Although I have never abused alcohol or any other type of substance, I’ve admired the 12-step treatment programs I’ve read about. They were effective in helping millions of people straighten out their lives because those programs emphasized the importance of personal responsibility and continuous self-awareness.
In reading about the 12-step programs I recognized a relationship to Aristotle’s teachings on the need for introspection.
A pattern existed that any of us could follow to become better human beings, and by becoming better human beings, we all contribute to building better relationships, better careers, and better communities. As with 12-step programs that encouraged daily introspection, with my return to society I looked forward to my own daily introspection that would continue my ethical training and further my commitment to leading a values-centered life.
Like the recovering alcoholic understood that maintaining sobriety required abstinence from the consumption of alcohol, I understood that redeeming myself and working toward becoming a person of good character would require a day-by-day effort for the rest of my life. Serving time in federal prison camp may not have “saved” my life, but the loss of my liberty certainly made me realize the necessity of ensuring that the decisions I made and the activities I pursued were in harmony with the values I held.
Without that balance, I made decisions that brought painful consequences. While serving time in the federal prison camp, for example, I suffered mightily when I heard of the death of my dog, Honey. My heart ached with the reality that decisions I had made meant that I missed the last months of her life and that I would never see her wagging tail again. Besides losing my dog, I never missed freedom as much as I did on January 22nd 2009, the day that Sunny, my sister-in-law, brought my niece into this world. I should have been present to celebrate my niece’s birth, and those irretrievable losses would ensure that I never made another decision that would disregard my responsibility to family and good citizenship.
As I was sitting in a restaurant, holding my niece for the first time and looking into her big blue eyes that were filled with curiosity, enjoying the loving warmth from family and friends who welcomed me home, I wondered why it took a journey through prison for me to realize that I could never take freedom for granted. I lost nearly all of my material belongings and net worth due to my struggles with the criminal justice system, but in going through it I came to appreciate family, community, reputation much more. I was 34 and resuming life with clouds of six-figure debt hanging over me, but somehow, the clarity of values brought self-confidence, inner peace, and a certainty of my place in the world. In striving to become better, and in sharing the lessons I learned, I was going to become a force for good.
Roger Ewing opened an opportunity to test my usefulness in society. Together with his partner, Ernie Wish, Roger presided over the distinguished Sotheby’s real estate office in Calabasas, an affluent suburb of Los Angeles. Sotheby’s employed a sales force of more than 125 highly trained sales professionals. Despite my having been released from federal prison, Roger agreed to hire me. When considering my request for work, Roger said that he understood the economy was tight and that market conditions required everyone in the upscale office to work harder for less compensation. He also understood that in hiring me, Roger would be subjecting everyone in his office to the inconveniences presented by federal authorities who were supervising my conditional release to society. Despite the intrusions that would come with hiring a felon Roger told me that on account of my efforts to atone for the crimes that led to my imprisonment, and the daily commitment I was making to society, he respected me. Such words had more value to me than I knew how to describe and I intended to prove worthy of his trust.
Rather than hiring me to sell mansions to the stars, I came on in a supportive role, contributing to the company’s newsletters and blogs. The opportunity allowed me to earn a modest income while working to build my new career speaking to audiences about the importance of ethics, and consulting for business people who encountered troubles with the criminal justice system. In early August, three months after my return to society, I presented my first corporate ethics speech to the sales staff at Sotheby’s.
The irony of my standing before the group as a convicted felon on ethics was not lost on me. I told the group about my prior career as a stockbroker, and I shared with them how management once compelled my colleagues and me to attend continuing education courses—including some on ethics. While I sat through such lectures on corporate compliance, I told my audience, I used to tune out, certain that I understood about right and wrong. I didn’t think I needed others to tell me about rules that governed my profession.
Although I did not want to listen to lectures on rules or codes of conduct, traumatic experiences convinced me that I would have been well advised to learn more about why I should have cultivated virtues that constituted good character. It was my disregard for, my dismissal of, my indifference to such virtues, I explained to my audience, that resulted in my exchanging designer suits and million dollar commissions for prison jumpsuits and a steel rack next to a tattooed man who identified himself as Big Homie.
A sense of entitlement crept up on me after I left the University and became more immersed in the go-go-go culture of Wall Street. It was always the next deal that motivated me, the higher commissions, the perceived prestige that came with rapid advancement. In my insatiable pursuit of more external validations, I fell less inclined to appreciate the peace and wholeness that only could come with a strong inner core.
In time my focus on short-term rewards led to the rotting of my inner core, rendering me more and more vulnerable to consequences that conspired together to ruin my life. First there was an inattention to my physical fitness. My excuse was that advancing in my career required long hours. I dieted on fast food and neglected exercise. Instead of making adjustments, I accepted my expanding waistline and pudginess as an inevitable consequence of growing older. That was the beginning of my inattention to the importance of self-discipline, and in time, I told my audience, what began with a lack of physical training deteriorated into a lack of integrity training.
Instead of embracing the virtues of temperance, balance, and moderation, I explained, a kind of envy took root inside of me. I was young, in my mid-twenties, single, and earning commission checks that sometimes reached six figures levels in a single month as a stockbroker. Yet rather than living in gratitude for such monetary rewards (as distinguished from success), I coveted what others had. Men and women in the same office appeared to work less and earn more.
Why wasn’t I bringing in bigger numbers? I felt cheated, under appreciated. With self-delusions of being entitled, I lacked both perspective and clarity.
As my inattention to the crucial need for introspection and cultivating character became more pronounced, a selfishness that I did not recognize began to define who I was. I hated my life and my career. I hated the early mornings. I hated fielding phone calls to clients that I felt were undeserving of my attention. I vegged out, staring at golf tournaments on television or playing games of online chess. I lost interest in the value of nurturing close personal relationships. Instead, a pathetic self-pity over why I wasn’t receiving the recognition I deserved rendered me incapable of realizing how out of balance my values had become. Perhaps I didn’t abuse alcohol, but I was like the drunk who couldn’t grasp why everyone was saying he had a drinking problem. Denial, an inattention to the wreck of a man I had become, plagued me.
I could see that many of the sales professionals in my audience identified with the state of mind that I described. They may not have suffered from similar character weaknesses, but they saw such vice in others. For some reason, it was always easier for us to see flaws in others. Introspection, on the other hand, looking inward and evaluating whether our thoughts, works, and actions synchronized with the professional images we wanted to portray, with the spouses or parents or citizens we wanted to be, required discipline. (In my case, I told the group, that lack of discipline led to a weakening of my commitment to ethics and morality.)
I told those in my audience how moral faults and failings made it easier to cross a line that would later lead to my being targeted by the criminal justice system. I justified lies that I knew would result in losses to investors. That was wrong on so many levels. Rules of my professions prohibited such lies. Yet I could justify my actions by convincing myself that such lies were part of the professional culture, that everyone did it. Although the law did not permit deceit that I was in a position to perpetuate, I felt entitled to the money that the lies I told would generate. For those lies, I was convicted of securities fraud—and rightly so.
The coldness of concrete and steel in federal prison convinced me that I had to change. While lying on a prison rack I began to see how my life had fallen apart. It wasn’t because of my criminal conviction, but because I had failed to cultivate ethical principles. Temptations of money, power, lust, and other corrupting forces were ubiquitous in our society. By disregarding my ethical core—meaning that I diminished the inherent values of honesty, integrity, discipline, balance, humility, and so forth—I rendered myself less and less capable of defending against ever-present temptations. By the time I concluded my federal prison term, I told those in my audience, just as I knew that I would never stop brushing my teeth, I knew that I would never again ignore the necessity of working to build a better inner character.
When I concluded the prepared portion of my presentation for the audience at Sotheby’s I invited questions. Besides the many understandable questions about what prison was like, I responded to several questions inquiring about specific changes I made to cultivate character.
For me the changes were all-encompassing, I told the group. After leaving USC I made the mistake of ignoring good books, but while I prison I read extensively. In reading various anthologies of philosophy, I developed my appreciation for Aristotle that continues to grow. His message was that when we continuously worked to improve the self, we simultaneously worked to improve our communities. In neglecting that “continuing improvement of the self”, I had harmed our community.
Besides relying upon the writings of Aristotle, I found inspiration in Rodin’s sculpture of The Self Made Man. To improve the self, I pledged to work every day on improving my fitness, my knowledge, and my inner peace of balance.
I began exercising daily by by running long distances. That time alone, as I ran through the hills of Pacific Palisades, with eucalyptus trees scenting the air, or alongside the beaches of Southern California, breathing in the elements, I felt at one with nature. The rhythmic, soothing sound of my steps crunching the gravel was all I heard. While the exercise improved my fitness, the tranquility brought an hour or two away from Blackberry’s, e-mails, and phone calls that I could count on every day to evaluate decisions and activities.
Instead of narcotizing myself with distractions from an I-pod, I welcomed exercise time to examine the motives behind my decisions. Was I reading literature that would expand my knowledge? Was I honest and forthright in all of my relationships or exchanges with others? Was I appreciative of my blessings? Was I contributing to my community by adding value to the lives of others? Such introspections, or self-questioning, helped me stay on course; as exercise would improve my physical fitness, contemplations would help me cultivate character.
I appreciated the opportunity Roger Ewing opened for me to speak at Sotheby’s, and the practice served me well. Over the next several months I spoke to much larger audiences in universities and corporate settings from coast to coast. The purpose of my work was to illustrate ways that people who considered themselves good, or ethical, could fall vulnerable to making decisions if their values fell out of whack. Such decisions jeopardized stability for individuals, for the businesses that employed them, and for the economy. I considered it my duty to work toward reducing white-collar crime by sharing what I’ve learned as practical lessons on ethics could remind people that efforts to cultivate character should be ongoing.
Sharing my experiences with university and corporate audiences was in some ways reaffirming. In literature for Alcoholics Anonymous I read that those who participated in and attended regular meetings reaffirmed their commitment to sobriety; they also developed support by telling their stories. I felt certain that I would root all of my future thoughts, words, and actions in honesty and integrity, but sharing my story was cathartic. Each presentation represented a strengthening of my ethical core, furthering my commitment to lead a values-based life. On top of that, in relating what I learned from ethical theorists to the real, day-to-day challenges of the workforce, I could offer those in my audience practical insight. They would use it, I hoped, to stay true to the principles of good behavior and avoid the temptations that frequently lead to white-collar crime.
In continuing my education on what drives good people into white-collar crime, I learned from the writings of Jim Ratley, the president of the Certified Fraud Examiners. He consulted for businesses that invested in white-collar crime prevention programs. Mr. Ratley pointed out that those who transmogrified from good corporate citizen to white-collar criminal had the trifecta of toxic combinations: pressure (they needed the money); capacity (they were in a position to commit fraud); and rationalization (they could explain why they were entitled to the ill-gotten fruits they coveted).
Walter was another business consultant (and mentor of mine) who worked assiduously to explain motivations that led to fraud. Walt called pressure, capacity, and rationalization components of the fraud triangle. I could identify would such theories because of personal experience. But as my business expanded to include consulting with business or legal professionals who faced struggles with the criminal justice system, I saw how those who neglected the need to train their ethical cores were most vulnerable to the perils presented by “the fraud triangle.”
Generally speaking, the business professionals who contacted me for advice on how to emerge from their troubles with the law understood right from wrong. They considered themselves good people, ethical. They would not have been able to imagine themselves using a gun or participating on any type of street-level crime. Yet in disregarding the need to cultivate strong ethical centers, they succumbed to temptations of participating in vulpine acts of deceit.
The people who contacted me for prison consulting services held positions that gave them capacity to respond to their perceived pressures with fraud. In their minds they could rationalize their actions. Those actions led to criminal charges, and it became my job to help them find their way back.
I share what I learned from those white-collars offenders in an effort to expand the literature on ethics. I want those in the business community (and those who study in preparation to join the business community) to have more information than that contained in corporate compliance binders; unfortunately, those binders that were rarely consulted gathered dust in business offices across America.
Perhaps stories of real people who once held positions of trust in big business, small business, or professional services—but now faced charges for white collar crime—would convince more professionals of the need to introspect, to cultivate character and strong ethical cores, as Aristotle advised.
Chapter Two Exercises
Identify the five highest values of your life in ascending order.
Describe how your daily actions, your relationships, your decisions relate to each of those values.
Describe the level of consistency between your proclaimed values with your actions, relationships, and decisions.