Holding Fast to Our Moral Center: A Wake-Up Call from the College Admission Scandal


Wow. The college admissions scandal that broke into the headlines this week included several individuals who live right in my Laguna Beach neighborhood, or very nearby. I can’t stop thinking about these parents—many of them well-regarded pillars of their communities. At last count, 33 parents are being charged with racketeering, and they will likely serve prison time. 

How could someone with an impeccable career, a vast accumulation of wealth, and nothing but a sunny horizon ahead, make such poor decisions as to bribe a coach or make a payoff to get their child into an elite school? It’s a terrible example these people have set for their kids, their employees, and their communities. 

How Good People Do Bad Things: Four Forces

I don’t believe these people are inherently bad or evil. In fact, we know many of them have donated their time and money generously to charities and have been value driven leaders in their companies.  Instead, forces pulled them away from their core beliefs.  Here are a few of those forces I see. 

Force #1: The drive to protect their children

A desire for a child to have the very best can override good judgement. Parents today often go to excessive lengths to smooth the path for their kids, so they don’t face rejection or difficulty. This is helicopter parenting at its worst – pulling strings to help them achieve something unfairly. 

Force #2: Peer pressure and competition

In many social circles, parents are praised and congratulated for their child’s list of college acceptances and ultimate school choice. Having a child that can’t get in on his or her own merits feels like failure to these parents. The misguided thinking invites the temptation to compromise or manipulate in order to achieve par with others. 

Force #3: The illusion of invulnerability that comes with power and money

Success and power can leave you feeling that you are invulnerable to consequences. Somehow you are above the societal rules and above the law. You begin to think you can work your way around the system by being clever.  The shift occurs over time with subtle arrogance and a sense that you are above others.  The shift is corrosive to the heart.  

Force #4: The normalization of unethical behavior 

Compromises occur slowly over time - so much so, that before you know it, you have moved away from your core. The end justifies the means. And if others are doing it, won’t you be at a disadvantage if you act ethically? A thought path like leads someone to falsify their tax returns, embezzle money from their employer, or even lie about their daughter’s sports record on her college application. 

It’s possible for anyone to shift away from their core purpose, their moral center. My work with CEOs focuses on keeping a larger moral purpose at the center of a leader’s personal and professional life – despite short-term pressure from investors and the challenge of a highly competitive global marketplace. 

Hold fast to your moral center. Here are practices I’ve found that can help.

  • In business or in personal matters, retaining a moral center that will immediately say no to wrong doing is something purposeful leaders continually cultivate. Make the core of who you are clear to others. People will sense it. As a result, compromising opportunities won’t be brought to you, because others assume the idea will be rejected out of hand.  

  • Create simple but consistent mechanisms to check in with yourself – daily, weekly, annually. Reflect on your purpose and whether you are staying true to it in your life and work. 

  • Keep friends close who share your values. 

  • If something seems too good to be true, talk about it with someone before you even think about acting.  

  • Stay humble. When you possess power in the form of money or authority, you have fewer external guard rails. You have more latitude to do what you want without people calling you out.

  • What happened this week is a sober reminder of how easily we can lose our way. Talking about, supporting, and featuring the highest moral standards in all we do in our lives is the only way to live and the only way to help others achieve the life of their dreams – especially when it comes to our kids.