Chief Relationship Officer
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No matter how private we think we are, our lives, choices, and values are on display for the world. We don’t realize that people are watching and learning from our actions every day. Others can see things about us that we don’t realize they see. Sometimes they are misjudging, but they see who we are with amazing clarity. That’s why it is critical that we be congruent — be the same person in our personal life as we are in our professional life.
Congruence is a key factor in being viewed as someone who is sincere, honest, and transparent. It can be as simple as saying what you mean (and feel), and meaning (and feeling) what you say. You don’t have to share everything you think about everything, but people need to feel they know the real you to trust you. For this reason, people who are living unethically in any part of their life will never be considered ethical in their professional life. Business author John Maxwell says, “There are no business ethics; there are only ethics.”
Motivational speaker and business consultant Michael Fortino was at the top of his game. His company was the Center for Lifestyle Management, and his website touted him as an author and speaker whose clients included Exxon, the Air Force, and AT&T. He was a well-paid and in-demand speaker who helped organizations and their staff overcome obstacles. In short, he was a person of influence.
He was on the road in November 2005 traveling to a speaking engagement for a non-profit organization’s board retreat. He began having computer problems the day he left. Once he landed at his destination, he took his computer to the local Best Buy store for help. They ran a diagnostic scan to look for problems like viruses and spyware. In the process, they also found over 1,000 pornographic images — many were sexually explicit pictures involving children.
He didn’t make it to his speaking engagement the next day. The store technicians called local police, and he was arrested. Over the next year, Michael Fortino watched the intimate details of his life laid out for his family, trial participants, and the public to see. Not only did he possess pornography, he had been making his own movies involving underage girls. His opulent life which included a wife, an executive home in Pennsylvania, and a successful consulting practice had suddenly tarnished.
Michael’s experience wasn’t caused by one bad choice that just about anyone could have made. It involved a long series of bad judgments, addiction, and lies. His behavior had transformed from a series of bad choices to an unethical lifestyle. Michael was tried in federal court and originally received a 135-month prison sentence with a $10,000 fine and twenty years of supervised probation upon his release. He had gotten a light sentence because he had helped with the prosecution of another child porn case in California.
The mother of his infant daughter in Arkansas called prosecutors to ask about the outcome of the sentence. They were surprised to learn she was disappointed the sentence was so lenient — something odd considering that she allegedly wrote a two-page letter asking for leniency that was presented in Michael’s defense. It prompted an investigation of the evidence in the case. The letter she allegedly wrote had her name misspelled and contained the wrong birth date of Michael’s daughter. When she was called to testify, she told the court that he told her he had broken up with his longtime girlfriend, he’d never been married, and he lived on a yacht on Lake Erie. He, in fact, lived with his wife and family in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
It wasn’t all a lie. There was, in fact, a boat where he had videotaped three girls changing clothes who were 11, 13, and 16 years old — caught with a hidden camera in its changing room. There were two other forged letters fabricated for this case. One was allegedly written by the father of one of the girls who stated he forgave Michael for videotaping his young daughter while she was changing into a bathing suit. He also seriously undervalued his net worth in the financial information he provided to the probation office. Michael failed to mention his mini-yacht, his 9,000-square-foot home, several bank accounts, or the number of real estate properties he owned. A local newspaper reporter wrote, “The judge remarked at one point that he didn’t think there was anybody Fortino hadn’t lied to and that there is ‘a serious problem with Mr. Fortino’s ability to provide the truth.’ … ‘I regard what has happened here to be extremely serious,’ [Judge] Hendren said.”
When it was said and done, Michael Fortino’s attorney quit, and the judge increased the sentence to the maximum twenty years and the maximum $250,000 fine. An Internet blogger said, “Imagine my family’s surprise and dismay when we discovered earlier this year that we were living next to a sex offender. Although I wouldn’t wish eleven years in federal prison on anybody, I find it hard to feel too much sympathy for a guy who had us over for sundaes (with our two young daughters) and actively deceived us. When I realized what he was about and deduced he was probably trying to groom us for an opportunity to check out our daughters, it was pretty much a no-brainer to establish a clear and impermeable boundary between us and him. Ultimately, he should have known better and not given in to his deviant sexual impulses. I guess he’s probably realizing that now.”
I couldn’t have said it better myself. A pretty boy like Michael Fortino will likely be very popular in prison. When he does see the light of day as a free man, he won’t be able to have unsupervised contact with children or access to the Internet and must register as a sex offender.
In my work with professional speakers, I’m astounded by what a high calling the profession is and what a privilege it is to address an audience. Just being invited to ascend the platform automatically positions a speaker as a leader. Speakers have the chance to share their experiences and ideas. They earn the ability to change the lives of more people though their work than they realize. Just changing the outlook of a single audience member could empower that individual to inspire a generation.
When an organization hires a speaker, the organization is buying a program or message and the speaker’s platform presence. However, the speaker’s professionalism and character are the value-added services they provide. When a speaker is the same ethical, honest, and caring person on the platform and off, it reinforces the validity of the message. It proves the power of the platform exists and makes a case for the responsibility of the speaker to live the message they teach on the platform. When a speaker like Michael Fortino lets his personal indiscretions and addictions overcome his ability to manage his life, he squanders his future potential and discourages the thousands of people who were formerly inspired by his messages.
This isn’t just true with speakers. It applies to everyone who leads or aspires to influence. The more public our lives become, the more transparent we are whether we like it or not. Whether it’s our personal or professional image, living the congruent life we’d be proud of showing off to our grandmother or to God is crucial to becoming a person of influence. Our personal truth will always define us. Choose to live a life of ethics and integrity.
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