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The Vince Lombardi Syndrome

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While most of the correspondence responding to last week’s column — about how to choose in the upcoming presidential election — was favorable, a couple of readers thought commenting on the election in this space was inappropriate. They also thought I revealed a clear bias (although toward which candidate they didn’t say).

I’m puzzled: If someone thinks it’s biased to suggest you base your vote on each candidate’s vision, programs, knowledge of the issues, ability to lead and manage, and how well each one presents himself, I’m left to wonder what would constitute an unbiased set of criteria. Perhaps Fox News could prescribe something more Fair and Balanced(TM). If not, I’m sure Al Franken would be willing to help.

The election tactics pursued this year … to some extent by every major candidate; this isn’t the proper venue for evaluating the candidates’ relative rank on the rankness scale, let alone the childish question of who started it … is simply a symptom of something relevant to you in your job every day you show up for work. It’s the philosophy that winning justifies any and all tactics. Call it the Vince Lombardi syndrome, from Lombardi’s famous statement that “Winning isn’t everything, it is the only thing.”

From all accounts, by the way, Lombardi would be horrified, having advocated sportsmanship above all else. As a country, though, our culture has mutated — from the “it isn’t whether you win or lose that matters, it’s how you play the game” values of my youth to the “do whatever it takes to win,” philosophy so many Americans now apparently admire.

Increasingly, the organizational cultures in which you’re likely to find yourself exhibit the Lombardi syndrome. Why is that?

It’s easy, and pointless, to try to determine whose fault it is that we find the Lombardi syndrome on the increase. As with so many other circumstances, the “blame” belongs to systemic traits, not to the individuals and corporations trying to succeed within the system.

My own opinion is that business leaders are trapped in a sort of “tragedy of the ethical commons.” It’s like a WWF cage match without the script: If your opponent is willing to hit you with a chair or a hidden baseball bat and you play by the rules, you’re going to lose. Every time. It’s why regulation, and the enforcement of regulations, is important. It lets business leaders who prefer to behave ethically do so without losing competitive ground to those who don’t. But regulation has fallen out of favor — deregulation is on the increase, regulations are increasingly written by the industries being regulated, and enforcement of the regulations that remain is declining.

So what do you do when you find yourself working for a Lombardi-syndrome company? How do you maintain your own equilibrium? How, that is, do you behave ethically when every choice in front of you is, to your moral palette, distasteful? (Harkening back to last week: If you dislike all the candidates, do you abstain or vote for one of them anyway?) The answer, I think, is that ethics is a filter, not a guide.

We live, after all, in a capitalist economic system, predicated on the idea that each of us is expected to act in our own self-interest. Acting in your own self-interest just doesn’t have much moral substance, but acting against it violates the core premise of a capitalist society.

Still, Americans generally figure they’re supposed to “do the right thing.” It’s much like Ginsberg’s restatement of the three laws of thermodynamics: You can’t win, you can’t break even, and you can’t quit the game. So unless you’re willing to eke out a living as a self-sufficient scratch farmer, or are confident you can find a job with a company that adheres to a set of ethical values close to your own, you have to figure out how to deal with this ethical paradox.

“Do the right thing,” is simply unhelpful. It assumes the conclusion. “Don’t do a wrong thing,” is more useful; “do the least wrong thing,” is often the best you can do.

When it is, hold your nose and do the least wrong thing. What other choice do you have?