A Volkswagen education: Everything begins and ends at the top

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Tens of billions of dollars down the drain will be the result of Volkswagen chief executive officer Martin Winterkorn’s lapse in supposedly being unaware that his company attempted to cheat its way to success in the U.S. and around the world. Someone made the decision and someone carried out the plan to install software that would allow VW diesels to slip emission detection. Compliance would have been cheap at many times the cost.Driving a car

In my view, worse than the loss of money is the loss of a distinguished company’s reputation and legacy. After all, in the end our good name whether a company, a person, an institution or a government is all we possess. Winterkorn’s resignation may turn out to be his finest hour though his darkest time.

What can educators learn from this screaming headline story?

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Educators are the most influential leaders in the world. Just like corporate leaders, they are responsible for every person, process, training and the organizational culture. A willful act of VW dimensions could not have been done by a single person. Being a leader is a tremendous responsibility not always about maximizing the bottom line. Therefore, character must be infused throughout our educational efforts. No one can afford a VW education in either the financial or reputation area.

Our schools serve as a refuge and safe haven in which the leaders exhibit the kind of behavior, namely the Golden Rule, which allows for academic achievement. Our children need to understand that short term gain through cheating is not the answer – Winterkorn and VW personnel seem not to have understood this. Our schools must counterbalance the chilling statistics that, according to recent surveys some 80 percent of “high-achieving” high school students admit to cheating and almost 85 percent of college students said cheating was necessary to get ahead. Educational leaders absolutely must show the virtues of transparency, honesty, plus respect for people and institutions.

Schools, in addition to the home, are the proper place to teach future generations how to carry on these cross cultural, ageless values. Without these virtues, I do not exaggerate when I predict the collapse of other companies (we’ve seen this with Enron, Anderson Consulting and Lehman Brothers). We can also expect more strife because of failed states and countries.

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All of us are influenced by both internal and external circumstances but education can have significant impact on both. When the plate of life is character, all else rests on this and has the chance to serve and inform all of our society.

Please pass this along to anyone of influence in either the educational or business world you think would be encouraged by it.

Richard Pieper, Sr. is the non-executive chairman of PPC Partners Inc. in Milwaukee.

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