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Gut Check: Are You Strong Enough To Avoid Temptation?

15.05.15 temptation

It’s the kind of headline that has unfortunately become too common place in business today.

A few weeks ago, Clyde Campbell, former CEO and managing director of Fiat Chrysler Australia, was accused of misappropriating more than $23 million US in company funds. It is believed he used the money for personal gratification, including trips, entertainment, memberships to exclusive golf clubs and marinas, renovations to personal residences and other luxury items like power yachts.

The allegations include concerns that Campbell had direct involvement as an owner or director, or was related to by family or friendship, of a number of contractors that received millions of dollars in payments for questionable or unnecessary work.

Even worse, it seems that Campbell’s extreme abuse of company funds was indicative of a culture of entitlement and misappropriation. It was also revealed that at least two other senior executives followed the example set by Campbell and misused company money for their personal enrichment.

Whenever a story like this arises, I always try to figure out what it was exactly that these people were thinking when they stole from and cheated the company that employed them? Seriously, could anyone actually justify this kind of bad behavior?

In my book, The Leadership Contract, I specifically discuss the need for all leaders to anticipate the temptations that come with the job: the power, the fame and, of course, the money. It takes a strong leader to negotiate all those fringe benefits and remain moral and ethical. Just as we’re seeing with Fiat Chrysler Australia, far too many leaders simply cannot resist taking more than they deserve.

It doesn’t always mean that these bad people have always been that way. What seems to be clear however is there are those who simply can’t resist the temptations that often come with holding a senior leadership role. Why do some fall and commit unethical or immoral acts? While others don’t?

New research published by the Society for Personality and Social Psychology suggests that otherwise good people can do some pretty bad things if they are not prepared to deal the temptations that come with leadership.

The authors of the research found that when someone anticipates temptation, and is reminded of the moral and ethical implications of doing a bad thing, they are much less likely to succumb.

The interesting study focused its work on a study of nearly 200 business-school students, who participated in a mock real estate transaction involving historic properties. One group of students was put through a series of exercises to remind them of the need to preserve the historic properties, and the importance of not succumbing to unethical behavior. The other group was told it was representing a client that wanted to acquire the heritage property with the expressed purpose of demolishing it to build something new.

The results were quite clear. More than two thirds of the students who underwent no preparation lied about the real purpose behind the purchase of the heritage property; less than half of those who had been reminded about the moral and ethical imperatives of preserving the heritage property lied.

The study’s authors concluded that in the absence of specific warnings about the perils of temptation, human nature leads us to believe that it is okay to break the rules and do bad things. “Unethical behavior may not be experienced as something that needs to be resisted if people think it’s socially acceptable or does not reflect on their moral self-image,” the report stated.

What does this mean for leaders? I believe anytime you accept a leadership position, you need to cultivate the self-awareness and honesty that will allow you to anticipate those moments when you might get yourself into trouble. You need to know what can tempt you and cause you to behave badly.

Far too many leaders today accept their roles with arrogance instead of humility. As a result, they give little thought to ethical and moral standards of their roles. Or they downplay them, assuming they are strong enough to resist any temptation they may face.

A better place to start is to accept right off the bat that you will face temptation in your leadership role. You will be afforded access to certain resources, and the power to make certain decisions, all of which could be opportunities for you to put your self-interest ahead of everything else. If you know that these temptations exist at the outset, you may be better prepared to make the right decisions when tempted.

This week’s Gut Check asks: are you strong enough to avoid temptation?

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About the Author

Vince Molinaro is a speaker, consultant, executive at Lee Hecht Harrison, and author of the New York Times bestseller The Leadership Contract now in its second edition.

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