We see it in sports, we see it in business and we see it in politics. The period where people decide that there is nothing they will not do, to “succeed”. Where people become so wrapped up in their arena that they loose the global perspective. The end justifies the means. Risks are ignored.
Where is the line? What distinguishes healthy success from unhealthy?
The line is not drawn by rules or ethics it is drawn by where the cost of success is deferred or externalised or both.
Healthy success enriches all stakeholders. Unhealthy success impoverishes some.
In sports you can look at the doping culture of cycling and see that those who doped may have enriched their suppliers, but ended up impoverishing everyone else, including themselves.
In politics the stark example of Middle Eastern dictators and their courts, enjoying riches at the expense of the people.
In business, the last and next banking crises where enriching bankers has cost us all dearly. Or in any business where short term profits are prioritised at the expense of staff, society or the environment.
Of course the tempting thing about unhealthy success is that it can look like a short cut, and people do appear to get away with it, but we seldom see the inner anguish it creates. The “if you can’t beat them, join them” logic, justifies it.
David Millar has just written a deeply moving and agonisingly honest account of his inner anguish at the heart of a, largely doped, pro cycling peleton. “Racing Through The Dark”, exposes the challenges we all face to our integrity. And the personal and wider price we pay for separating our values from our actions. See this interview with David which reflects the book.
Like many of us, he was sucked in by the “if you can’t beat them, join them” logic. Drawn to the dark side, his ethics and values, slowly eroded by the prevailing culture until he was ready to abandon part of his identity.
Culture is a powerful thing, it takes immense courage and bloody mindedness for an insider to stand up to a prevailing culture, especially if that culture appears to offer what we crave.
If, like David, you are well paid to “get with the programme”, how do you also confront it?
Much of my work these days is ultimately about culture change. Helping to shift the culture of a team or organisation from destructive, success at any price, short term thinking to a broader, wider and healthier perspective.
Making these cultural shifts is an agonising process and cycling again provides an interesting analogy. Up to the infamous “Festina Affair” of 1998, doping was tacitly accepted within cycling. Tests and controls were poor and at best teams turned a blind eye, at worst they were involved.
You might think that the shock and threat of police raids, arrests and imprisonment would be enough to persuade professional athletes to change their culture, and it probably did for a few. But many were sufficiently addicted to their way of doing things and sufficiently insecure to not change.
One of the key elements of this process is that an activity that was once “rewarded” suddenly becomes unacceptable, and there is an old guard who struggle to make the shift. In the UK, MP’s expenses, in banking gambling with other people’s money and so on. There is always a vanguard who embrace the change and a rear guard who are unable to. This is to do with our crisis threshold and our level of addiction to the old ways. We all perceive crisis at different points, in different contexts, crisis being the point of knowing that we have to make a choice.
In cycling the Festina Affair was not enough of a crisis for many. They may have become more careful, but they didn’t fundamentally change. The next crisis was Operation Puerto in 2006, more arrests, bans and investigation. Still there were those who could not change. In the eleven years since the Festina Affair, we have had only one uncontroversial Tour de France winner on the road, and yet the culture has definitely shifted. What has shifted the culture has far more to do with the Rear Guard retiring and leaving the sport and there being enough outspoken clean winners to give the new generation of cyclists the confidence to race clean.
But the turnaround in professional sports is relatively quick, a whole career lasts maybe 12-15 years, allowing churn to be a reasonably acceptable tool of change. What about in business where a career might last 40 years – can you wait for 20 years or more for the culture to change?
The solution is leadership. It takes individuals of tremendous courage and honesty, willing to stand up to the prevailing culture and speak with conviction about the alternative. It requires those leaders to empower the vanguard and face the rear guard with their own personal crisis, deep enough for them to make a choice, to join in or move on.
The leaders need to be outspoken, visible and integrated with structural changes to rewards, processes and personnel that embody the change. If you want to see that change in your organisation, you need to be, or find that leader. If you are going to be the leader, start by finding your followers, if you are going to find the leader, make sure they and others know that you are following them.
Specialist outside help can contribute in clarifying messages and giving legitimacy to the changes. Good luck and be strong – we can change the culture of our business and our society if we are prepared to stand up for what we believe in.
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