COMMENTARY: The Struggle Between Wants and Shoulds

As a full-time ethicist – can you believe there is such a thing? – I spend most of my time talking about right and wrong with parents and politicians, kids and corporate managers, journalists and generals. One thing I’ve learned is that ethics – being a good person and doing the right thing – is easier said than done. Ethics, …

COMMENTARY: Middle School Commencement

When I was asked to deliver the commencement address at my nephew Jaren’s middle school graduation, I worried more than normal. After all, 14- and 15-year-olds are especially tough. First, they’re subject to torrential hormonal surges that can generate vast mood and personality swings. They can be wonderfully agreeable and fun to be with one moment, then sullen and argumentative the …

COMMENTARY: The Commencement Curse

Millions of teenagers across the land are about to leave the womb of high school for a world full of new freedoms and responsibilities. Although many have been waiting for this event for a long time, eager to get on with their lives as liberated adults, the thought of leaving behind friends and familiar places can be scary. The transition …

COMMENTARY 987.5: The One-Minute Graduation Speech

I’ve given lots of commencement addresses and, despite the silly hat, it’s a head-swelling experience to tell a captive crowd how they should live their lives. The problem is, speakers are to graduations what turkeys are to Thanksgiving, except people are much more interested in a turkey on a platter than a turkey behind a podium. What we need is …

COMMENTARY 987.2: Memorial Day, a Day of Remembrance

It’s not just an excuse for a three-day weekend or a day for barbecue and beer. Memorial Day is a time for Americans to connect with our national history and core values by honoring those who gave their lives fighting for this country. It’s said that this special day to salute fallen Americans was born during the Civil War in …

COMMENTARY 987.1: A Short-Haired Role Model

A popular way to encourage charitable donations is to invoke people to “give till it hurts.” Mrs. Rosario Rivera, an elementary school teacher in Puerto Rico, takes a very different approach, urging her students to “give until it feels good.” Mrs. Rivera teaches English at the José Ramón Rodriguez Elementary School in the town of Coamo in Puerto Rico. Her …

COMMENTARY 986.5: Teach or Punish, That Is the Question

As Greg paces the floor, waiting for his 17-year-old daughter Sandy to return from a school event, he feels two conflicting emotions: fear and anger. Fear that something terrible has happened to her. Anger because he thinks his fear is probably unfounded and Sandy is not hurt, simply irresponsible. Finally, Sandy calls. She’s all right. She just lost track of …

COMMENTARY 986.2: “I Didn’t Want the Janitor to Lose His Job”

The primary responsibility for instilling good values and building character is with parents. This doesn’t mean, however, that teachers and coaches don’t have a critically important role. The unfortunate fact is that far too many kids are raised in morally impoverished settings that foster lying, cheating, and violence. If we don’t give these children moral instruction, many of them will …

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Commencement Speeches: The Best Of

Sheryl Sandberg at UC Berkeley Steve Jobs at Stanford University: John F. Kennedy at American University: J.K. Rowling at Harvard University: Ellen DeGeneres at Tulane University: Conan O’Brien at Dartmouth College: Oprah at Spellman College: Denzel Washington University of Pennsylvania:

COMMENTARY 985.1: Making Lives

A few years ago I came across a video by a very dynamic speaker, a former middle school teacher named Taylor Mali. He is now what’s called a performance poet — someone who delivers poetry as singers deliver songs. The poem that caught my attention was “What Do I Make?” an articulate and aggressive response to a critic who was putting down teachers. …

COMMENTARY 984.4: Is It Really Only About Winning?

Long ago, I entered law school wanting to do good. I left more concerned with doing well. In an atmosphere dominated by raging competitive instincts, persuasive rationalizations, and real economic pressures, cynicism drowned out idealism. My notion of the legal system as a grand forum for the pursuit of truth and justice was reduced to the idea that, in the …

COMMENTARY 984.1: Changing Self-Limiting Beliefs and Bad Behavior

Shavonne, a third-grade teacher, was at the end of her rope with disciplinary problems, but she wasn’t enthusiastic when she was told that her school had adopted the CHARACTER COUNTS! program. Now she was expected to explicitly seek to instill and enhance in her students core ethical values like honesty, respect, and responsibility, and to help them develop positive social …

COMMENTARY 983.3: Eight Laws of Leadership

Take a look around. Business, education, politics. If there’s one thing we don’t have enough of, it’s good leaders —men and women who have the vision and the ability to change things for the better. Former Air Force General William Cohen wrote a fine book called The Stuff of Heroes in which he identified eight laws of leadership. Here are …

COMMENTARY 982.3: Doing Sports Right

When I was a kid playing sports, there were no clubs, travel teams, or private coaches. Except for summer baseball leagues, the primary place to play was high school. When I was in the 10th grade, I wanted to play basketball in the worst way. Unfortunately, given my size and talent, that’s how I played. But in those days, sports …

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COMMENTARY 981.5: The Disease of Low Expectations

The serious damage done to our economy, social institutions, and personal relationships by widespread cheating and dishonesty is bad enough. But widespread acceptance of such behavior as inevitable threatens to make our future a lot worse. In effect, our culture is being infected by a disease: the disease of low expectations. The disease is manifested by the corrosive assumption that …

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COMMENTARY 981.1: Getting Started

Chris’s parents were proud of him when he graduated from college. But it’s been six months and he hasn’t gotten a job yet. In fact, he hasn’t looked seriously. He has no idea what he wants to do and he’s thinking of grad school. He’s living at home with his parents and things are getting tense, especially with his father, …

COMMENTARY 980.2: Family Values

Our values — the core beliefs that drive behavior — determine our character, our ethics and our potential. Thus, the most important thing we can do for our children is to stimulate them to develop positive values that will help them become wise, happy and good. This is no simple matter. The first step is to achieve greater clarity about …

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COMMENTARY 979.3: What Do You Want to See More of and Less of?

Inspirational author and speaker Stephen Covey once said, “Start with the end in mind.” So whenever a company wants to launch an ethics initiative, we at Josephson Institute use a simple exercise: “Look at your organization today – its managers, line employees, and customers – and list behaviors and attitudes you’d like to see more of and less of.” We …

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COMMENTARY 979.2: Learning and Believing

One of the marks of our species is our limitless capacity to learn. Sometimes we learn how to do something we’ve never done before. Sometimes we learn facts about the world, about other people, and about ourselves. These sorts of things make us smarter and more skillful. But what’s really important are the things that make us wiser, our learned …

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COMMENTARY 977.4: Coaching for Character

I’ve spent lots of time with some of the world’s most successful coaches. I discovered that many of them think about character a lot, especially traits that are important to winning – like self-discipline, perseverance, resiliency, and courage. They pay less attention to virtues like honesty, integrity, responsibility, compassion, respect, and fairness — aspects of character that make a good …

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Kids Like to Win; Adults Need to Win

Whether you’re a sports fan or not, you have to acknowledge the powerful cultural influence that sports have on our culture. The values of millions of participants and spectators are shaped by the values conveyed in sports, including our views of what is permissible and proper in the competitive pursuit of personal goals. Professional sports and even highly competitive intercollegiate …

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COMMENTARY 977.2: Tell Someone They’re Valued

The students at Sandy’s high school were badly shaken by the news that a classmate had killed himself. The suicide note said, “It’s hard to live when nobody cares if you die.” Glen, a teacher, realized this was a teachable moment about the importance of making people feel valued. He asked the class to imagine they were about to die …

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COMMENTARY 976.4: How Honest Are You?

Yesterday I marveled at the honesty of Patrick and Catherine for going to great lengths to return my wallet. Perhaps you would have done the same thing, but being scrupulously honest in all things is more difficult than it seems and more rare than it should be. Here’s a little quiz to test your honesty. Now be completely honest. I’ll …

COMMENTARY 975.5: What Is Character?

Here’s a riddle: You can hardly ever find it anymore — especially in politics or business. Lots of schools don’t teach it anymore. We want more of it in our children and in all the adults who interact with them. We want it from our bosses and the people who fix our cars. And most of us believe we have …

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COMMENTARY 974.3: The Pressure to Win in Sports and Business

A former successful college coach and athletic director once wrote me a note about the state of college sports. The pressure to win in high-profile schools is so great, he said, that it’s almost impossible to resist rationalizing. When competitors cheat or engage in other unethical conduct, the tendency is to redefine the ground rules for competition rather than be …

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COMMENTARY 974.1: Testing Your Integrity

In the past year, did you keep the money if a cashier gave you too much change? Did you lie to your boss, a customer, or a significant other? Did you use the Internet for personal reasons at work? Did you distort or conceal facts on a resumé or in a job interview? Did you inflate an expense or insurance …

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COMMENTARY 973.4: The Pressure to Cheat

What’s causing the growing hole in our moral ozone? Why are cheating and lying so common in schools, on the sports field, and in business and politics? Apparently it’s a thing called pressure. Kids are under pressure to get into college, athletes and coaches are under pressure to win, and, according to a survey by the American Management Association, the …