The Integrity Imperative
5 min read:
- Power does not corrupt. Power only reveals corruption.
- Lance Armstrong, one of the most powerful and revered athletes of his era, betrayed the trust of millions. He then tried to suggest that cheating was acceptable because everyone else was doing it.
- His fall from grace, and his arrogance when he was finally unmasked, is a stark reminder of the integrity imperative. In life. In business. In society.
- What defines us, as people and as leaders, is not what we are willing to do to succeed, but what we are not prepared to sacrifice in the pursuit of success.
- Integrity is what we do when no-one is watching. What we stand for when the stakes are highest. And whether we choose to do the right thing, even when it is hard.
23 October 2012. Lance Armstrong, one of the most powerful and universally admired athletes on the world stage, stands brutally and definitively, exposed.
As a cheat, a bully, a fraud and a serial liar.
A decade-long investigation into upper-echelon performance drug use finally concludes that Armstrong not only doped throughout his career, but also orchestrated and controlled a web of trafficking, intimidation and cover-up so sophisticated as to have rewritten the rules of an entire industry.
The cycling fraternity – and Armstrong’s 3.8-million-strong Twitter realm – react with shock.
Not because he cheated. That much was an open secret. But because he stopped getting away with it. After a vicious, 10-year campaign of intimidation and coercion, the mask has been ripped off. The emperor exposed. Witnesses speak up. Co-conspirators break ranks. High-powered enablers fall silent.
The Lance Armstrong superman myth is thoroughly dismantled.
And yet, despite being incontrovertibly exposed as the biggest fraud in sporting history, the self-styled Le Boss Big Tex remains staggeringly defiant.
Will the real Lance Armstrong
please lie down?
11 November 2012. Just a few days after being handed a lifetime ban by the US Anti-Doping Agency, Armstrong posts the now-infamous tweet that shows him relaxing on a couch at his Texas home, below a vanity wall of framed yellow jerseys.
“Back in Austin and just layin’ around …” he writes.
Arrogant. Conceited. Sycophantic. And thoroughly revealing of Armstrong’s self-aggrandising hubris, and the extent to which he remains invested in the big lie. Equally, the extent to which he continues to revel and seek to profit from the big lie.
And then comes the orchestrated spin – and a jaw-dropping window opens into how a lifetime of lies was not only enabled, but actively protected by an army of influential Armstrong apologists.
“I’m on Lance Armstrong’s side.”
12 November 2012. Prominent sports journalist Chris Chase, who has reported extensively on Armstrong’s multiple Tour de France campaigns, reacts to the jarring Twitter picture with a stunning article in one the largest and most widely read newspapers in the world, the 2.6-million-copy USA Today.
“I’m on Lance Armstrong’s side,” Chase writes bullishly. “His work for cancer research, awareness and patients has been inspirational. Would it have been better if Armstrong stayed clean, became a middling cyclist and Livestrong never existed? I don’t see how any logical person could make that argument. Shades of grey cloud the picture, of course, but I still think his net contribution to our world is greater than his flaws.”
Others quickly follow, with deeply flawed shades-of-grey arguments that seek to blur the stark edges of integrity, righteousness, justice, and personal accountability.
“Did he use enhancers?” asks Buzz Bissinger in an article for Newsweek. “Even if he did, so what? Armstrong is a victim, too.”
”Lance Armstrong is a good man,” writes Sally Jenkins in The Washington Post. “There’s nothing that I can learn about him short of murder that would alter my opinion on that …. I’ve searched high and low for my anger at Lance, and I can’t find it. It’s just not there. I checked – looked in every corner, and I’m empty of it.”
And ESPN columnist Rick Reilly: “Wear something yellow to tell Lance Armstrong that they might be able to ban him for life, but they can’t ban him from life.”
On and on and on.
Of the billions of words generated during the slow-burn Armstrong doping implosion, it’s what is said and done after the big lie is exposed that is most revealing. About Armstrong himself, but also about why a 10-year open secret that ruined multiple lives and forever tarnished an entire sport, was allowed to fester.
And, most perniciously, why our collective tolerance for moral bankruptcy and a lack of integrity harms us in ways we cannot begin to fathom.
THE INTEGRITY UPSIDE DOWN
In a world increasingly anchored and ruled by greed, power and narcissism, we adore blindly and forgive easily. We make quick but deep investments in the image on sale and pour endless loyalty capital into that investment, come what may. We readily buy into any lie that reflects back at us an image of ourselves that is more powerful than we feel. Any image that tethers us to accomplishment and aspiration beyond our own ability.We adore our heroes because they are the better version of ourselves. And when they are revealed not to be better, we turn a blind eye to protect our investment.
It is this conspiracy of complacency – our tolerance for the unacceptable – that explains most plainly why Armstrong and others like him are allowed to wield the power that they do.
Lance Armstrong was the ultimate hero. A natural leader, riding out ahead, both physically and metaphorically, for others to follow. The vanquisher. The super athlete. An inspirational cancer survivor.
What followed in the months and years after the doping bubble burst, however, revealed that on Planet Lance, the adoration and followship of millions of people around the world – including millions of cancer patients – was both the prize and the reward, with zero consideration for the moral and social responsibility that comes with leadership.
In this world – on Planet Lance, or Planet Zuma, or any of the other narcissistic worlds we helped create, and continue to enable – the adoring crowds are important only insofar as they are necessary fodder for self-aggrandisement and – the ultimate prize – self-enrichment.
For Armstrong, the 10-year big lie was always about one thing. Money and preserving the power that it bought. Thus, in early 2013, less than two months after taking to Twitter to show off his trophied yellow jerseys, Armstrong dusts off and polishes up the big lie once more.
This time, by deciding to come clean.
As the dual realities of a lifetime ban and multiple multi-million-dollar lawsuits begin to bite, Armstrong agrees to a no-holds-barred television interview with Oprah Winfrey, in which he commits to “finally telling the whole truth”.
But, as has been the case throughout his career, Armstrong’s truth is only another version of the big lie, repackaged and repurposed, but with the same ultimate goal: to control and direct the narrative for his own benefit.
After more than a decade of furiously denying ever taking illegal drugs, Armstrong quickly admits that, Yes, actually, he did dope. Repeatedly, knowingly, and purposefully. And yes, of course, he deceived us. Routinely and insidiously. But then he trots out this stunning new version of the big lie.
Armstrong admits that he was a serial doper, and that he lied and bullied and coerced his way through seven successful Tour de France campaigns. But in the Integrity Upside Down, cheating was not only justified, it was necessary in order to compete equally with others who equally lied and cheated. Thus, he wasn’t a cheat so much as a …. fierce competitor?
Planet Lance tilts on its axis. Up is down, truth is a lie, and the lie is a valiant pursuit. The end justifies the means. And as the big lie gets an Oprah makeover, Armstrong demonstrates that even in the big confession, not only does he not accept responsibility for his deceit, he fails to appreciate the enormity of the damage he has done.
To the sport. To his fellow riders. To his fans and admirers. And to all of us who want to live in a world where truth matters, honesty triumphs, and integrity thrives. A world that tilts, however slowly, towards better.
Because when we play in the grey – when we purposefully blur the lines between black and white to try and justify the inexcusable – we not only taint the current landscape, we prejudice an entire generation of future players into thinking that this is the only way to compete and win. Into believing that honesty exists on a sliding scale. And that cheating only matters when you get caught.
“Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power
John Dalberg Acton first wrote these words over 150 years ago to lament the moral decay of British society during the late 1880s. They have endured as a near-universal narrative because they ring intuitively true. Haven’t we seen it play out many times? Seemingly decent men and women, swept up in a voracious power vortex, only to emerge altered, diminished and morally compromised. Corrupted.
Except, Acton’s maxim is rarely true.
Power has no inherent agency. It only shines a spotlight on the character of the person wielding it. As Dr Myles Munroe pointed out, power does not breed corruption, it merely reveals it.
Lance Armstrong did not start doping because he became the number one cyclist in the world. He started doping because he was a cheat. And because he believed that cheating would benefit him. It did. Materially, financially and reputationally. So he kept on doing it.
Contrary to what Armstrong would have us believe, and contrary to his carefully scripted mea-kinda-culpa to Oprah, cheating was not inevitable. It was not a necessary levelling of the playing field. It was not a necessary evil to compete in a drug-fueled arena or the unfortunate by-product of fierce competitiveness.
It was a choice. A morally corrupt choice by someone, hell-bent on winning at any cost, with no integral compass to guide or moderate his actions.
Lance Armstrong chose what was easy.
It is a choice that is playing out in our society, in our government and in our organisations, every day. The choice of easy over right. Expedient over integrous. Convenient over courageous.
Previous Insights in this leadership series lifted up the importance of having a bold, audacious vision of the future, and the passion to bring that vision to life. Neither one of these qualities, important as they are, can succeed outside the integrity imperative.
In the stories that we write about who and what we are, integrity is both the anchor and the frame.
Our grandest visions will become distorted and our greatest passions perverted if we don’t act, always, within the guard rails of integrity. With the best interests of others at the forefront of our decision-making. And with the ultimate goal of the greater good.
What defines us, as people and as business leaders, is not what we are willing to do to succeed. It is what we are not prepared to sacrifice in pursuit of success.