Living out your values is not always easy. I know this firsthand.
In 2003 I created the Los Angeles Futbol Club (LAFC) – a soccer club that leveled the playing field for underserved (mostly Hispanic) youth whose parents couldn’t afford the staggering pay-to-play fees that would get their kids on the soccer circuit and give them a chance at sought-after college scholarships. LAFC dominated and eventually had to create two entities within the club: one for kids who would play as part of the US Soccer Development Academy program, and another larger group consisting of about 50 teams that played in the competitive Southern California youth soccer league.
At one point, the head of the soccer league demanded that I put our Academy teams in his league. But because the league had a limit of 3 teams per age group, I couldn’t put my Academy teams in the league unless I kicked out an equal number of teams in the larger group of children that counted on playing in the league as well. An ethical dilemma, made harder by the fact that the league was an incredibly powerful organization that had a monopoly on youth club soccer in Southern California.
I refused. That resulted in my club being kicked out of the soccer league – a devastating and cruel attack on LAFC’s children, their families, and coaches. So I took it one step further: I sued them, and I won. After winning the lawsuit, the league had to accept all the LAFC teams. But it was a bittersweet victory; because I had to resign from the club I built in order to protect The LAFC children from ongoing attacks on me.
I did the right thing and the right thing cost me considerable money, months of litigation, and the job that I had been so passionate about. Was doing the right thing really worth it?
Yes. Of course it was worth it.
I couldn’t have lived with myself if I had allowed the league owner to intimidate me into destroying the hopes and dreams of those young soccer players. No matter how difficult it was to fight for what was right, it was worth the fight.
Think about how much better our world would be if every single one of us fought for what we know in our hearts to be right, no matter how hard.
Consider how our society would improve if everyone, especially those in a position of power, conducted themselves with integrity.
There may be quite a few attorneys out of a job, but the high social trust that results from all individuals within a given society behaving with integrity cannot be understated.
As a community leader and founder of the soccer club, my actions had a positive impact on hundreds of ambitious youngsters and radically altered the landscape of youth club soccer in southern California. By fighting and winning, I paved the way for so many others to do the same. The effects are still being felt today and will be felt for a long time to come. That is the power of leading with integrity. That is the power of values-based leadership.
The inconvenient truth is this: there are no degrees of honesty. There is no middle ground between fairness and fraud. And there is no future for a society that assumes that the only way to win at any endeavor is to dispense with rules and display no respect for the rights and expectations of others. While it may be convenient, easy, and yes, often lucrative to be unethical in business dealings, the moral rot that unethical behavior creates is never worth it. And if we do not insist on ethics in business, how can we demand it anywhere else?
I don’t pretend to have all the answers to what is needed to start a business. But I do take a lot of comfort in knowing that I always sought to treat both my clients and my coworkers fairly.
There were times, while I was CEO of Sheppard Associates, clients would try to renegotiate the price of our firm’s services after we had already completed work for them, for no reason other than they thought that was an acceptable business practice. It was not and never will be! I stood by the quality of our work. To allow a client to change the terms of a contract we had agreed upon would have been disrespectful and unfair to all the employees who worked so hard to deliver what was promised. So I stood firm. Decency won, regardless of the price.
Leaders set the tone when it comes to creating an environment that lifts people up and provides them with the tools to succeed. A person in a position of power has a lot of responsibility resting on their shoulders. If we take that responsibility seriously, and lead from a place of integrity and values, the world becomes a much better place for us all.
Plus, there’s the added benefit of being able to sleep at night knowing you’ve always done what’s right.