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The Measure of a Man (or Woman) Is Impressive. Until It’s Not.

Not too long ago, I attended a networking luncheon where the speaker talked about the successes and challenges of taking over her family’s business and growing it into a multi-state enterprise with 500+ employees. She was candid when she revealed her three greatest challenges: lack of confidence—a foible not uncommon in women; lack of practical business experience—though she was a college graduate, she was young; and lack of industry experience.

Her story was impressive.

Until it wasn’t.

As she recounted, early on she spent a lot of time at professional conferences and industry trade shows learning everything she could. She developed relationships with people who became her mentors. She had a following of influential people who, by her own account, genuinely wanted her to succeed. Indeed, she admitted she probably would not have achieved her current level of success without the support of these individuals.

She expressed gratitude to those who helped her.

And then it turned ugly.

She said, “But business is war. These are my competitors. And if one of my competitors is drowning, I’m going to stick a hose in their mouth and turn on the water.” She paused for dramatic effect.

I was shocked.

Did she really say that? She went on to share a few other examples of her business principles in action which, in my estimation, were questionable at best. Thereafter, she lost me.

A few weeks later, my husband and I watched The Founder, starring Michael Keaton as Ray Kroc. The movie tells the origin story of the rise of McDonald’s to world domination in the fast food industry. I don’t know how much of the story is an accurate representation of what happened in the early days of the burger chain, and I was left with a distinctly negative impression of Mr. Kroc by the end of the film.

At first, we were like, “Let’s pause the movie and head over for a Big Mac. And fries. Gotta have the fries.” By the end, we were like, “Nah.”

Nonetheless, I was very impressed with how Kroc understood the principles of core purpose and core values defined how customers experienced dining at the restaurants, how employees could be inspired and motivated to be a part of something bigger than themselves, and how finding franchisees whose own values matched those of McDonald’s was the only way the company could successfully manage growth. Harnessing core purpose and core values ensured the company’s success.

But there is a distinction between how Kroc uses corporate values to manage the restaurants and his personal values in how he manages his behavior in business. I may be naïve, but I think there should be no distinction. Your values are your values, and how you run your business is how you run your life.

Ray Kroc, though, was unscrupulous. As it was portrayed in the movie, Kroc lied, cheated and—for all intents and purposes—stole the company that would make him one of the wealthiest men on the planet when he died in 1984. Today, McDonald’s is one of the World’s Most Valuable Brands with a market capitalization of $110.1 billion.

There is no shortage of business leaders whose actions, like Kroc’s, belie strong values or moral character. From Uber’s Travis Kalanick, who has built a world-dominating, “industry-disruptive” business by openly disregarding “many rules and norms, backing down only when caught or cornered,” to Wells Fargo’s former CEO, John Stumpf, who was recently fired “in the wake of a national uproar that erupted after regulators accused the bank of creating many as two million fake bank and credit card accounts.”

If only “gutless leadership” was a modern symptom of bad behavior. Sadly, there have been bad leaders since time immemorial, I suppose.

Just because people get ill-gotten gains, that doesn’t mean we all can do it. It’s up to us to lead with our values. And live our values.

I learned during the movie that the hose-in-my-competitor’s-mouth line used by the speaker at that luncheon is actually a quote attributed to Ray Kroc.

But, like Kroc, who in the final scene of the movie is practicing a speech that plagiarizes word-for-word of one of his favorite thinkers, the lunchtime speaker, who had so offended, me plagiarized this line. She delivered it without giving credit to Kroc. Because, you know, if Ray Kroc steals or presents something as his own when it isn't and then becomes a gazillionaire, it's OK to steal. Because that's the behavior of a gazillionaire.

Yeah, I don't think it works that way.

It’s up to us to lead with our values. And live our values.

Check out these “BrainyQuotes” about The Measure of a Man.

Andrea J. Applegate is a talent strategist who consults with clients on transforming their workforce into their competitive advantage. Applegate has nearly 20 years of experience in workforce and talent in the Columbus region and has expertise working with both businesses and nonprofit organizations.

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