Where has all the integrity gone?
For the past week or so, I’ve been reading all about the financial fallout stemming from Bernard Madoff’s arrest. The estimated $50 billion in losses that his massive Ponzi scheme generated, is by far the largest financial loss ever attributed to a single individual.
The saddest part of this saga is the indirect effect: all the businesses that relied on investments with Bernie’s firm, particularly non-profit organizations such as the Picower Foundation. Many jobs will be lost, and even more valuable services will be shutdown – all because of the dishonesty and lack of integrity of one man. At least one man. We are probably weeks away from getting the full scope of the impact, and finding out all the underlying details of this debacle.
It did not have to be this way. There were those who saw problems with Bernie Madoff’s organization years ago, but they were ignored. When things are going well, no one wants to hear or accept bad news. Too many people are all too willing to embrace the Emperor and his new clothes, regardless of how little supportive evidence exists, and sometimes, despite a preponderance of evidence in opposition to it!
It doesn’t help that the very institutions that are supposed to guard against these actions were derelict in their duties. Or just plain inept. For instance, the SEC has admitted that it failed to catch on to the Madoff scheme, despite early warnings.
All of this speaks to a lack of personal and corporate integrity. And it seems that integrity is something that is so hard to find these days. Many people are quick to speak about what they stand for, but they forget the old adage that “actions speak louder than words”. Your character is not based on what you say about yourself, but rather how you conduct yourself.
Anyone can say what they stand for. They key is not in the hearing, but in the seeing. Sadly, there are many whose conduct betrays their well-crafted speeches, yet they maintain an eager following – right up until disaster strikes. Each year, we see fewer and fewer men and women who stand for something ethical, upright, moral, or even noble – yet, we see and hear an ever-increasing number who are willing to say that they do.
And we blind our senses to their inconsistency and incongruity, until there is major collateral damage – damage that might include ourselves. We continue to idolize men and women, and rationalize our interactions with them – even when the evidence of our senses suggests that something is amiss. Rather than maintain our own integrity, we turn a blind eye, or even facilitate the fraud. We make excuses for our support, right up until a company, neighborhood, industry, or nation is damaged.
Ultimately, Bernard Lawrence Madoff will likely go down in history as the perpetrator of the largest financial scam ever. But, even if it is proven than he did it without any direct assistance or collaboration from any other member of his family or organization, it will still be true that he was successful for as long as he was due to the lack of personal integrity from many who could have acted sooner, including those same family members, the SEC, and various auditors.
As Edmund Burke said long ago, “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.”
So, let’s stop talking about integrity, and start living lives with integrity – where our words and actions are in complete harmony. More than that, let us stop making excuses for those who do not hold themselves to that same standard.
We are accountable not just to ourselves, but to society on a whole…