I have always been a fan of comics, or what I call the funny pages. Recently I was looking at "The Family Circus,” by Bil and Jeff Keane. The littlest boy has a cupboard open and is looking at various boxes of food when his older brother sees him and says, “Conscience is like Mommy tellin’ you not to do somethin’, but she isn’t there.”
Or as I like to say, act like your mother is watching. All the time.
Conscience is that little voice inside that tells us what we already know is right or wrong. Unfortunately for some, when it is talking, they aren’t listening. And that’s when the trouble begins. Whether in our personal or business life, it’s important to heed that little voice.
Perhaps you remember the lesson that Jiminy Cricket taught to Pinocchio: “Always let your conscience be your guide.” It may seem elementary, but our consciences are actually formed when we're children, long before many other personality traits are developed.
Investor’s Business Daily identified 10 traits for getting ahead in business and turning your dreams into reality. They included many things you would expect: a positive attitude, a definitive goal, a courageous spirit, an inquisitive mind, a strong heart, an analytical brain, a focused eye, a fearless approach and a disciplined tongue. No. 10 on the list was a clear conscience.
Like “The Family Circus” cartoon, these traits harkened back to the lessons of childhood. Don’t forget the rules you learned in kindergarten. Play nice. Be dependable. Tell the truth. If you can’t get to the top by being true to yourself and straight with everyone around you, your success will be hollow -- and probably short-lived.
As businesspeople, we need to be critically aware of our role in keeping things honest. People are watching, and given the 24-hour news cycle and the reach of social media, we need to understand that taking chances with the truth is never worth the risk.
Consider these lessons from two highly principled leaders.
Once, when President Harry Truman was asked what principles guided his career, he said that he let his conscience be his guide. He elaborated: "What more can a man do? Do the best you can. Sometimes you come out successfully, sometimes you don’t. You have to have luck and ability and be ready to meet the situation as it comes. All this happened to me. I never thought I would go to the United States Senate, but then, I never thought I would go to the White House either.”
Indian leader Mahatma Gandhi said he had a formula for achieving balance. His prescription called for recognizing and avoiding the seven big sins of life: wealth without work, pleasure without conscience, knowledge without character, commerce without morality, science without humanity, worship without sacrifice and politics without principle.
Do you detect a theme here? Most of them relate to having a clear conscience.
Make no mistake: Customers are watching how businesses perform through an ethical lens. Businesses cannot hide their questionable practices for long -- they will be exposed. Trying to mend a bad reputation is a lot harder than maintaining a good one.
Just ask the big bank that’s in the news for questionable sales practices. Or the airbag maker whose defective products are hurting people instead of protecting them. Or the movie mogul who went from the top of the heap to the bottom of the barrel after multiple accusations of inappropriate behavior surfaced.
But you don’t have to make national headlines for your true colors to be exposed. Doing business with the shopkeeper in this following anecdote might be a challenge.
An eager-beaver salesperson was trying to have a country storekeeper carry his product, and finally tried to bribe the fellow with a bottle of champagne.
“Oh, my conscience wouldn’t let me take a gift,” the storekeeper protested.
“What if I sell it to you for one dollar?” asked the salesperson.
“In that case,” replied the man, “I’ll take two.”
Mackay’s Moral: Putting profit before principle is always bad business.