When is it Unwise to Compromise?

A number of years ago we moved to a small town in B.C. We signed up our eldest to join a ski racing club. From our outside perspective of that first year, we thought the club wasn’t paying much attention to adding value for younger kids with their programming. Instead of bellyaching in the background, I tried to find constructive ways to contribute. As the season ended, I approached members of the coaching staff and club executive and expressed my desire to roll up my sleeves and get my hands dirty. I offered to coach and be part of the club’s governance. When they say be careful what you ask for as you might just get it, they’re right as I got all I asked for and more. The executive fired the head coach, made a decision to hire someone from Europe, and then asked me to join not just a coach but as the club’s president. The club had a rich history of producing success. It had delivered a number of athletes to the B.C. Provincial ski team and even a few to Canada’s national team. It had enjoyed an enrollment of well over 100 kids. However, the frustrations we had felt were being felt by others. There was an exodus of families from the club, coaches went elsewhere, things were falling apart which made managing the club’s finances with eroding enrollment tougher. On top, at a meeting with other clubs in our region of the Province I learned that we had received some government funding to help us afford the new head coach hire from Europe in a less than transparent fashion. A relationship between a member of our Executive, the national team, and our provincial sport executive had led to our club getting these funds while excluding all other clubs in our region from the conversation. I was learning from other clubs what had happened and they weren’t pleased about it.

I was troubled by what I had learned. I knew the club desperately needed the funds to pay the salary of the person moving from Europe to Canada to coach. I also knew that we hadn’t earned the funding fairly. I leaned on a parent in the club that wasn’t part of the Executive for guidance. Patrick Hasburgh, former Hollywood producer of TV hits like 21 Jump Street, The A-Team, and movies like Aspen Extreme was part of our community. He was a supporter of the club and had two young kids that were beneficiaries of its programming. I went to Patrick because I thought he had wisdom and wouldn’t tell me what I wanted to hear. I had confidence he would be candid in the conversation. I called Patrick up and relayed my understanding of the situation and asked for his thoughts. He didn’t tell me what I should do, but he did make an observation which has served me well then and in the many years since. Patrick offered that controlling our integrity is like trying to hold onto a handful of water while letting just a few drops free in that once you let a little out, more will inevitably follow.

The context Patrick provided helped me internalize that integrity is one of those things where compromises just don’t cut it. If we aren’t careful little leaks can sink big ships. No matter how good we are, if we cut corners on matters of character, we will likely let the downward slide continue creating deeper problems. My conversation with Patrick reminded me of a separate situation, some years before, where I was caddying for a friend of mine at a meaningless club tournament where he had a membership. He had hit his drive deep into the woods. He wasn’t playing a competitive round. He wasn’t on the cusp of winning anything. As we waded through the woods stumbling over his ball in a hopeless lie, he suggested that I pick the ball up and throw it back onto the fairway while he would make a swing in order to make it look like he had made contact. At that time, I was in my early twenties, I wasn’t part of the club, and didn’t know the people he was playing with. I knew my friend’s score and that he wasn’t about to be competing to win anything. In short, I didn’t’ think much of questioning him. In fact, I thought it kind of amusing. I complied, he swung, I threw, the ball landed softly on the fairway to the incredulity and congratulations of the rest of the foursome. Replaying that experience and subsequent years of experience with this friend in business after Patrick’s conversation led me to think that everything has a cost. That little breach of integrity wasn’t the last time he behaved unethically. Our relationship slowly fell apart as he pushed the limits many times exploiting vendors, employees, friends, and shareholders. Little leaks become big ones.

Clay Christensen was a Harvard Business School professor that wrote How Will You Measure Your Life. In the book, Christensen recounts an experience he had as a University student. He was a student-athlete playing on his school’s basketball team. Their team made it to a championship game which landed them scheduled to play on a Sunday. As someone committed to their faith, Christensen had a personal rule that said he would not play or work on Sundays. When he told his coaches and teammates that he couldn’t compromise his commitment and would choose to not play, they couldn’t understand. Christensen recalls both coaches and players being confused. Wondering how someone that was so committed to the team and had worked so hard to get where they were, the peak point of their season, would give it all up. His teammates begged him to play. They said consider it a one time exception to his principle. If was, after all, a one time event. Christensen would likely not get another crack at a Championship title game. Surely, a pass could be made to his rule such that he could play? Even Christensen felt the pressure. He questioned his decision and sat quietly with it, reflecting and praying; and ultimately, deciding to stick to his rule. Christensen writes, “Resisting the temptation whose logic was ‘In this extenuating circumstance, just this once, it’s OK’ has proven to be one of the most important decisions of my life. Why? My life has been one unending stream of extenuating circumstances. Had I crossed the line that one time, I would have done it over and over in the years that followed.” In the end, “The lesson I learned from this is that it’s easier to hold to your principles 100% of the time than it is to hold to them 98% of the time.”

Christensen’s decision became a formational part of his character that has served him well throughout his life. As he worked in the private sector and as a professor, he saw countless times the struggles others faced when they let their integrity leak. What started as a small transgression led to one exception after another. The little holes sprung big leaks that led to catastrophic collapses in careers or businesses as a result. The movie Quiz Show is about a popular NBC game show from the 1950s. The game show was called Twenty-One and involved contestants competing to answer questions from a host. The integrity of the questions posed was maintained via a system of moving them from a vault to the studio. Similar to what Ken Jennings was to Jeopardy, a contestant on Twenty-One, Herb Stempel, had become a staple as a reigning champion. The network and the show’s main advertiser feared a ratings drop with viewers losing interest in seeing the same person win over and over again. They searched high and low for new contestants and became intrigued by a professor from Columbia University who did very well when answering test questions. He was invited to participate on the show. The show’s producers then ask the professor if he would be ok with answering questions on the show that he’s just gone through during his audition. At this point, the professor, Charles Van Doren, says he’s not interested. They move on and during the show the reigning champion intentionally gets a question wrong. Van Doren is now in a slight lead and has the opportunity to move closer to the game’s winning score of 21 when he receives a question which he had during his audition. He pauses in his answer and then answers correctly winning the show. Thus starts his reign as the new show champion. Over time, Van Doren allows the producers to provide answers ensuring he remains the show’s winner. Ironically, the show’s former champion that had been paid off to lose loses his winnings gambling. As his financial struggles mount, Stempel turns on the show and is the cause of an investigation into the show’s shenanigans. The story twists and turns and leaves Van Doren exposed and fired from a TV show role as well as from his university job. Van Doren and his role in the game show offers a real life example of the consequences of compromising on one’s integrity. What seems like a slight, trivial transgression slips, slowly, into something larger that can’t help but be exposed causing harsh consequences.

In Think a Second Time Dennis Prager offers, “once you do decide to compromise, there are other tough questions to answer: How much compromising can you do before you have sold your soul?” He goes on to note that compromise is necessary in certain circumstances in order to make progress. Prager writes, “Compromise, while at times morally necessary or at least justifiable, is more often only the first permission for a person (or society) to begin a long downhill descent. The problem is simple: When do you stop? Very rarely do people make big compromises with their integrity. Almost every compromise is a small one that is easily justified. The downhill slide is usually a result of many little compromises.”

Whether it is integrity, work ethic, commitment, discipline, quality, or responsibility there are areas where giving in a little and tempering our standards just isn’t worth it. What do you do when nobody is watching? That’s right, you are never where nobody is watching. You’re always where you are and your conscience is watching you. Legendary author, Paulo Coelho observed, “If you want to be successful, you must respect one rule: never lie to yourself.” Jordan Peterson echoes Coehlo when he offered, “If you betray yourself, if you say untrue things, if you act out a lie, you weaken your character.” Latin gives us the phrase, Falsus in uno, falsus in omnibus  which translates into false in one thing, false in everything.

In Discipline is Freedom, Jocko Willink writes of holding the line. Willink writes, “with myself, I have to hold the line. There are some areas within myself where I cannot compromise. I am going to work hard. I am going to train hard. I am going to improve myself. I am not going to rest on my laurels. I am going to own my mistakes and confront them. I am going to face my demons. I’m not going to give up, or give out, or give in. I’m going to stand. I’m going to maintain my self-discipline. And on those points there will be No Compromise. Not now. Not ever.” In The Excellence Dividend, Tom Peters writes of a story attributed to Tom Watson the founding Chairman of IBM. Apparently, when Mr. Watson was asked how long it takes to achieve excellence responded with, “One minute. You make up your mind to never again consciously do something that is less than excellent.” As Christensen, Willink, and Watson show, avoiding small holes is best done by creating a 100% commitment to your cause. When we make exceptions, it begins to create pressure. Accepting no exceptions makes decision making easier as there simply is no decision.

As the former US General Norman Schwarzkopf has noted, “The truth of the matter is that you always know the right thing to do. The hard part is doing it.” Small holes are the one time exceptions that become slippery slopes sliding into broken promises. Another US General, James “Mad Dog” Mattis has put it bluntly, “State your flat-ass rules and stick to them.” What little problems are we ignoring or not paying attention to which are compromising our ability to perform? What little holes are you letting leak? What’s your zero tolerance? We can lean on the wisdom of Lao Tzu and “Deal with the big while it is still small” by setting standards for what matters and then not deviating. Hold your line. Determine over what it is that you are unwilling to compromise.