The Allure of Cheating – And Why It Doesn’t Pay Off

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“If you’re not cheating, you’re not trying hard enough.”So claimed Chicago Cubs star first basemen, Mark Grace.

At about the time Grace made this comment, business leaders Jeff Skilling, Dennis Koszlowski and Bernie Ebbers were busy trying a bit too hard at Enron, Tyco and Worldcom.

Meanwhile, Mark Grace’s teammate Sammy “Slammin’ Sammy” Sosa was busy demolishing Major League Baseball’s all-time home run records, along with Cardinal Mark McGuire and Giants player Barry Bonds. But all later admitted, or were suspected of, using performance-enhancing substances as they, too, did their utmost to secure super-human legacies.

This was also the era when Lance Armstrong was beginning to pile up what eventually became a record seven Tour de France titles and track star Marion Jones grabbed three gold medals at the Sydney Olympics.

Then in 2008, Jones was stripped of her medals and sent to federal prison for six months for lying about her use of performance-enhancing drugs. And in 2013, Armstrong told Oprah Winfrey that his career had been “one big lie” as he confessed to blood doping and using banned susbstances.

Why would a brilliant Jeff Skilling risk a 24-year prison sentence (it was later reduced to 14), or spectacular athletes like Marion Jones and Lance Armstrong risk humiliation – and worse?

Dr. Robert Goldman, an expert in health sciences, famously asked elite athletes if they would take a drug that guaranteed success in sports if it meant a death sentence in five years. The answers he received showed the power of the urge to win. They were similar to those reported in the 1970s by sports medicine specialist Dr. Gabe Mirkin.Both Goldman and Mirkin reported that a majority of elite athletes responded that they would take a performance-guaranteeing pill at the cost of an early death.

Today’s researchers claim that the percentage of athletes willing to make a version of this Faustian bargain is far lower; however, seen through the lens of behavior, it’s still remarkably high. The same is likely true for business leaders. Somehow, standing on the podium, or appearing on the cover of Fortune magazine, even as the result of a lie, remains compelling.

The business analogue to doping often involves juiced half-truths, insider information or concealment. The motives for business leaders are the same as those for elite athletes – fame, money, credit, admiration. In sport, in business, or in life, finding oneself admired or envied for a lie is a uniquely unstable victory. But alas, the temptation to violate the truth for a place on the podium isn’t as rare as it should be.

This can be very confusing for young people who are solidifying their sense of right and wrong. In sports, many coaches teach that when cheating doesn’t fall under the category of building a phony legacy (as in the Armstrong, Jones and Sosa cases), it can be understandable, forgivable and even a healthy part of short-run competitive instincts.

For example, in a 1986 World Cup championship match, Argentinian soccer star Diego Maradona scored what has come to be called the “Hand of God” goal. Maradona later called his handball maneuver “cunning” and he was celebrated for his guile in fooling the referee.

This past weekend, as American baseball fans watched Derek Jeter retire with a game-winning base hit, I was reminded of a rare disappointment I felt in the Yankee great. In September 2010, Jeter was apparently hit by a pitch thrown by a Tampa Bay relief pitcher. He grabbed his elbow, wincing in pain and calling for a team trainer to examine his left arm.

Later, Jeter admitted to play-acting the injury in order to get a free pass to first base. In the heat of the moment, Jeter wasn’t about to violate baseball’s unwritten “it’s-only-cheating-if-you’re-caught” rule. Had the great Derek Jeter told the truth in September of 2010 and declined to take first base on a lie, it’s an act that would have become theJeter story to tell my kids and grandkids – a victory of truth over short-term self-interest.

Enlightened business and political leaders know that any “win” not rooted in truth is really a loss. It may take years to uncover, but the implications of a falsehood will reverberate for more than a game, more than a quarterly earnings report, more than an election cycle and perhaps even more than a lifetime.

As Shakespeare wrote, “No legacy is so rich as honesty.”

By Joel Peterson