Career MazeShortcuts are tempting. When they revolve around issues of right and wrong they are dangerous and sometimes life or business threatening.

Just ask Volkswagen. The firm recently announced a $15 billion dollar settlement for the 500,000 customers in the U.S. impacted by the emissions cheating devices and software they installed on many of their diesel models. The settlement costs for the additional 9 million or so customers around the globe impacted by this blatant attempt to deceive have not yet been established.

The sick joke for the firm’s shareholders, employees and customers is that this scandal occurred just at the zenith of the firm’s success in a battle for market supremacy with rival Toyota.

Was the shortcut worth the brand and potentially the survival of the firm? Hardly, yet it occurred.

The seeds for ethical lapses are sown by a firm’s leaders. Whether by omission or commission, leadership failed at Volkswagen just as it has at so many other firms found complicit in wrong-doing that adversely impacted customers, the environment and ultimately, all stakeholders.

Most often in my experience, the pressure for results invites the idea of taking short-cuts to the corporate party. The environment becomes one of “results at any cost” and minor transgressions—what we call white lies in our daily lives—become the quietly accepted norm.

Once you start down the road where it becomes acceptable to compromise on values the definition of acceptable behaviors expands to include ethical lapses. After all, results count and shortcuts are deemed acceptable in pursuit of our broader goals.

It is implausible to consider leaders in a global firm such as Volkswagen actively planning and advocating for this particular shortcut. Nonetheless, something in the environment suggested that this approach was acceptable, even if it was a blatant attempt to deceive. And it was allowed to happen.

It was a total breakdown in leadership that allowed this toxic behavior to emerge.

The Bottom-Line for Now:

Compromise your ethics just once and it becomes easier to rationalize minor transgressions over and over until they become major. It takes moral courage to stand up to the call for behaviors that cross the line. When it’s your turn, there is only one right choice.

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Practical Lessons in Leadership

book cover: shows title Leadership Caffeine-Ideas to Energize Your Professional Development by Art Petty. Includes image of a coffee cup.

Art Petty is a popular speaker and workshop presenter focusing on helping professionals and organizations learn to survive and thrive in an era of change. When he is not speaking, Art serves senior executives, business owners and high potential professionals as a coach and strategy advisor. Additionally, Art’s books are widely used in leadership development programs. To learn more or discuss a challenge, contact Art.

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