The Wheatley Institution

What I Have Learned: Reflections on Ethics, Integrity & Honor

Brad Oates
February 11, 2015

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Wow, I am intimidated. I certainly stand before you very humbled. And boy, to sit here and see all of you and some of you who have come, friends and family, it is very meaningful. I hope tonight we can have a personal conversation. I certainly don’t want to come across as “I am this paragon of virtue and I have been ethical to the highest standards all my life.” I think I am like a lot of us, trying to do the best I can. I would like to share a few experiences with you. I can see here that I am part of a great legacy at this university, and frankly, we are connected through the legacy of this university. Let me start by thanking the Wheatley Institution, Jack and Lois Wheatley, so generously here. Richard Williams, who is the executive director, and certainly my friendship with Brad Agle goes beyond just a professional relationship. Truly, I hope I can say I was rooting when he came as a visiting professor that this is who BYU needed to come. They needed to get Brad to come and come back to his roots and establish its ethical foundations.

Now BYU has a reputation in the business world for producing ethical students. Typically ranked very high each year in the official rankings, but I hope as we have this conversation tonight, each of us will look and hold the mirror up and ask, “How does ethical conduct in my life make a difference?” The older I get, the more I think about it in terms of defining outcomes and in being very clear about how things make a difference. So let’s start. A couple days ago I was on an airplane ride, and here is one of the more tragic stories that all of us are familiar with, with Lance Armstrong. Now, Lance came out of Dallas and was in Plano, Texas, not very far from where I was at. When I quit playing professional football, I started doing marathons and triathlon training and got to know this guy a little bit. As a high school senior, he came out of a troubled family environment and he would take a training ride from Plano to Oklahoma and back. One hundred and eighty miles, and that was his training ride. Then what he did to accomplish winning the Tour De France, a record number, then having cancer and then coming back from that. He became really a national hero, particularly for anybody who had cancer themselves or in their family. He was the “Live Strong,” you know, the yellow bracelets. He really was the national hero and to see an article that says, “Armstrong resorts to what he does best” is really tragic, and I think it is instructive for all of us. There is not one of us that can’t fall. I have seen this multiple times in my life from those around, great people who you would not expect. That is why I actually run a little bit scared because I think you have to. It is very similar to playing football. You are always worried from week to week. Was I good enough to measure up to the guy across the line? I spent more time probably watching films of myself because I knew that if I didn’t do everything I could, I would get beat. So to a certain extent I think, when it comes to ethics, we have to run a little scared. I think that is good. That is not bad.

I would like to phrase the question for each of us to answer: “What difference does it make if I have integrity in my life?” I think that is the threshold question that each of us is going to have to ask. Does it make a difference? You see plenty of examples of people who don’t have the highest ethical behavior, and they seem to win. You see examples of people who do the right thing, the good guys and you go, “It doesn’t really pay to be a good guy.” So the question is, what difference does it make?

Let’s start with the definition of integrity. Anybody know the definition of integrity? It comes from the Latin—math majors here? Integers, whole or complete. Anybody know the Greek? What would be the Greek equivalent definition? The Greek would be teleos and that is perfect. So if we start with Mathew 5:48 it says, “Be ye therefore perfect” or “be ye therefore teleos, even as your Father in heaven is teleos,” or whole or complete. We can substitute “be ye therefore integrity, even as your Father in Heaven is integrity.” Pretty sobering thought that gives a spiritual context. I will probably touch on a little bit of some religious concepts because I don’t think you can (these are not unique to any particular brand of faith), but I think you cannot separate the two. I think that is part of our culture today, to be able to separate religion in general from the definition of ethics. Clayton Christensen certainly—and if you haven’t read his book and his article “How Will You Measure Your Life?” in which he said, “How can I measure my life in a way that I will know that I am successful in my business career, successful in my relationships at home, with my family, and the last one, how do I know I am going to stay out of jail?”i

Let me give you some personal background. My sister here reminds me of my beloved mother and as I get a chance to go reflect on my mother at her gravesite, sis, she is there, and there is no question that she was a great part of my life. I have been blessed to have great women in my life. We all grew up in Georgia, South Georgia, and football and all those things were important, but one thing I did like was history. One summer, maybe I was bored, there was a new library that was built close to where we were at, and I went and read I think 110 books. I must have been really bored, right? So I read 110 books and they were all of the famous people. George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Eli Whitney, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Florence Nightingale—110 short biographies of these famous people when I was about in the 5th grade. It just seemed to resonate with me, and ever since that time I have had a love of history. I think there are historical lessons and I want to share some of those with you.

Let me share three personal stories, if I may. The first story comes back to 1982. I have received more than my fair share of awards at this great university, and I was privileged to be a two-time captain of the football team; I was all conference; I was one of the very first all-Americans in the Lavelle Edwards era; I have been honored subsequently by the law school and the business school more than my fair share, and it is not due to me. One of the awards that I received that was more dear than anything, was a Professional Responsibility award given by the Utah Bar Foundation to a graduating law student in 1982. I was the recipient of that, and being honored tonight brings back those memories. Again, I stand very humbled; any one of you could be here and probably be more credible than me, but let me tell you this story.

So I was with the Kansas City Chiefs at the time, and I was in law school, about half way through. At that time, I had transferred here to BYU and was going as a visiting student, and I had a good year with the Kansas City Chiefs. I was playing and they made a decision. I made it to the last cut and got cut loose. Pretty devastating. I was through three years of law school; I came back to Provo where my wife was. We had two children at the time I started law school, and in one way it was kind of a blessing because in the fall semester I would be able to pick up the classes that I was always missing because I was always playing in the fall. So I went to law school maybe four weeks. I think it was the end of September. At the end of September, I get a call from the Cincinnati Bengals saying, “Brad, we have had an injury and we need somebody to come in. Will you come?” I remember talking to Mike Brown who was the general manager, and I said, “Mike, I would love to come but I would need to work out one class, Civil Procedure.” He said to me on the phone, “Brad, you are going to have to decide whether you go to law school or play football.” I go, “Mike, can I call you back by the end of the day?” So I went to my Civil Procedure teacher and said, “Here is my situation. I could really use the money. I have a family here and have this chance to go play. Can I come back and challenge the exam? Just lose the whole credit.” He said, “Sure, if you think you are good enough. I just ask that you don’t talk to anybody about the exam who will have taken it.” So I walked out and I said, “Okay. If he will let me do it, I am going to go to my other professors.” So I went to every one of my other professors and they all said, “Okay Brad. If you want to come back and challenge the exam after the season, just don’t talk to anybody who has taken the final exam.” In law school, your grade is all predicated on that one final exam. A little bit archaic, but okay, paper chase still there. So I did. I ended up in Cincinnati playing for the rest of the year. I would go to the University of Cincinnati law school library, and I threw the case books out and read all the nutshells. I read every nutshell and summary that you could get and just immersed in all these classes and came back and took all the tests. I didn’t think anything of it. I remember being in the law library on New Year’s Day, and instead of watching games I was studying for the test. I took the test before law school started, and things worked out well. As it turned out, it was that experience that really paid difference when the committee met and thought about which law student would receive the responsibility award. I can say that at that time, having a degree of ethical behavior made a difference in my life. I was allowed to come back; I will be forever grateful for being able to get through law school in five years and the professors that worked with me and me doing what I said I would do and that being recognized. So that was one of the first opportunities to really test and believe this stuff about ethics.

Second, after I retired in 1984, the last year, I had two knee surgeries. I had a wife and three kids, and I was tired of moving around. I had been out of law school for a couple of years and knew I needed to settle down. So I took a job as general council with a bank in Dallas, Texas. We moved to Dallas in 1984, and promptly that bank got into trouble and later became a failed bank situation. The owner of that bank who had hired me— and he was 19 when he bought this bank, and a lot of the Texas Cowboys has grown this bank somewhat recklessly. There was even fraud with many of the other banks. So when I got there, I didn’t have a clue what banking was, but it pretty well dawned on me after a while, “This doesn’t make a lot of sense the way these deals are done.” It put me on a lookout path. What happened was the owner, who also had a titled insurance company, he asked me to go shut it down. And it had been where a lot of these loans had been booked through this title company. So I did. When the bank failed a standard four, the regulators came in and looked at reasons why it has failed and held people responsible and accountable. In this case, because there had been so much fraud in Texas, the FBI set up a bank fraud task force, very notorious, very active. There were many, many criminal indictments, prosecutions and incarcerations in federal penitentiaries for bankers during those days. The FBI came into the bank I was with, and by that time everybody had been kicked out and I was the only guy left. They honestly looked at me and wondered if I had anything to do with this bank failure. So I had heard back through some individuals that they had some questions about my role at that failed bank. I did, as an intern, what I would never advice a client to do: I went to see the FBI by myself without counsel. Okay? I just felt like I needed to go. I know that is against all the legal advice anybody would ever be given, but I did. So I went in and visited with the FBI and explained that the source of their concern was about records that had been changed and altered—and I had changed some of those records, but I had changed them to reflect because it was part of the cleanup. So finally they were fine about that and understood that it was really trying to come in and clean up a mess and go back in time and figure out the way things should have been done in putting that and once they heard that it was fine. Here is what happened. So two FBI agents were in this room. I was there by myself and we went through this thing, and then we talked about the title company and my role in shutting it down. Then the last question, they went, “Brad, you didn’t receive any money from shutting down the title company, did you?” I had. At that moment, I could have said, “Gosh, you know, no.” I said, “Well, yes I did. I received $10,000.” I saw them look at each other. They knew the answer to the question before. They looked at each other and said, “Okay Brad. We don’t have any further questions.”

Here is where it gets really interesting. So I walked out and hoped everything was fine. Maybe it was a month or so later, and everything seemed to be fine. I was flying up to D.C. and I was on the flight, and as luck would have it, seated next to me is the head of the Southwest bank fraud task force. Sitting right in the seat next to me, we were in coach. I had been introduced to him when I walked in because he walked in first and said, “Brad, here are your rights” and all that kind of stuff, and so he was the most friendly guy in the world. He said, “Brad, yeah, I remember you. You came in; you cleared up everything, and we appreciated you coming in,” and I had an unbelievable conversation with him. He is the guy that is putting people in prison another time because had that one answer to that question been, “No, I didn’t receive any money,” I would not be in the position I ended up being in with the regulators, the bank regulators, even today working with them. I have a great relationship with them, have had for many years. One of my principle regulators became my business partner later in life, and I have had regulators come to me—it is that reputation that was built by that one time. So these inflection points in your life do make a difference. They do make a difference.

Now let me tell you a third story. I can stand up here and tell you, “Yeah, I have lived integrity to the nth degree.” I hope in sharing this story—we live in a “tell-all” world, and I do think that sometimes we all go overboard. As we begin to tell people, we become more human and somehow that validates us. So I hope that this next story is instructive. In 1976, I played in the first NFL game that was played outside the United States in Tokyo, Japan, and boy they had great astro turf. We played in an Olympic stadium, and we just lay on the turf and said, “Why don’t they have this in the United States?” I will tell you a humorous story in a minute. As these cases typically turn out, one of the players had a friend of a friend in the Ginza that sold electronic equipment, and so all of the players got a car to go down to a certain friend of a friend to buy some of the best, at that time—again this is old school, back when Walkmans were here and tapes and everything about it. Sony, JVC, Panasonic, TVs, radios—there was so much equipment bought that the back of a 747—never have seen this before—had five rows, and the baggage compartment was filled with electronic equipment. They had to put it inside the cabin. Five rows of electronic equipment coming back inside the cabin. Well, here is the thing. Part of the deal was that the receipts we received for the electronic equipment showed a price of half of what we really paid for it. We were totally getting good deals. This was back when the Yen was 300-to-1. Obviously, someone is going to test that in the not-too-distant future; it is probably going back that way. As we went through customs back to the United States, and player after player would go through and show what they owed for the customs duties, you could see the customs officials just finally going—because they knew. They saw the electronic equipment that comes in and they knew what the prices were and wholesale matter, and as I was walking through and showing this. “Well what do I do? I don’t want to get my teammates in trouble.” The fact is that I didn’t pay what was due to the government. I did like everyone else. You know, it is funny because here 40 years later, roughly, I have this regret. There are probably lots of good things, but it is interesting that is this one regret and thinking and getting ready for this lecture, this was one of the first things that popped out and I said, “You know, Brad, you can’t stand up there and say that you were…” Again, it probably would have made a difference in my life today if I did not have that regret. But it is a regret that I have.

So let’s turn to situational ethics. Let me give two major trends that I think are affecting. One I think is situational ethics. What do I mean by situational ethics? Listen to this. We affirm that moral values derive their source from human experience. Ethics is autonomous and situational, needing no theological or ideological sanction. Ethics still stem from human need and interest, the human manifesto. That is situational ethics. Stephen Covey did a study as part of his “seven habits” that he took to 200 years of success literature in the business world. It started in about 1920, and he noticed that the things that were emphasized were personality virtues versus character virtues. Now what do I mean by that? Things like today was about differentiating yourself: it was about techniques; it was about skills; it was about being smarter; it was about the outward kinds of signs of success—whereas prior to 1920, if you go back to the founders of the United States (that I will get to in a minute), it was about character. Things like honesty, integrity, patience, temperance, and those things. And there seemed to be this split, that societal shift of the outward manipulation, we can if we are smarter or stronger. By the way, in the Book of Mormon there are a number of anti-Christs, one of which is called Korihor, who really said, “You fair in this world according to the management of the creature and if you are stronger than someone else or smarter than someone else, good for you and bad for them.” It basically just identifies with this kind of power play for which ethics are sacrificed; whereas Karl Maeser (you know the Maeser building, every time I hear this quote—you have heard it before and I will read it again because I don’t think we can ever say it enough.

I have been asked what I mean by ‘word of honor.’ I will tell you. Place me behind prison walls, walls of stone ever so high, ever so thick and reaching ever so far into the ground, there is a possibility that in some way or another I might be able to escape, but stand me on the floor and draw a chalk line around me and have me give my word of honor never to cross it. Can I get out of that circle? No, never. I would die first.
Now really, when you think about the honor code, that is a pretty good statement to follow.

The other is the “winner take all” mentality. We celebrate winning to such a degree that it is culturally shameful to lose. Is it any wonder that the pressure to find an edge, any edge, has people crossing the lines? It is not just in sports, it is scorched earth, winner take all. We see it even in the smack talk. It is part of our culture. You can see it in our music; you can see it embedded in our culture that winning is everything. It is the only thing to such a degree that little wonder ethics are sacrificed in the desire to win at whatever it may be, not just in athletics. I want to talk about one thing because you can look at this as one thing, and I don’t know. I think that you would get a split of opinion either way, less honest, more honest, so I am going to talk to you and my younger generation here.

Social media and the sharing economy. What is emerging today are new business models of the sharing economy. Basically, they are self-governing business models. You think of Uber, Airbnb, Lift—basically we have underutilized assets where people are putting the work on demand and so you have on demand platforms and a community. So basically, underutilized assets, a data platform that is on demand, always connected, and a community. These business models certainly are going through all the political imaginations, but I actually have some faith that these new business models will actually reinforce the fact that reputational and social capital, trust capital, is valuable enough that people will desire it because without that, the models will collapse. Without that degree of trust of letting strangers—how do you trust somebody you don’t have a personal relationship with? It is the credibility of a community that is giving you that faith. I think there are many sharing economy models yet to be developed and we will see that. These self-governing models. That takes me probably to the most important part of this.

The self-governing models. Why, we can look no further than to our United States, the history of the United States. Every time I go to Philadelphia and get a chance to go to the Constitutional Hall and look at that, just as I stand in that Independence Hall and think about the things that happened (again, going back in time, with some affinity for history), I come to the end of The Declaration of Independence and hear the words, “56 signers.” And you name the famous names, you know, and some not so famous. “And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance of the protection of divine Providence, we neutrally pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.” Now, what is the difference between honor and sacred honor? I have come to understand that honor helps bad men become good and sacred honor helps good men become great. By men I mean both men and women. Tim Ballard, who is actually a relative, wrote a book recently called The Covenant, about the American covenant and talks about this very issue, about how America is connected to ancient covenants of the Old Testament and its renewal of that Old Testament without getting to theological differences.

I think the important point here is that the founders had an ethical model. One, they thought in terms of ethical outcomes. Thomas Paine said when the Declaration of Independence and later the Constitution, he said, “We have it in our power to begin the world over again.” This was a radical experience of self-government. We sit here today and take for granted the freedoms we enjoy and don’t really realize how radical that really was at that period of time. They had a linkage to the past. They understood the past, but they were thinking of the future. Thomas Paine again said, “If there must be trouble, let it be in my day, that my children may have peace.”ii There was a national religion that was embedded in the founding fathers. There was not a particular brand of faith, but it was identified with this creed, “We will sacrifice our today so that someone else’s tomorrow will be better.” The older I get, the more I am convinced that that is the national religion.

I find that in a particular brand of religion that is shared by many here, but you can find that in many other brands of religion, both Christian and non-Christian. Perhaps, since the British Liberty was going to be one of the major topics in the 2016 election, somebody can reframe this argument in terms of what this separation state in religion was all about. Let me be clear about that for a moment. If tomorrow Congress had before them a law that said Mormonism would be the official national religion for the United States, I would fight to the death to prevent that from happening. Some of you are like, “Brad, you must be a real patriot.” Those who say, “I want to protect the government from religion.” No, I want to protect my religion from the government. I don’t want my religion to be popular. The best way to destroy the faith I believe in is to have it become popular and easy and the go-to religion.

Getting back to this ethos of sacrifice, if I think about formalizing our corporate code of ethics, what are the best practices? What would I do? Number one, I would define it in terms of ethical outcomes that are measureable by stakeholders. That is doable. We think of ethics as a soft science, but actually the one thing the social models have taught us is that a large enough population set of data can tell us where we are oriented. That is doable today, but hardly anybody has done it. Two, I would define the mission of the company as a cause greater than one’s self. Something in terms of how the mission of the company is to improve the human condition. Three, I would have interdependent covenants, exactly as the founders did. They would actually have a code of ethics with a ceremony, because I think ceremonies are important. They were important for George Washington. That is one of the reasons I recommend the book. You will see covenants and contracts are totally misunderstood, but this idea of interdependent covenants—a covenant that is sealed with ones sacred honor.

When I think about BYU, it is not just honor; it is sacred honor. It goes beyond the theology itself. This is more than just “religion.” It is more than that. It is interdependency. It is a connection of the past, the present, and the future. There are great men and women who have come before you and there are great men and women who are going to come after you. I represent you just as much as you represent me in what the ideals are that we stand for at this great university. What binds us together regardless of what we studied and where we come from is this concept of sacred honor, this interdependency that we are better together. It was Ben Franklin who said with a degree of morbid humor, “We must hang together…else, we shall most assuredly hang separately,”iii introducing black humor into the American Lexicon. But seriously, I think that if you feel and I feel that we represent more than just ourselves—whenever I have seen people get into ethical dilemmas, they are very narrowly focused. It is not about a cause greater than themselves. It is not that reminder that they really represent the past and the future. It is that sense of linkage that creates the most ethical companies in the world and the models are right there for us to follow. It has been great for me to be here. I want to open it up to any questions that you might have. I won’t promise to have all the answers, but thank you. I appreciate being here. I can’t tell you how it has made a difference in my life to be here and for me to make sure that I am doing the very best that I can personally.

i Christensen, Clayton. “How Will You Measure Your Life?” Harvard Business Review July-August 2010.
ii Paine, Thomas. “The Crisis.” 23 December 1776. Retrieved at
iii Franklin, Benjamin. Quoted at the signing of the Declaration of Independence. Retrieved at

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