As Vice President of International Sales and Marketing for a large multinational defense company, Richard Bistrong pleaded guilty and was sentenced to one count of conspiracy to violate the FCPA law. Richard spent 14½ months in prison and was released in December 2013. Upon hearing of the allegations of bribery, his company fired him and later agreed to a settlement for not having enough controls.
I have read some of his articles, met him briefly at a conference, and exchanged comments through social media. But I really didn’t get Richard until I saw him speak yesterday at the University of Saint Thomas Law School here in Minneapolis, Minnesota. I have met, and become familiar with, a couple of the, “I did wrong, I went to jail and now I am on a speaking tour,” folks. I have not gotten past the generally accepted reaction of not being impressed. But Richard is different. Richard is one of the most principled people I have met. He is one of the most honest, formerly dishonest, guys I have ever met. He is also very talented, smart, hardworking, and has tremendous people skills. He looks, acts, and sounds like an effective businessman.
The definition of principle is, “a fundamental truth or proposition that serves as the foundation for a system of belief or behavior or for a chain of reasoning.” You would think that the definition of being principled would be the ability to stick to your fundamental truths whatever they are. However, the definition of principled is, “Acting in accordance with morality and showing recognition of right and wrong.” I think mobsters have principles. They have a fundamental set of truths that they stick to like no one else. That would mean they are principled or are principled-based individuals. You may not agree, but maybe you would agree it’s a little messy.
Here is my point. Some people have the ability to pick “good principles.” Some people pick “bad principles.” But what we don’t often talk about is that some people can’t stick to any principles, good or bad. They just go through life rudderless. Being principled is a two-step process. You have to pick “the right” principles and then you have to have the ability to stick to your principles. I think knowing right from wrong is pretty easy and that sticking to principles is much harder. That’s why we should consider being principled as two skills as opposed to one. I think we need to respect people who can stick to principles. Enter Richard Bistrong.
Richard was a successful international salesman who selected a bad principle… bribery. He stuck to that principle like glue for 10 years. Before he got caught he hung out with the wrong people and became addicted to drugs but is now clean. After he got caught, he helped the UK and US try to catch other FCPA violations. He spent about 14 months in jail. There were a lot of other bad consequences of Richard’s wrongdoing. In my highly subjective opinion, enough of his life was ruined that I believe he paid for his mistakes. I have met a few white collar criminals who have gone on the speaking/consulting tour after their crime. To date I lump them into two different categories. One group seems to be generally clueless or unable to stick to any principles and are just wandering through life. The other group doesn’t care about right from wrong; they are just trying to make a buck. Neither impresses me. Neither is really helping society much now. Richard Bistrong is highly principled. He has a remarkable ability to stick to his principles; it just took him a while to pick the right principles.
The first words out of his mouth were, and I am paraphrasing, “Do not mistake anything I am about to say for an excuse. I knowingly and willfully committed fraud. It’s all on me.” They all say that but this guy is different. He reminded the audience about four more times throughout his presentation, “Do not interpret what I am about to say as an excuse, it’s all on me.” I have seen it before but I never trusted someone in his position like I trust Richard. You see… that is what is interesting to me; Richard has a very strong ability to stick to principles. Who is better off, Richard who did wrong for a while but can stick to principles, or people who know right from wrong and can’t stick to principles? Personally, I would take a guy like Richard every time. Yes he did wrong, big wrong. But he paid his dues and now has the right principles, and he has the ability to stick to them. What was fascinating is the audience tested him for 30 minutes and he never blinked. They tested him in a way I was not expecting.
The crowd was very empathetic. Some encouraged him to blame it on the company. He said the company told him about the FCPA law in 1996 and, for that time, the company was about average in their FCPA training. He refused to blame the company. The crowd encouraged him to blame it on the pressure of sales quotas, he politely passed. They suggested he blame it on the fact that everyone was paying bribes and he said it was not an acceptable excuse. They even suggested that there is danger in refusing to pay bribes, and he explained that although there was a little danger, there was a way he could have avoided it… but didn’t. My favorite was one of those “drugs are an excuse for all bad behavior,” guys in the audience. He tried to throw Richard a lifeline by suggesting it was the drugs fault. Richard smiled and said, not only did he started bribing before he got addicted, but he believes deciding to take drugs and deciding to pay bribes are two different choices. He said the drugs didn’t help but he stuck to his principle, he was responsible for his bad decision to pay bribes. The crowd was relentless. They were convinced that Richard was a victim. He was a victim of leadership. He was a victim of the company. He was a victim of the system. He was a victim of drugs. He was a victim of sales quotas. He didn’t blink. He just smiled and waited patiently for the crowd to run out of victimization stories.
It’s one thing to say “It’s on me.” But it’s an altogether different thing to go through a 30 minute gauntlet of people making excuses for you and not only refusing to accept the victimization excuses, but to politely explain why they were wrong. Could this be why we struggle with principles? Could we struggle with being a principled-based person because we have so many people that think they and everyone else is a victim?
To be as strong as Richard is hard. It’s hard to stay principled and take ownership of your mistakes when so many people encourage you to take the easy way out by playing the victimization card. Many people think we are all victims. Victimization is a generally accepted excuse for many of our problems and that’s wrong. We need more people to understand that victimization is interfering with our ability to be a principled-based society. There are victims and then there are people who use victimization to explain away their weaknesses. The number of people who are explaining away their lack of principles via victimization is staggering. The massive victimization is giving real victims a bad name.
To improve our chances of being a principled-based society, we have to stand up to the victimization crowd. Until we do, our effort to improve society is going to be very slow. Ironically Richard, the artist formerly known as Dishonest, is now known as a principled guy who will make no excuses and not play the victimization card. That’s pretty impressive if you ask me. And Richard, although I do not decide these sorts of things, I believe you have reached the end of your very long, painful, journey to get yourself back to where you want to be. Congratulations. You should be pretty pleased.
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