Character vs. Competence: The Perennial Challenge to Business, Athletes And Us

When Americans see character and values in action, we like what we see. And when we see transgressions such as those committed by Lochte and friends and corporate leaders like Wells Fargo, we shudder and shake our heads. We know it's wrong, but the behavior continues. Why?
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It's well documented in the annals of business that companies hire on competence but fire on character. Unfortunately, history keeps repeating itself, because neither businesses, athletic organizations nor education systems have learned from the character breaches of Enron, Penn State, Steubenville and many others.

The latest icon of foiled character to fall this past week was Wells Fargo, a brand whose market value is the highest in the banking industry. Since 2011, as reported by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, Wells Fargo employees have been creating fictitious credit and deposit accounts, resulting in millions of fees that boosted profits and bonuses. As reported by the New York Times, Wells Fargo employees submitted 565,443 fictitious credit card applications in their customers' names.

Last week the CFPB fined Wells Fargo $165 million, and the bank announced that it had fired 5,300 employees related to the practice.

To me, the number of employees fired is an indication that this practice became so culturally embedded that the bank -- which prides itself on core values and corporate goodness -- had either lost control or lost its way. This was not just a rogue employee. It was a regular practice of an organization that, despite core values such as "What's right for customers" and "Ethics", was out of whack because the real measure of success was performance. Short-lived "competence" defiled core values and character.

Although the behavior is shameful (and regrettable according to Wells Fargo's official statements), it's easy to understand. Many Americans believe that one of our country's core values is "Doing the Right Thing" (this is based on Purple America's interview of 1,000 Americans in nine communities across the country). But how many companies really value and reward behavior that does the right thing? Yes, there are stories about Nordstrom employees going out of their way to deliver merchandise at additional cost to the company and incidents where Walmart employees distributed water to customers during Katrina-like crises. But, by and large, American business is driven by quarter to quarter profits, and employees are rewarded for their quarter to quarter performance.

Again and again, performance is recognized over character. This message is clear and is buttressed by the fact that the culprit-in-chief of the Wells Fargo unit that committed the treachery, as reported by Fortune Magazine, received a $124.6 million golden parachute. Ouch!

Olympic gold medal swimmer Ryan Lochte is another example of this performance culture that dominates many arenas of American life. It was well-reported during the summer Olympics that Lochte and several other swimmers concocted the story that he was held up at gunpoint in Rio. The gunpoint encounter was really with a gas station security guard who demanded compensation for the drunken rampage that caused damage to the gas station's bathroom.

Lochte had it all -- talent, competence, performance, results, fame and fortune. But he was lacking in one dimension that led to his downfall: character. His was not the casual offense of crashing a red light at 3 am -- no risk to anyone -- and not fessing up to it. No, it was a calculated breach, fabricating a false story to cover up the vandalism that he was embarrassed about and that he had already remedied by paying $50 for the damage. There was no need for a false story.

Although several companies pulled endorsement deals, Lochte will move on to win more medals, and his continuing performance will enable people to dismiss his character flaws. Already, a throat lozenge company signed him as a spokesperson because their lozenge offers "forgiveness for the throat" and Lochte has landed a stint on Dancing with the Stars.

Within the 2016 Olympic Games, we do have other stories that warm our hearts and remind us that Doing the Right Thing, Kindness, Empathy, Loyalty and Respect are not just lofty values -- they make us feel good, as well. American Olympic runner Abbey D'Agostino clipped heels with New Zealand runner Nikki Hamblin and stopped to help her competitor get up. Shortly after, D'Agostino (who was also injured) stumbled, and Hamblin returned the favor by lifting her up. The two made worldwide headlines.

The Sydney Morning Herald led their article with: "In an Olympic Games marred by accusations of doping and ill-will between nations, this was a moment to help restore faith in the ideals of sportsmanship." The paper also reported Hamblin's significant takeaway: "You come into an Olympic Games and everyone wants to win, everyone wants to medal. But really as disappointing as this experience is there is so much more to this than a medal. When someone asks me what happened in Rio in 20 years time, that's my story."

American Olympian pole vaulter Sam Kendricks, who won the bronze medal, was all about character when he interrupted his vault to pause and stand at attention during the Star Spangled Banner. He could easily have continued and, especially after a win, no one would have faulted him. But his behavior was in sync with his values and character.

When Americans see character and values in action, we like what we see. And when we see transgressions such as those committed by Lochte and friends and corporate leaders like Wells Fargo, we shudder and shake our heads. We know it's wrong, but the behavior continues. Why?

I believe that as long as Americans are evaluated based on performance metrics and not on values and character standards, ethical and character breaches will continue. In a workforce environment where 35% of American employees are bullied and fewer than 20% of those cases are resolved, the clear message is that high performers succeed (and get a pass-go) regardless of their tactics. Values get short shrift.

In education, as long as Common Core and state standards evaluate districts, schools and teachers solely based on performance standards, character will fall by the wayside.

Americans are conditioned not to act based on our highest ideals, but to perform, perform, perform.

If this message bothers you, do something about it. If you're a coach, emphasize winning with character. If you're a teacher, teach values alongside curriculum. If you're a business executive, evaluate and give bonuses based on both character and competence. If you're a politician, become a principled leader -- one who leads with your values! And if you're a journalist, start telling stories every day about character, values, kindness and respect. Media is the fuel that drives American attitudes.

During the civil rights era, Martin Luther King, Jr. asked us to see the content of character. Fifty years later, it will take all of us to make America a nation of character.

Muszynski is Founder of Purple America, a national initiative of Values-in-Action Foundation to re-focus the American conversation to a civil, productive and respectful dialogue around our shared values. To see America's shared values and get involved, go to Project Love is a school-based character-development program of Values-in-Action Foundation. To see information about Project Love school programming, go to

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