Someone told me that if I wanted to write a best-selling management book, the title had to contain the words "sex" and "the Internet." So I decided to test the theory in a column. It seems that only the most spectacular attention-getters break through the avalanche of material clamoring for our mind's eye these days. Sex permeates the movies, cable TV, and especially the Internet. I've heard it said that the only people making any real money on the Internet are those operating porn sites. Few of them have done highly publicized IPOs, so their founders are not famous. If they did go public, they might attract the attention of government regulators -- which they definitely don't want. Sex on the Internet is an unfortunate byproduct of our freedom of speech (guaranteed by the Constitution) and of our free-enterprise system. Not long ago I was reminded that a well-known newspaper once ran an article that said, in essence: "A new technology is sweeping the country. It has the potential to change people's lives forever, to change how business is done, and how we all live and communicate. If only its use is not corrupted by purposes that are immoral or illegal, it will be one of the greatest breakthroughs for mankind." No, the writer wasn't referring to the Internet. The 100-year-old story was about the telephone. The telephone and its predecessor, the telegraph, probably influenced life in this country even more than the Internet; but when it comes to the business of selling sex and lies, the Internet wins hands-down. Innocent search queries can end up at porn sites that string meta-tags together to suck in the most unsuspecting Web surfer. Gossip and lies become news items hours after they appear, unsubstantiated, on Web sites. Other venues where sex and lies converge are the halls of leadership of our country and of well-known companies. The President of the U.S. seems to have difficulty distinguishing between lies and the truth -- or understanding the meaning of a simple word like "is." Company execs at Normal, Ill.-based Mitsubishi Motor Manufacturing of America Inc. and Astra USA have been the targets of sexual-harassment charges -- and the frequency of such claims in corporate America continues to grow. The result is a troubling decline in respect for leadership. Leaders have a tough job, often having to make decisions where all the options are distasteful. Even when they have the best of intentions, corporate execs often are forced into telling half-truths. And they can be tempted to lie in response to the demands of Wall Street for earnings projections or workers' questions about job security. As so humorously depicted by Jim Carrey in the movie Liar, Liar, telling the whole truth, all the time, is a daunting task. What it all comes down to is a question of character. Whether it is a matter of sex, lies, or the pervasive presence of the Internet, business leaders, managers, and anyone who has true character face many moments of truth each day. Once started, lies accumulate like a slow-moving avalanche, inexorably burying good intentions along the way. Character is a precious commodity, too easily assassinated by lies -- and especially on the Internet. Since the Internet is virtually impossible to regulate, it is the ideal place to spread vicious rumors. Elections are coming in 2000, and the rumors are already buzzing about candidates. Potential lies about managers or executives can zip around company e-mail systems and intranets like lightning. Sexual harassment and issues surrounding office romances are prime topics. Many malicious rumors damage reputations until they are dispelled. The job of quashing rumors is an important one for senior management. There is nothing like the truth to kill an irresponsible rumor -- but who can tell the whole truth these days? I'm afraid that we are trapped in a time of "sex, lies, and the Internet" -- and only a triumph of truth and courage, backed with character, can combat it. John Mariotti, a former manufacturing CEO, is president of The Enterprise Group (www.shape-shifters.com). He lives in Knoxville. His e-mail address is [email protected].