill Gates would have been very successful had he been ethical throughout his career. But having not recognized, realized, or in essence perceived his inherent competitive advantage early in his career, Bill Gates, entrepreneur, may have been tempted to stack the deck in his favor to guarantee winning. Now, as the wealthiest man on the planet and with huge successes in the can, respect and esteem from supposedly non-ethically challenged pals like Warren Buffett, respect from his wife, and unadulterated trust from his children Bill Gates appears to (borrow from the movie, “As Good As it Gets) “want to be a better man” — and is aspiring to become the ethical elder statesman of technology.
Ethical behavior is directly proportionate to competitive advantage. The greater the competitive advantage, the easier it is to be honest. The greater the competitive disadvantage (compounded by unrelenting pressure to meet unrealistic expectations), the greater the temptation to stray or lie. In golf, this translates into taking an ungiven gimme putt, moving your ball to a better lie in the woods, or just writing down a different score than what you actually played.
In fact, the way people play golf — honestly or not — tells you a great deal about their character (and, I would add, ethics) according to the late Mark McCormack, founder and chairman of IMG, an international management organization that handles the commercial affairs for sports figures and celebrities.
In business, “taking a preferred lie” without asking becomes manipulating numbers to meet earnings projections, expensing personal expenses, and misleading customers, shareholders, or employees.
The temptation to cheat can be very seductive whether it is triggered by greed among the “haves,” who feel that more is not enough; jealousy among the “have nots,” who moan that success is not happening to them; or desperation among the fearful, who are just trying to survive.
When ethics are breached, public outcry causes a President and Congress to quickly pass a Sarbanes-Oxley Act. It is short sighted to confuse the deterrents by regulatory legislation with definitive solutions to these problems.
Short term though they may be, these deterrents are necessary first reactions to such events. They are an intervention to keep the backlash of outrage from the exploited from spinning out of control and turning into mindless, widespread lynchings. Two wrongs don’t make a right.
By themselves, such remedies are doomed to fail. In a competitive environment — especially one in which the vast majority of people shade the truth or fudge an expense report — people who do not develop a true competitive advantage through the dedication, hard work, and focused determination of a Tiger Woods or Jack Nicklaus will lie and justify it by saying, “Everyone else does it.”
The only way to stop such behavior is for companies to increase their true competitive advantage by consistently increasing the real (vs. manipulated) value of their products and services well beyond their competition and well beyond their customers’ and clients’ expectations. Companies that can’t find ways to get ahead competitively will find ways to cut corners.
You start down a slippery slope when you start to lie to others or yourself. You can’t be a little bit pregnant, and you can’t be just a little bit of a liar.