Companies love, love, love talking about how great their values are and how strong their principles are. But as we all know, talk is cheap.
The great advertising titan, Bill Bernbach famously said, “It’s only a principle when it costs you money.”
Martin Luther King’s followers knew he would never ask them to make a sacrifice he wasn’t willing to make himself. His actions proved it. Nelson Mendala spent 27 years in prison for opposing the apartheid system. Mahatma Gandhi was imprisoned 13 times. Their principles had a price, and they paid it. That’s why people trusted them and followed their lead.
Unfortunately, many leaders want all the benefits of maintaining a principled image, and none of the costs of backing those principles with action. In 44 B.C., Cicero wrote that it is better “to be rather than to seem to be.” In 2023, many leaders flip that on its head.
There’s a 2013 story over on the Hey Whipple blog by a high-powered marketing executive, Wendy Ludlow Clark (who eventually went on to take Bill Bernbach’s CEO’s job at DDB). Circa 1999, early on in her marketing career, she realized her bosses had done something sketchy with the ad agencies that were pitching her firm for business. Rather than just bite her lip and let it all get brushed under the carpet, she resigned her position in disgust. She took the hit (and the drop in income from being suddenly unemployed) instead of violating her principles.
As it turns out, her resignation got her a lot of attention and admiration in the trade, as the news spread. It actually gave her career a boost in the end. More importantly, it meant she could still look at herself in the mirror.
She explained it rather well:
“I’m pretty sure at the end of my life no one is going to wax lyrical about some advertising campaign I launched in 1999. But, if I do my best to lead with values, purpose and principles, they just might say that I was a decent person. And to me, that’s a far greater achievement.”