Cornell University 70 years ago made a decision to do the right thing in a situation that is regularly cited as an example of consummate sportsmanship – an example that corporate leaders who’ve fallen on their own swords like Mark Hurd might benefit from revisiting.
Closing in on a national football championship, Cornell’s team played their heart out on November 16, 1940 against Dartmouth College and won; but it turned out the winning point was the result of an officiating error which university officials realized later. Cornell’s president then sent a telegram to Dartmouth offering to forfeit the victory. Dartmouth, instead of letting the game stand, accepted Cornell’s offer to forfeit and became the winner. Cornell, “dejected and injury depleted,” lost the final game of the season.
One of the players on the team that year, now 91, was interviewed about Cornell’s decision seven decades ago. “I think they made the right decision – now,”he said. “At the time, I didn’t think so. But we did what was right.”
Ethical behavior in sports sets a standard for the game being about more than just winning. A leader like Cornell’s then-president Edmund Ezra Day being clear about what needs to be done to correct a mistake or problem and doing it, even if it seemed to work against the university’s self interest, sets a standard for leadership. As it turned out, Cornell got far more attention for its act of sportsmanship than it would have for actually winning a national championship. Seventy years later, Cornell’s integrity in that game is still being mentioned.
Ethical behavior in business, doing the right thing because it is the right thing to do, is consciously a part of how many CEOs operate. This month Andrew Liveris, chairman and CEO of Dow Chemical Company gave a talk at Bentley University on “Ethics as a Business Strategy.” Making the point that saying you believe in ethics in business and actually behaving ethically is two different things, Liveris talked about how Dow makes decisions and seeks to do the right thing. Questions in the packed audience of 700 students ranged from Dow’s global business practices to how he handles specific problems. Liveris appeared candid, wasn’t defensive, and didn’t duck anything asked.
Mark Hurd, who lost his CEO job at HP in August, was back in the news this week over further revelations of what he’d shared in his “close, personal relationship” with Jodie Fisher, a porn star he’d hired as a marketing consultant. The Wall Street Journal (WSJ) learned that in addition to a sexual harassment complaint, Fisher had also alleged that Hurd had told her about a confidential business deal HP planned.
Hurd lost the support of the HP board, according to the WSJ, because board members began to doubt his honesty in answering their questions. The law firm hired by the board to conduct an internal investigation turned up information that contradicted what Hurd had told them, and provided further evidence of his violations of HP’s code of conduct. His conduct was unbecoming a CEO, even as his business strategy was praised.
Doing the right thing is about making choices to live up to an internal code of conduct as well as those posted on walls and websites. It is ultimately about character, how sports teams and leaders show up in the world, and how each is remembered. It is about legacy: Cornell’s legacy of integrity has lived on since 1940.
Interesting to note that it was also seven decades ago that Bill Hewlett and Dave Packard founded HP in a garage.
Their reputation for integrity has stood the test of time.
The legacy of Mark Hurd’s HP’s leadership 70 years from now? It may be in pictures.
Gael O’Brien, November 11, 2010
Gael O’Brien is also a columnist for Business Ethics Magazine.