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What would you do, to win? Where do you draw the line and how can you know if you’ve crossed it?
Recent allegations, filed in a Boston court, have charged 50 individuals with trying to game the college admissions system—using money to buy what should be earned, including test scores and athletic scholarships. Reports allege cheating on entrance exams, and using undue influence to game a variety of entrance results at multiple universities. Among the list of coaches and CEOs, two Hollywood celebrities were named: Felicity Huffman, the 56-year-old star of both Desperate Housewives and American Crime, and Lori Loughlin, of Full House fame. These allegations represent the largest-scale college admissions scandal in U.S. history, with FBI investigations dating back to 2011.
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Every parent wants the best for their child, but the real question is: at what cost? Having the ability to invest up to $75,000 in your child’s SAT scores or to pony up nearly half a million dollars to land a spot on a sports team is impressive, from an earnings standpoint. (Loughlin and her husband allegedly offered bribes of over $500,000 in order to have two daughters classified as members of the USC crew team. Except they didn’t participate in crew, and never had). That that kind of cash could make an interesting contribution as a donor. So these recent allegations beg the question: Why would these celebrities (and others) need to buy admissions influence, athletic scholarships and test scores?
Beyond the hills of Hollywood and the venerable campuses involved, a more personal question looms for leaders. Would you be willing to cheat, to win? And what exactly does victory look like, if winning at all costs is the price you’re willing to pay?
The Real Victims Here
For hard-working students who can’t buy influence, and whose ethics mean that they wouldn’t want to, cheating does great harm. An uneven playing field, where favor is bought, not earned, is nothing new. For example, nepotism is alive and well—but you didn’t have to cheat to be born into your family. Networking and relationships are always going to matter: who you know is often more important than what you don’t. Ambition is rewarded, as it should be—providing that we play by the rules. Today, playing by the rules means aggressively trying not to get caught. Welcome to the “Win At All Costs” culture, where winning is everything, conscience doesn’t count, and fairness is something for those who don’t really want to taste victory.
Choosing an Instagram filter to find the perfect veneer is certainly innocent enough. It’s a small artificial enhancement that everyone uses. What’s wrong with giving yourself (or your family) an edge? Taking appearances to extremes is at the root of the Win At All Costs culture. Starting innocently, manufacturing “authenticity” is a dangerous game. Beyond being at your best is a motive that shows us at our worst: unbridled ambition. When unleashed, this impulse comes from the belief that, ultimately, we can’t really be who we are. We aren’t enough. Our test scores, or our bank balance, or body type isn’t right. Rules must be bent, in order for results to be achieved. Otherwise, you’ll be voted off the Island. You’ll come in second place in the Tour de France, Lance.
We celebrate the extreme choices of those who do what others can’t – but that celebration should reward outstanding effort and hard work. Not dedication to gaming the system.
While students who can’t or won’t cheat are harmed by those who do, it’s also clear that the students of the alleged perpetrators are harmed as well. The message, from well-intentioned and well-endowed parents, appears to be a painful one: You’re not good enough to get this on your own. And, without a prestigious degree from ________, you’ll never be able to get ahead. Ultimately, a combination of resources, ambition and opportunity led to the circumstances described in the Boston court filings. While I don’t condone this behavior, I do understand it. Because I’m the first to admit that I’m not a perfect parent. Or a perfect leader. Wanting the best for your family is an impulse we all share. On the surface, wanting great things for your family, your company, or your team is the hallmark of dedication. Just because you have the resources to bend the rules doesn’t mean that you should. And getting caught isn’t the real threat here. Seems that when you decide to win at all costs, there’s a hidden price we all have to pay.
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What Integrity Really Means
Doing the right thing starts with yourself. What if that realization—that you are enough—was enough to change the whole game? Understanding that you (and by extension, your family) can do great things without purchasing a misbegotten acceptance letter, or a spot on the USC crew team? True or false: the world is filled with high achievers from unfamous colleges, dropouts and people who never even went to college?
A college degree isn’t a perfect predictor of success and it never will be.
Beyond the questionable parenting tactics and FBI allegations, there’s a message for every leader at the heart of this story: leadership begins with integrity. Defining what you will and won’t do to win may look like a quick way to limit your results. But look again. Sacrificing what’s right to get to what’s desired is rampant right now. Don’t fall into the trap that what’s popular is what’s right—or right for you. The Win At All Costs Culture is built on lies. The first lie is that you need to bend the rules, because you’re not good enough to play it any other way. The second lie is that you won’t get caught. The balance between integrity and outcomes is one that every leader has to weigh. Trust aligns the scales—trusting in yourself and trusting in your team makes the rules work for you, so you don’t have to break them. Having resources and ambition is always a good thing—but working with integrity is where greatness really begins.
March 13, 2019 at 10:05AM
Forbes – Entrepreneurs