Lance Armstrong’s recent confession admitting to significant ethical lapses due to drug use highlights a fundamental spiritual component in every professional’s life. Neglecting spirituality comes with serious consequences. In this context, spiritual does not mean religious, but rather a sense of self and how it contributes to an organization’s corporate culture. It doesn’t matter if the person embraces a faith tradition or considers him- or herself humanist. Understanding ethics separate from motivations making each professional human, limits the effectiveness of any rule, policy, or internal protocol.
So long as professionals aren’t encouraged to reflect on the personal, not merely professional nature of ethics in their daily lives then businesses can expect scandal. No matter the safeguards in place another problem, which may negatively impact profits, morale, productivity, or employee turnover, is just around the corner.
What drives people to do unethical things? It’s easy to talk about Armstrong’s ego. A healthy ego that slips into a super-ego is a form of delusion and insecurity. Like it or not, however, there is the potential for everyone to be just like him on a smaller level when career or society’s perceptions of success are permitted to define an individual’s personhood. Solitude is one of several ways every busy professional has at his or her disposal to stay grounded.
Theologian Henri Nouwen wrote solitude is “the place where our aloneness can bear fruit. It is the home for our restless bodies and anxious minds. Solitude, whether it is connected with a physical space or not, is essential for our spiritual lives. It is not an easy place to be, since we are so insecure and fearful that we are easily distracted by whatever promises immediate satisfaction.”
He further reflected, “Solitude is not immediately satisfying, because in solitude we meet our demons, our addictions, our feelings of lust and anger, and our immense need for recognition and approval.” Armstrong never found solitude. The cyclist didn’t acknowledge his demons until their mounting damage could no longer be denied – his son was being hurt. Whether he has shown the requisite humility and contrition to slay them is yet to be seen.
Solitude doesn’t mean you head off to Walden Pond for the weekend. You discipline your mind to make it a routine part of life even in the midst of chaos. This is not a luxury. It is a necessity. Disciplining yourself to do it requires practice. As Armstrong’s experience suggests, solitude is just as important, perhaps more so, as keeping one’s body in good shape.
Professional ethics have limited value if they are detached from the individual. They should never be viewed as merely rules followed in the workplace. Too often ethics are compartmentalized. They must be integrated into the individual’s understanding of him- or herself and outlook on life. Ethics training and seminars often overlook the need for wholeness.
In the case of Lance Armstrong, he eventually found something more real, important, and meaningful than any cycling competition. Reality hit Armstrong in the face when his teenage son attempted to defend his honor. If he had disciplined himself to find solitude with the same passion as he trained as a cyclist, chances are he may have asked the right questions about priorities and behaved differently.
Paul Jesep is an attorney, Corporate Chaplain, and author of “Lost Sense of Self & the Ethics Crisis: Learn to Live and Work Ethically.”