How to Tell You're Losing Your Integrity

I remember the first time I watched Oliver Stone's Wall Street. Back then, insider trading had captured our imaginations and moral hazard was an obscure concept. While the media was caricaturing the Boeskys and Milkens, Gordon Gekko managed to humanize them. Sure, I recoiled at Gekko's callous individualism, but I was also drawn to his wile and wit. Even more, I related to Bud Fox—an outsider like me, chasing a spot on the other end of the phone. Still, something about Fox always troubled me. He had the high-rise apartment and stylish girlfriend. Why couldn't he just walk away?

I didn't get my answer until years later. A mentor, sensing my Gekko-like ambition as a salesman, posed this question: How far would you go to get what you want? The question stayed with me as I watched others shrug off the question. They were certain of their compasses; they vowed to clean the stables once they neared the top. Things weren't so simple. They had bills to pay and children to feed. Right vs. wrong wasn't always clear cut. Even when it was, they knew it took only one misstep to become a living cautionary tale.

So they fell in line and looked the other way. In the beginning, they told themselves the same things: "This isn't really me;" "it's only temporary." With tradeoffs came temptations—and these soon became part of the problem. Little by little, the line drifted further. The rules they bent always snapped back so easily. It took only a first step and things slowly unraveled from there.

Our century began with "too good to be true" before tumbling into "too big to fail." The bubbles burst and the baubles broke. From boardrooms to cubicles, so many lost their way. With Gordon Gekko returning for an encore in Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps on Friday, we're reminded that this cycle inevitably will repeat. The seeds of the next collapse are always planted in the embers of the last. Ever wonder if you're sacrificing honor for expedience? Ask yourself if you're doing any of the following:

Self-Justifying: You're above the rules and infallible. You view yourself as a transcendent force, entitled by your power, knowledge, and achievements. You apply the rationales that many before you have offered: It's easier to ask for forgiveness than permission; everyone is doing it; the ends justify the means; no one will ever know; and "I'll put it back the way it was." Don't forget to include an unhappy childhood, for good measure. In reality, you're neither invincible nor remarkable—just another flawed individual looking for a pretext to go in or a way to get out.

Clamping Down: You brook no dissent. Imperious and impatient, you fend off any entreaties with the usual dismissals: "It's none of your business;" "what's done is done; and "I'm not going to explain myself to you." You hide behind your reputation and title, bursting with piety, expressing indignation that anyone dares question you. Your employees have a stake, too"one you're putting at risk. You forget that your misdeeds will stain their reputations as much as your own.

Taking on Risk: When you were young, you told yourself, "I'll never do that." But when your principles interfered with your aspirations, it became "Just this once." That's a slippery slope; it gets a little easier to make those concessions each time. "I've already gone this far," you say to yourself. "What's a little more?" So you double down, determined to rescue your status and legacy. Now there's no larger purpose than the present moment. You tell yourself it'll all work out. Yet you have your escape plotted out.

Denying: This isn't really happening. It's not as bad as it looks. You can claim it can all be made up later. It's already too big and too late to cover your tracks. So you string it along, hold onto what you have, if only for a few extra moments. You're running away from the day of reckoning. You're not alone. Those around you are starting to suspect but dare not speak of it. There's too much to lose. Knowing the truth would only make it worse.

Closing Yourself Off: This wasn't supposed to happen to you. You were the city college grad who pulled yourself up by the bootstraps and ran circles around those soft Ivy Leaguers. You were the one who always succeeded despite the odds, not a flaming Icarus who plunges back to earth. Now you're playing it close, hiding behind gimmicks and matrices to keep everyone at bay. You pile lies on top of fibs and miscalculations, struggling to remember what you've said to whom—and when. You're all alone. There's no way out.

Filling the Void: Your public persona and private reality splintered long ago. It's filtered into your personal life. Outside the hallowed halls, you look for an escape. You spend, consume, and celebrate, living your dreams without the means. When that isn't enough, you take another sip to soften the restiveness that comes with knowing that you're ultimately doomed. Now you lie awake with a pulsing skull, heavy heart, and knotted stomach, longing for the sweet relief of getting caught. This is your Faustian bargain; you just never bothered to read the terms or weigh the options.

Protecting Yourself: They'll call you corrupt and reckless. But you know the real story. The competition was merciless and expectations unrealistic. Still, you had to hit those numbers and dates. They didn't care how you did it. There were so many lives in your hands and you wilted under the pressure. Now they're getting ready to make you the sacrificial lamb. You wouldn't be the first: Boards, bankers, and analysts have always circled the wagons and passed the buck to cover themselves. That won't happen here. Instead, you'll play the victim, hoping that collective guilt will somehow absolve some of your own. In the end, that's just another of your deceptions.

Regret: You got yours, all right. Just not the way you expected. At first, you wondered why others hadn't thought of this first. They had—and they realized how it would end.

Now you know, too. Sometimes you imagine the day that they reveal what you've done. Will you take that long walk in front of your family or peers? What will you say to your loved ones, knowing the shame they'll endure by carrying your name? What will your legacy be? Will they remember your triumphs and philanthropy or will they be overshadowed by the parable of someone who took shortcuts and got in over his head?

For your remaining days, you'll carry a terrible burden: the guilt of knowing you wrecked what so many had sacrificed to build. You'll never again enjoy the opportunities and esteem you were once afforded. As with your fall, the journey to redemption also begins with a first step. That path is always longer and steeper.

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