It’s not a principle until it costs you something

15 December 2014
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MANILA, Philippines – On the first day my leadership classes at UP, Ateneo, or DLSU, I start by writing this statement on the board, and asking students to memorize it. I tell them this would be the first question on the midterm — and if they missed it, it would mean automatic failure:

“A principle is not a principle until it costs you something.”

It’s the essence of great leadership. In life. In business.

Whenever I hear someone mutter, “That man has no principles,” I always disagree. Everyone has principles. It’s not a matter of whether a person does or does not have principles; what it boils down to instead is a simple question: What are their principles?

And we won’t ever know until they are put into a situation of choice, of losing no matter what they do. This is when a person’s real principles come to light. What people say, and what people do, are often two different things.

Let’s talk some real-life examples.

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I have never in my life met a human being who would admit that they would take a bribe. Never. People get indignant. They go on and on about how they are honest, ethical, or “How God would see me take the bribe.” But as we all know, the world is full of people who take bribes. Who abuse power and position to benefit themselves. Just read the front pages of the STAR! So what’s the deal?

A principle is not a principle until it costs you something. And talk is cheap.

It’s easy to say, “I won’t take a bribe” when nobody is offering you one. Easy to be courageous. To stand on the soapbox and talk about honor. But we’ll find out your real principles the day a bribe is offered up.

I have always told people I would never take a bribe. And through the years, I had some “small” offers for kickbacks and bribes that were so small it was easy to say no within two seconds. Then one day in Africa, I was offered a multimillion-dollar bribe. I am ashamed to say it took me 24 hours to answer. And I am proud to say I said “No” and walked away. But I have to admit, it was painful, in a sense! And it cost me something. If my principle really is to “Do the right thing,” then I have to say no. And I don’t get the money! And that is the cost. I lost out on a multimillion-dollar payoff!

If one’s principle is, for example, “I will do whatever I can, no matter right or wrong, to benefit myself and my wallet,” well, this is indeed a principle. It’s not a very good one, I would argue, but it is a principle. And there is a cost. You may get the money but you lose your dignity, your honor, and respect along the way. If this had been my principle, I would have taken the money.

A principle is not a principle until it costs you something.

We admire great leaders in history who have stood by the principle of “Do the right thing” and paid an enormous price for it. Ninoy Aquino and Gandhi paid the ultimate price: their lives. Nelson Mandela was offered a pardon from prison if he would sign one piece of paper simply saying he was sorry for protesting the apartheid government. If his principle had been “Do the right thing,” well, he would refuse and stay in prison. Maybe for decades. If his principle had been, “I will do whatever it takes to get out of here and go home to my family,” well, he signs on the dotted line. Both are principles. And both have a cost.

He spent 27 years in that prison. Throughout the prime of his life.

Had he signed, we would not even know who he was today. He rode on the back of a superb principle we all admire to greatness.

Business leaders are confronted with choices, large and small, that test our principles every single day. Some are massive. Do we take the bribe? Do we “cook” the books to make our numbers? Do we sacrifice a subordinate and fire them to save our own skin? Some are relatively small.

Some choices involve competing principles, both of them valid and worthy. So how do you pick between the two?

I had a case a while ago that kept me up at night. On the one hand, there is always the most important principle of all, “Do the right thing.” This is what I term a foundation principle. It sits at the top of the food chain. Highest order principle that exists.

On the other hand, there are other valid principles such as “Invest in your people as a company’s most important asset” and “Protect the business at all costs.” Also quite important, and certainly good principles.

In one of the most difficult decisions I have had in business, I was confronted with the dilemma of competing principles. On the one hand, an excellent and dedicated employee, hard worker, and holding a critical role in the company. A good person who I cared about. And important to the company.

On the other hand was a question of some poor decisions made in some very sensitive areas that undermined trust and confidence. Striking at the core of some basic corporate values.

So what to do? Protect the business? Give a second chance? Or really “Do the right thing,” recognizing some values simply aren’t negotiable?

A principle is not a principle until it costs you something.

We do the right thing because it is the most important principle of all. Nobody is irreplaceable. Values are timeless and create a culture for generations to come. So we do the right thing, bite the bullet and move on.

Everybody has principles.

And a principle is not a principle until it costs you something.

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