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25 September 2015

Do cheats ever prosper?

Do cheats ever prosper?

When I was at school I thought about cheating at a maths test. I’d heard rumours and stories from friends of ways of doing it and not getting caught. Some sounded preposterous, others convoluted and yet more seemingly destined to be discovered. The only one I toyed with for more than a moment was writing equations on the inside of a label around my water bottle.

I didn’t cheat. It wasn’t because I was sufficiently virtuous not to engage in such activity, but because I was scared of failing and feared the shame of getting caught. When I’m tempted to do something wrong, it is more often the fear of others finding out that halts me in my tracks. And I know I’m not the only one. If we think we can get away with it the temptation is much greater.

There’s an adage that if you tell a lie big enough and repeat it often then people will eventually come to believe it. This week we found out that Volkswagen had included software in some of its cars to detect when it was being tested for emission levels and adjust the behaviour of the cars so the readings made it appear the cars had far lower emissions than was actually the case. This was a big lie that was built into the cars and told to testers, drivers and investors.

Unsurprisingly Volkswagen’s chief executive has resigned. Whether he personally authorised this tactic is unknown, and even if he was unaware of it he presided over a company that systematically engineered fraudulent results to portray his vehicles as more environmentally friendly. Rarely does a bible verse give us direct advice in what to do in contemporary business situations, but Proverbs 11 verse 1 might have come in handy: “The Lord detests dishonest scales, but accurate weights find favour with him.” 

There is a significant problem when fear of being found out is the only thing that delivers virtuous behaviour. Discussing dysfunction in the Volkswagen boardroom the New York Times notes that becoming the world’s largest car manufacturer and providing a seemingly endless supply of jobs for workers were the overriding goals of the organisation. This meant that anything that threatened the growth of the company was an obstacle to be overcome, and it appears fully abiding by environmental standards was something to circumvent rather than adhere to.

In Numbers Moses speaks to the people of Israel with a command to go into battle and a rider that has entered into common usage: “If you fail to do this, you will be sinning against the Lord and you may be sure that your sin will find you out.” 

Every organisation has to have goals to drive what it is doing. But goals alone cannot be enough, otherwise everything else is subservient to achieving them. Goals have to be accompanied by values, and surely honesty and integrity should be at the core. Values give us the guidance of how we should go about achieving our goals, and values cannot be imposed otherwise they are just another goal, liable to be induced through coercion or fear of discovery, but equally likely to be ditched when inconvenient. Values, and the deeper concept of virtue, grow when we have a character that has learnt to prioritise what David Brooks describes as eulogy virtues over resumé Ensuring goals and values are held together is an urgent task of leadership in every sphere. Whether it is politicians who aspire to lead the country, business leaders, or church leaders. If all that matters is the end result the temptation to cut corners will only be regulated by the likelihood of getting caught.

It’s a shock to me that the primary difference between Volkswagen’s subterfuge and my temptation before a maths exam – aside from the scale - was a question of who had the nerve to go through with it.