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Cowboy Values Reflect Integrity

Cowboy Values Reflect Integrity

Former CBC TV “dragon,” celebrated entrepreneur and philanthropist W. Brett Wilson writes on the value of integrity for The Financial Post:

With April Fools’ Day behind us, now might be a good time to reflect on the topic of integrity. In the most basic terms, living by a set of ethical principles boils down to knowing and respecting the difference between right and wrong, and choosing to do what’s right.

As one of my all-time favourite books, Cowboy Ethics, by James P. Owen, suggests: “There’s right and there is wrong, and nothing in between.”

However, I know more than a few business leaders who would disagree. They think there’s a delicate balance between telling the truth, and telling just enough of the truth to attract investors. They believe being fair in a business deal makes you a sucker with a bleeding heart, or that having integrity is a fine idea, but not always practical – following the old “nice guys never finish first” paradigm.

From my experience, most people either have a strong sense of ethics when they start out in business or they soon develop one as they are faced with real-life situations. Somewhere along the line, they watch people suffer the consequences of unethical choices and wonder, “Is it worth it?” And the wise ones discover that it really never is.

That lesson came early in my career, when I worked closely with someone who, to me, was sadly lacking in moral character. If it’s possible to be completely devoid of ethics, he came very close. He treated his employees unfairly – without respect, honesty or encouragement – and certainly didn’t deal squarely with his clients.

Within a few weeks of joining his firm, I discovered he was willing to share confidential information when it served his interests. I soon realized it was unwise to be associated with him, and got out as soon as I could – unfortunately that took almost 18 miserable, frustrating months of dealing with an abusive unethical bully.

That early experience helped me clarify what kind of businessperson I wanted to be – someone who was both fair and respectful, who negotiates a square deal with mutual interests in mind, invests in people rather than projects, follows through on promises, and delivers quality service every time, and someone whose handshake creates a bond much stronger and more enduring than any written contract.

Just as people are susceptible to moral failures, so are companies. When my partners and I started FirstEnergy back in 1993, our vision was to create an investment bank with a conscience. Breaking basic rules of good business can ruin a great company. So we built integrity into our business plan. We didn’t just want to be big; we wanted to be good.

Being professional, effective and profitable wasn’t enough. We set out from Day 1 to maintain the highest standards of integrity in all of our dealings: with each other, staff, clients and competitors. Not only did this commitment to ethics reflect our personal values, we also knew that it would be a powerful marketing differentiator in an industry known for the legendary (and thankfully mythical) “greed is good” credo of Gordon Gecko in the movie Wall Street.

James Owen’s book is so important to me that I am including it verbatim here. I encourage you to take some time at to understand the Code of The West he is asking the world to embrace.

The 10 principles below are his timeless “cowboy values” that resonate with me to my core:

1 Live each day with courage.

2 Take pride in your work.

3 Always finish what you start.

4 Do what has to be done.

5 Be tough, but fair.

6 When you make a promise, keep it.

7 Ride for the brand.

8 Talk less and say more.

9 Remember that some things aren’t for sale.

10 Know where to draw the line.

FirstEnergy was built on these principles. And our reputation for being people of character, integrity, and excellence helped us outrun the competition as much as – or maybe more so – than anything else.

When it comes to integrity, it’s a matter of deciding up front what you are and are not prepared to do. If you want your behaviour to be a source of inspiration for your children, to continue to earn and deserve the respect of friends, colleagues, competitors and clients, and go to sleep at night knowing you’ve done right by the people around you, then it pays to make a commitment to living a life of integrity, based on lasting principles.

Because, ultimately, to paraphrase a line I picked up from a Harry Potter movie: you will not be known by your abilities, you will be known by the choices you make.

W. Brett Wilson/Financial Post/April, 2013