When The Top Isn’t High Enough
Martha Stewart, an entrepreneur whose sheets, pillowcases, house paints,
home decorating books and magazines, and whole mode of life made her a
household adjective, is indicted on charges of lying about a stock trade.
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Sammy Sosa, not just a good home-run hitter but a record-breaking home-run
hitter, is discovered with a corked bat.
Jayson Blair, a young journalist whose talent and ambition caught
management’s eye at the mighty New York Times, makes up stories.
Apparently it isn’t enough these days just to be successful, talked-about,
rich. It would seem that scrambling to the top of the pinnacle of the
tallest spire has become so all-important that the bright and talented
sometimes resort to cheating to get there. Maybe Ms. Stewart did nothing
wrong, and maybe Mr. Sosa did grab the wrong bat, as he says. But clearly
our society loves a winner – to the point that some will do anything to win.
“We now see people, relatively commonly it seems, taking extra steps so
they can be the very best rather than just very good,” says Mike Shaub, who
teaches accounting at San Antonio’s St. Mary’s University. Mr. Shaub, who
describes himself as a huge baseball fan, chalks it up to the star
mentality we seem to have developed. “You see it in sports, you see it in
business, you see it in academe. There are the stars. And then there are
Mr. Shaub has written a paper, “Corked Financial Statements,” in which he
examines the analogies between the athletes who cork their bats and
companies such as Enron, WorldCom and HealthSouth that cook their books.
“Perhaps part of the blame is ours,” he says. “Our hero worship of muscled
sluggers and successful CEOs has made us willing to believe the unbelievable.
“Perceptions are everything in our society. I have students who think they
can present a front that will mislead me about who they really are. I have
to work very hard to teach my own children that who you are is more
important than what you seem to be.”
Pressure on behavior
Anthony Pagano, associate professor of management and lecturer on ethics at
the University of Illinois in Chicago, cautions that “Martha Stewart still
needs to have her day in court. We still have to presume she’s innocent.
And with regard to Sammy Sosa, baseball has to conduct its investigation to
see if this is a long-time thing or just a mistake.”
That said, he says, people at the top of their game have a responsibility
to avoid even the appearance of wrongdoing.
From the melancholy parade of CEOs dragged before the courts and cameras,
to students cheating at his own university, Mr. Pagano sees a general
decline in ethics. People sense this decline, he says, and so there’s a
tendency to make examples of the most conspicuous offenders.
“Chicago papers are full of Sammy Sosa stuff. That’s why people at the top,
especially today, have to be very, very careful to not in the least way do
anything that casts doubts on their ethical behavior,” Mr. Pagano says.
J.D. Mayo, veteran basketball coach at Skyline High School in Dallas, says
that when an athlete showboats or cheats, it leaves a powerful impression
It’s not necessary to cut corners to get to the top, Mr. Mayo says. And his
own teams prove it – more than 550 victories in 28 years of coaching.
To counteract the influence of the cheaters and showboaters, Mr. Mayo says
he insists his athletes observe the highest standards. They wear suits and
ties on game days. They may be heroes around the school, but they are
expected to open doors for others and to stop and pick up trash in the
hallways. In short, to be good citizens.
“That’s just setting a good example for the rest of the school,” Mr. Mayo
“What we ask of our players is – in this order – to put morals and
principles and values at a very high priority. Second, we ask them to be
“A third priority is basketball skills.”
But when they leave school behind, Mr. Mayo’s students will enter a world
that places an ever greater premium on winning.
“We’re in a win-at-all-costs society,” says Tim Redman, director of the
chess program at University of Texas at Dallas. UTD’s team was the
winningest in the nation last year. This year, it placed second in the
Final Four of college chess competition to perennial rival University of
But UMBC has come under criticism for recruiting players that rivals say
are of dubious eligibility.
Mr. Redman says the pressures at the top are such that last year he was
tempted to recruit a Dallas- area grand master to his squad. But there were
lingering doubts about the player’s eligibility; after talking it over with
associates and officials, Mr. Redman dropped the idea.
“Winning is not the mission of the university,” he says. “Truth is the
mission of the university.
“Sometimes it’s best to be No. 2.”
Changing the rules
Once upon a time, society – backed up by church and other authorities –
defined success in clear terms, understood by all, says Dr. Lisa Newton,
director of the Program in Applied Ethics at Fairfield University, in
Fairfield, Conn., and a professor of philosophy. “When a person had a
comfortable income, a respected place within the community, society
pronounced that person a success.”
Now, she says, the attitude is, “I made $2 million today. Can I make $4
million tomorrow? Never a thought to who am I hurting. We’ve just seen so
much of this. The people at Enron were already rich, were millionaires,
“Nothing breeds excess like excess.”
Bob Steele, director of the ethics program at The Poynter Institute, a
training center in Florida for journalists, says, “When you start getting
to the top of the hill, people notice you, or you think they notice you. So
you put increased pressure on yourself to go to the next higher hill, and
then the next.”
Those at the top tend to develop a sense of invulnerability, Mr. Steele
says. “In American journalism, at least, we often glorify athletes and
movie stars and celebrities well beyond their true worth to our society,”
he says. Talent is equated with virtue. And the famous start believing
their own press releases.
Success piled on success sometimes gives the rich and famous the illusion
that there are no limits, no holes in their armor. The temptation arises to
We all do it, Mr. Steele says. “Sometimes we go through a yellow light when
we should be stopping. We stretch the truth a little bit to make our role
sound a little more important. What can happen when you cut corners, and
you’re challenged, or you believe you’re challenged, is you start to cut
But just as the media make reputations, they can unmake them with
“These individuals choose to be on pedestals, and we shine extra light on
them,” Mr. Steele says.
“In turn, when they stumble or when they fall, they die by their celebrity.”