Greed and Pride. Eliminate these two malignancies and your wildest imagination couldn’t begin to take you to
where we could be in this world. The antidote for these two deadly sins is a persistent dose of relentless accountability. Unfortunately, those infected with greed tend to resist the accountability antidote because of their own pride. In the advanced stage of this cancer they continue to infect themselves and often tend to spread it to those around them.
Executives at Enron, Tyco, WorldCom, Global Crossing, Adelphia, Nortel, and Parmalat would have fared far better had they taken advantage of the antidote. All these companies were run by some pretty smart people. Their actions proved however that not even an Ivy League education and an MBA from the country’s best graduate programs will guarantee a level of intelligence and a commensurate moral compass.
One would have thought that the legal carnage left by these bad actors would have been a smoke signal for other corporate leaders to clean up their acts. Apparently not; as we sift through the current rubble littering Wall Street.
In a New York Times Op-Ed economist Paul Krugman wrote:
“What were they smoking?” asks the cover of the current issue of Fortune magazine. Underneath the headline are photos of recently deposed Wall Street titans, captioned with the staggering sums they managed to lose.”
“The answer, of course, is that they were high on the usual drug — greed. And they were encouraged to make socially destructive decisions by a system of executive compensation that should have been reformed after the Enron and WorldCom scandals, but wasn’t.”
Last month in NYC, Michael Douglass was acting as an official shill for the United Nations on the subject of nuclear weapons. Ironically he was peppered by reporters asking if ‘he’, Gordon Gecko (Wall Street, 1987, Twentieth Century Fox) should shoulder some blame for the financial meltdown that was occurring two miles away. Douglass’ screen character, Gordon Gecko in the movie Wall Street, made famous the quote, “Greed, for lack of a better word, is good” This skewed perspective would be an appropriate caption for what has been uncovered in the high level corporate dealings since the walls started to crumble in 2002 and continue into 2008 at AIG, Lehman Bros., Bear Stearns, Merrill Lynch, et al.
Sure, these latest corporate derailments had legitimate help; CRA legislation, mark to market accounting, increased competition and lowered standards of credit worthiness. But they weren’t the reasons that people viewed the financial market demise as being so repugnant. It was because the leadership saw fit to pay themselves handsomely first before they exited their house of cards leaving the ruins to shareholders, tax payers, and the market.
Was there a Sherron Watkins at these companies? Where were the confidants and counsel to confront their colleagues and bosses with truth to power like Ms. Watkins did with Ken Lay. Did Dick Fuld at Lehman or Martin Sullivan at AIG have a level or two or three of accountability to provide them with an objective conscience and an antidote for greed and pride? It would appear not.
I suspect that most people with any sense of wisdom would admit that throughout their lives the biggest mistakes they made came as a result of not having a trusted source of accountability to keep them in line. My life included. When that quiet voice of conscience becomes muted it’s usually because Pride is telling it to shut up.
Bob Dylan passed the gene of social conscience to his son Jakob, who wrote a rather profound lyric;
“….a guilty conscience means at least you’ve got one”