The most telling moment when Lance Armstrong gave his mea (sort of) culpa to Oprah Winfrey was his claim that he’d looked up the word “cheat” in the dictionary, saw that it said “to gain an advantage on a rival” and decided that it didn’t apply to him.
Everybody was blasted to the eyeballs on EPO, ergo he was just keeping up. It’s reminiscent of the philosophy of Hugh Laurie’s Doctor Gregory House, whose catchphrase is the self-serving: “Everyone lies.”
In his own mind, Armstrong did nothing wrong. It was the culture of cycling that was to blame. Indeed, when talking to Oprah he didn’t look like a man filled with remorse, he looked like a narcissist who regretted being caught and thought the fuss was all a bit naive.
You could imagine a similar performance from the bankers who have recently been nabbed for rigging the lending rates, and rogue trading. If everybody else was at it, you can imagine them shrugging, then it couldn’t have been that wrong.
What do the words “right” and “wrong” mean, if they are not what a group say they are? “Good” and “bad” are words that describe “the way we do things.” Cyclists had their own code of ethics, and no doubt even the most determined dopers would never have dreamed of pushing an opponent off the bike, or throwing tacks on the ground in front of them – cycling and prop trading are surely full of all sorts of arcane dos and don’ts. The Armstrong affair lays bare the corrosive power of cliques, closed-off cultures, and the moral relativism that they foster.
Armstrong raises another question, too, one about personal responsibility. In 1960 the British philosopher Peter Strawson wrote a famous paper about determinism and responsibility. At that time it was becoming accepted that people’s background and upbringing – the culture they lived in, you might say – had a huge influence on their behaviour.
In short, people are not born bad, they are made bad, and sometimes rehabilitation is a better course than punishment. Strawson saw that this threatened to damage the idea of personal responsibility. If culture is to blame, at least partly, then is the individual? And is it fair to punish that individual? Responsibility is a complicated concept, and so, therefore, are blame and praise.
What does it mean for business? For a start, that cliques are bad, and that small, self-contained departments or sub-cultures can breed behaviour that’s unacceptable to the wider world. Bad behaviour comes from bad cultures. But the flip side is that when people are successful, then the culture that nurtures them is responsible for that too.
For too long businesses (and the business press) have looked for “stars”, and said that “talent” creates success. The Lance Armstrong affair shows that cultures are more responsible for forming people than anything that comes from within, and that people’s values are products of their environment. Businesses are far better off creating healthy, open cultures, than looking for stars.