What's more important - to be the best and win?
Or to be humble, and put yourself in the service of others?
Year ago, businesses looked for someone of 'good character' when they were hiring. Parents stressed moral values, and literature was filled with stories of honor and integrity.
Then at some point, the pendulum swung, and our culture began to emphasize winning over ethics.
Character and compassion took a back seat to accomplishment and achievement. Humility and caring were something you talked about at church, if at all.
Yet one need look no further than our current economic situation to see that when super smart, highly skilled people lack high moral character, they wreak absolute havoc on the rest of us.
So where did we go wrong? As a product of the women's movement, I was raised with the 'Go Girl' message: "You can do anything. Don't be afraid of competition. It's OK to stand out."
Yet when I read back to the letters Rose Kennedy wrote to her children, the lessons Laura Ingalls Wilder learned from her parents, and the values Louisa May Alcott explores in Little Women, I see a clear theme of character, of service, honesty, humility and compassion.
It's no coincidence that the young women who absorbed these lessons went on to accomplish great things. They're the same character traits at the center of most great men's lives.
I don't want to go back to a time when women were supposed to be subservient. Or when children were seen and not heard. Or when people were expected to submit to authority no matter what the circumstances.
But I think we threw out the baby with the bath water.
People used to say they wanted to raise children of good character. Now parents are more likely to say they want to raise children who are successful and happy. It's a subtle but very important, and I believe, detrimental shift.
In our quest to win, we forgot that being the best isn't just about being the smartest, fastest, or the most skilled. It's also about having the character to make difficult decisions during times of struggle.
It's not about trying to balance inner morality with outer accomplishments; it's about maximizing both.
To those who might suggest that we have to choose between being competitive and being of good character, I say, bunk.
Imagine you're hiring someone for a key position. The choice comes down to two people. Both are super smart and super skilled. One tells you that they make decisions based on what's best for the bottom line. The other tells you they run all their decisions through the character lessons they learned from their depression-era grandfather.
Who would you rather have handling your payroll or computer system? Who do think will attract higher quality employees? Whom would your customer want you to hire?
The belief that competition and character are in conflict is a myth perpetuated by people who prefer shortcuts over hard work.
As a parent, I can assure you that I expect my daughters to succeed. I also expect them to be kind, loving, honest, humble and gracious. It's a tall order. But if we're smart enough to put a man on the moon, certainly we're smart enough to combine ethics and accomplishment.
Character isn't something you abandon in order to win. Good character is your competitive advantage.
Lisa Earle McLeod is keynote speaker, author, columnist and business consultant who specializes in sales and leadership training. Her newest book, The Triangle of Truth, has been cited as the blueprint for "how smart people can get better at everything." Visit www.TriangleofTruth.com for a short video intro.
Follow Lisa Earle McLeod on Twitter: www.twitter.com/lisaearlemc