The Straight Arrow


The Madoffs are in the news again. With Bernie behind bars for the rest of his days, wife Ruth and son Andrew are talking with the media in advance of the release of the Madoff saga, “Truth or Consequences,” by author Laura Sandell.

Their story, as we all know, is grim.

Dad ran a $65 billion Ponzi scheme. The family claims they didn’t know. Son Mark committed suicide two years to the day of his father’s arrest. Wife Ruth and son Andrew are fighting to avoid prosecution and redeem their reputation.

Ruined lives, prison, lawsuits, death threats, suicide attempts, public humiliation...Shakespearean!

This tragedy may be mythic in scope but that doesn’t mean it isn’t common. You could argue that the scope of Bernie Madoff’s theft puts him in a class of his own. However, the increased frequency of ethical lapses by business and political leaders is indicative of a growing trend. The FBI and the Association of Certified Fraud Examiners estimates the annual cost of white-collar crime in the United States at between $300 and $660 billion!

That got me thinking about an old fashioned term that I think needs some dusting off: the straight arrow.

Back in the old days, being a straight arrow was a good thing. It meant you were a frank and honest person. You said what you meant and you did what you said.

David Suzuki, Mike Holmes, Michael J. Fox and the Queen are listed as the most trusted people in Canada, according to Reader’s Digest. John Stewart, Tom Brokaw, Betty White and Oprah form the short list of straight arrows in the United States.

Not a businessperson or politician amongst them. In fact, barely 10 percent of the public trusts the U.S. government according to a recent New York Times/CBS News poll. That number is higher in Canada with one study placing the range of public trust of politicians between 18 and 46 per cent.

Isn’t fifty per cent the passing grade?

If the straight arrow is an endangered leadership species, perhaps we need to get back to basics. The symbol of the straight arrow can be used as a tool to guide intentions and actions from an ethical perspective.

 The following are five reflections that leaders can use to ensure that action is aligned with principle and hits the mark.


The Arrowhead: Intention


 The Arrowhead reflection is designed to explore matters related to one’s intentions. By visualizing the symbol of an arrowhead, leaders can reflect on questions related to their intentions and what they are trying to accomplish.

Searching for clarity about the intentions of action is vital because it provides the means not only to see one’s goals but also to consider three critical points: how those intentions benefit self, others and society at large.

The ability to balance one’s needs and responsibilities to other people is the mark of a straight arrow. It is one way that leaders can maintain accountability especially when temptation comes knocking at the door. The three temptations of leaders – money, sex and power – can take down even those in the loftiest positions.


The Arrow Shaft: Values


Focus on intentions alone is not sufficient to ensure moral conduct. There have been multitudes of brilliant and talented people over the years whose only values were power and greed. They have certainly left their mark on the world.

The shaft of the arrow symbolizes “straight flight.” This reflection is about right conduct. When leaders conduct themselves in moral and principled ways they put character and integrity above personal gain in their dealings with others.

Straight arrows operate from a standard of conduct that is deeply rooted in honor and respect for self, other people, and the community. They examine their goals through a framework of values and principles to ensure that their goals are in proper alignment with their values.

Values and ethics must be in balance with ambition. An imbalance between goals and ethical conduct undermines the moral order that supports the individual and civil society.

 And don’t believe what Kevin O’Leary preaches on Dragon’s Den or any of his other television programs. Greed is not good. It is an operating strategy that is unsustainable over time. I am sure Bernie Madoff will tell you that his bank accounts, barricades or bodyguards were ultimately no match for justice.



A “fletching” is a feathered fin that aerodynamically stabilizes the flight of an arrow. Generally, an arrow has three fletching for balance, steadiness and accuracy in flight.

 Straight arrows reflect on the three fletching to ensure actions, impact and outcomes are in alignment with goals and values.

The First Fletching concerns action. With intentions and values in alignment, the straight arrow reflects on what purposeful acts will best hit the mark. He or she asks these questions:

  • What is motivating my actions?
  • Am I clear that the actions I am pondering are aligned with my values?
  • Is the action that I am contemplating honorable?
  • Will I be proud of my behavior should I take this course of action?

The Second Fletching requires an examination of impacts. When expediency or compulsion drives action you can bet that the degree of harm that is caused rises exponentially. Reflecting on impact allows the straight arrow to consider benefits and repercusions of the actions contemplated. Bernie Madoff could have saved himself and countless others a lot of pain with just this reflection alone: 

  • Does the intended action deliver an impact that matches my purpose?
  • Is this right conduct on my part?
  • How do my pursuits effect family, friends, colleagues, and the community?
  • Could someone or something be at risk from my actions?

The Third Fletching explores outcomes. A straight arrow reflects on questions related to what might be accomplished or endangered by his or her actions. This set of reflective questions is designed to support envisioning a future state where the actions being considered have been undertaken. It is concerned primarily with understanding the consequences of action before it occurs:

  • Is there a gap between my intentions and my impact?
  • Will I accomplish what I set out to do?
  • Are there consequences to action that I have not yet considered?
  • What are the longer term implications of the choices that I am making today?



Being a straight arrow requires the courage to stand by your values and principles even when others won’t. It also requires the willingness to be responsible for your actions and impact.

 Self-interest, bad judgment and expediency are sure ways to undermine personal integrity and land in hot water. Reflecting on your actions prior to taking them may be the difference between maintaining your character or ending up on the wrong side of the law. You can take a few minutes to think things through in advance ...or suffer the consequences.

 Bernie Madoff has the next 150 years to think about his crimes.


Posted on May 23, 2013 .