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Lessons from a Simple Act of Integrity

Integrity is about your word. All you are is your word. And your effectiveness in life is a function of the degree to which you honor your word.


To be sure, 2020 has been a challenging year. At the same time, it has been marked by quiet stories of extraordinary individuals. Among these is Bill Duffy, an NBA agent most of us have never heard of. You see, this year Duffy made good on a commitment from almost twenty years ago.


If you’re an NBA fan, and particularly if you are blessed or cursed to be a New York Knicks supporter, you might remember Anthony Carter. In Game 3 of the 2000 Eastern Conference semifinals, Carter, an otherwise unheralded reserve player for the Miami Heat, beat the Knicks at the buzzer. This happens in the NBA, a league filled with immensely talented, oftentimes under-recognized athletes. A relatively unknown player will come out of nowhere and have his indelible moment in crunch time of a crucial game.


The story gets truly interesting, however, a few years later. At the conclusion of the 2002-2003 season, Carter’s contract with the Miami Heat was coming to an end. He was set to exercise a $4.1 million player option to stay with the Heat for an additional year. All that was needed was for his agent, Bill Duffy, to notify the team by the June 30 deadline. Duffy failed to do so. Carter lost his option and was forced to find another team. Not worth nearly the $4.1 million that was guaranteed by his contract, Carter was forced to leave the Heat and accept the NBA minimum contract of $750,000 with the San Antonio Spurs. That mistake cost Carter at least $3 million, and quite possibly a championship ring that he might have earned when the Heat won the NBA finals shortly after Carter’s departure.


What happened next was extraordinary. You might think that Carter was irate and heeded the advice of many to fire Duffy and sue him for the value of his lost contract. Instead, Carter remained calm: “I wasn’t even mad, to tell you the truth. . . . I didn’t jump to any conclusions. I didn’t say, ‘What happened?’ Because I knew what type of person [Duffy] was. Things happen.” Things happen? Seriously? This maturity and perspective are probably the reasons why Carter continued as a player in the NBA for a number of seasons and why he eventually returned to the Miami Heat in 2016 as an assistant coach.


Even more remarkable were the actions of Duffy. He could have easily blamed something or someone for his mistake. He could have simply apologized and committed to never making the error again. After all, it was a simple, honest mistake. Things happen, right? Instead, he immediately took responsibility. He let Carter know he was going to repay the entire $3 million in lost income. He proposed a series of installments that he would pay each year. This year was the last of those payments. As 2020 comes to an end, Bill Duffy can say that he made good on his commitment almost twenty years ago to own his mistake and fully repay his client. More importantly, Duffy can know that he honored the most important of promises – the ones we make to ourselves.


Perhaps not surprisingly, Duffy’s career as an agent has thrived since that infamous oversight. He continued to represent Carter. They remain close friends today. And, partly due to his extraordinary act of responsibility and integrity, people started calling him. “I’ve had Wall Street people call me and say: ‘Man, that happens all the time. Everybody tries to hide from it. They try to pass the buck. You stood up for it. You took care of it.’ I actually gained a lot of respect from people.” Today, Duffy’s client roster includes superstars like Luka Doncic and Rajon Rondo. Most critically, he has fans from all walks of life who admire and respect his character at a time when character is in such short supply.


I write a lot about integrity. The state of being complete, whole, unbroken. In my definition, integrity is about your word. That all you are is your word. And that your effectiveness in life is a function of the degree to which you honor your word. By honor your word, I mean the following:


Giving your word with precision and with a sincere intention to follow through. When you can’t follow through – not because it’s no longer convenient, but because it’s truly not possible – then you immediately notify the person who is depending on you, and you offer to do whatever it takes to repair the damage caused by your failure to keep your commitment.


When you don’t honor your word, you are out of integrity. Not in a moral or ethical sense, but in an objective sense. Not honoring your word is not necessarily a good or bad thing; it will just compromise your potential for performance. It’s that simple. And the only proof I have of that assertion is my own experience. When I honor my commitments, my life seems to work better. When I observe others doing the same, I notice the same thing. When I work with organizations that ingrain the importance of integrity into their culture, they seem to outperform their competitors.


As we approach the closing of this crazy year, it may be time to reflect on your own integrity. To do an integrity audit of sorts. Where have you given your word and failed to honor it in the manner I describe above? What would it look like to restore your integrity by doing what it takes to repair the damage caused by your failure to keep your commitments, to yourself and others, big and small? What would it look like to enter 2021 with your integrity restored?


Speaking of restoring, I will be taking some time off during the holidays. This will be the last weekly post of the year. I look forward to “connecting” with all of you in the new year on Tuesday, January 5. I wish you and your families a happy and healthy holiday season.


Tuesday Tips

1. If you’re interested in learning more about this particular formulation of integrity, I recommend this introductory article by Michael Jensen. A lot of my writing is derivative of the work of Werner Erhard, Michael Jensen, and Steve Zaffron on this subject.

2. For a complete account of the Bill Duffy story, check out this recent New York Times article.

3. I love Maria Popova’s Brain Pickings. In her latest, she shares her key lesson from 2020, something she has been doing for the last fourteen years.

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