What We Praise is What We Get: From Columbine to Volkswagen
Something has gone terribly awry in the collective conscience of Americans.
Something has gone terribly awry in the collective conscience of Americans. We know the list of the huge tragedies without writing them down. But, my contention is that many small tragedies slipping around us every day may have a corrosive effect over time as devastating as these intermittent ones that haunt us. My fear is that these smaller eroding problems may, in fact, be leading to the larger disasters.
In business, the examples are horrifying. A CEO is convicted of knowingly selling salmonella laced peanut butter, engineers tinker with software to beat emission testing systems; builders scrimp on the fireproofing in the original World Trade Centers. In education, administrators and teachers in a large school system have test grading parties where they tamper with student answers on standardized tests. Students buy essays and reports from thriving on-line businesses. Astonishingly, recent studies state eighty percent of high school students admit cheating and see nothing wrong in the act because it helps them “get ahead”.
What has happened to Character development in this country? Why do we think increasing the number of regulations or laws is the answer to our problems? I submit we need a full out drive to create a country of Character driven people. A CEO with Character would not need added safety regulations for the food he sells; he would never ship contaminated batches.
As business people, what do we praise in our employees? Is it that we’re the biggest or fastest in our sector or is it that our company has a reputation for honesty and fairness to both customers and employees? Do we encourage value-added achievements as much as being first to market?
As parents and grandparents, do we praise our children for high grades or for high empathy? The kids understand the difference and behave in a fashion to get additional praise or rewards for the former. Sadly, if this requires cheating, so be it. Teachers push the SAT scores because that’s what parents want and round and round it goes. As Paul Houston, former Executive Director American Association of School Administrators says. “Schools are perfectly designed for the results we are getting. If we don’t like the results, we need to redesign schools.”
The Old European World of our founding fathers cared not a farthing for mass public education. America’s founding fathers cared a great deal about it, because as Thomas Jefferson wrote: its purpose was to “give us virtuous citizens”. Character is the plate/foundation on which everything else rests.
Bullying, which is rampant in our schools today, will end up in the workplace tomorrow. When a skinny, nerdy boy is needled his entire twelve years of public school or a poor, unattractively dressed girl is teased neither feels loved or cared for by anyone. Why are we surprised when they seek to empower themselves with guns? Our businesses, government and military will inherit what is becoming pandemic in young people.
We’re not perfect as a country, but since inception we have been the role model for the world. Name one other country immigrants are charging the ramparts for entrance as they are in the U.S. If we lose our moral compass because we lack Character, we cease being the leader of the world much more quickly than through cuts in the military. We will reap that whirlwind, too.
To stop shady business activities, many call for more regulations. To improve the environment and results in our schools, many call for more testing. To make America the beacon for the world, many want a stronger military. None of this will ever work. All of these problems have the same solution: Character. For now, we will define it as doing the right thing or the best you can do while being empathetic to others when no one is looking. Teddy Roosevelt said it this way. “To educate a person in mind but not in morals is to educate a menace to society.”
We can use outdated Newtonian mechanistic solutions (which will be costly but not productive) or we can strive to model, and applaud goodness, responsibility, integrity, thereby showing how the world might improve. Character as a concept will go viral.
Richard R. Pieper, Sr.
Non-Executive Chairman PPC Partners, Inc.
Character.org, National Past President
Wisconsin Character Education Partnership -WCEP
Greenleaf Center for Servant Leadership, International Past Chairman