Corner Office-A Capitalist Jeremiad
Our country is in crisis due to an epidemic of corporate corruption, greed, and failed leadership that is on the verge of destroying our capitalist society. This plague has permeated nearly every aspect of our lives. And the sad truth is that many of us, through our own actions or inactions, are complicit in giving legitimacy to it. Our society has lost its moral compass, morphing into one that promotes self-interest and self-promotion above all other values.
As a result, on an individual level, greed and personal power have become our new American idols, as we all live and die in relentless pursuit of the almighty dollar. We have evolved into what I call an “acquisitive culture,” where extravagance is envied and sought after, and we compete with each other over who has the biggest and the best, chasing what is perceived to be happiness and power.
Why, then, are we so shocked and surprised when some business leaders abuse the system to attain that wealth, to experience that extravagance, to achieve that power? We reap what we sow! As Karl Marx said, capitalism “contains the seeds of its own destruction.”
Some of you may question whether I am overstating the case and whether we really have a moral and leadership crisis in our country. Well, if you review national business headlines from just this year, you will see well over 200 incidents of major fraud, Ponzi schemes, theft, illegal stock and options trading, et cetera. And these don’t include local white-collar crimes. There is an old saying about the economy getting better: “A rising tide lifts all boats.” Well, I would turn that around to say, “As the tide goes down, you can see and smell the rotting fish.”
A day doesn’t go by that we don’t learn about someone in a leadership position abusing that position’s power to better his or her own finances at the expense of others. This situation has reached a crisis level in our business community. As a result of this corruption and greed, our business leaders, whether on Main Street or Wall Street, are quickly losing the right to be called “leaders.”
Still in doubt? Consider that a recent Harvard Business Review article reported that less than 70 percent of the American people now trust business leaders and board directors. That’s a lower rating than Congress is getting!
A Decrepit “Seed Factory”
Aristotle wrote, “Some turn every quality or art into a means of getting wealth; this they conceive to be the end, and to the promotion of the end they think all things must contribute.” The more I read and hear about (and observe) corrupt corporate executives, politicians, and other leaders in positions of trust, the more powerful and meaningful Aristotle’s writing has become to me.
But even more rudimentary is the question of where these business executives and others in power learned their cold-hearted greed, self-interest, and acquisitiveness. Many people today are asking, “whatever happened to business ethics?”
While it is true that our businesses are rife with ethical lapses and failed leadership, it is also a cold hard fact that a separate set of ethical standards and behavior does not apply to businesses. Rather, these are symptoms of much larger societal problems that transcend the business community and many other aspects of our society.
So if we are to reform business, we need to begin with the reformation of where we all are formed—our homes, our schools, our communities, and our religious and cultural organizations. However, these traditional sources of core values in our lives are facing unprecedented challenges.
Our families are relentlessly being torn apart, with 50 percent of all first and 67 percent of all second marriages ending in divorce, with domestic abuse occurring in almost 6 million families each year, and with almost one-third of all girls ages 15 to 19 in the U.S. becoming pregnant.
Our educational system remains woefully deficient and rapidly falling behind the rest of the world. The U.S. graduated 1.3 million college students last year, while India graduated 2.1 million and China 7.8 million.
Our faith-based system is fractured and disillusioned due to pedophilic priests and polarization over pro-life, pro-choice, and gay marriage issues. Today, only about 42 percent of Americans attend a weekly worship service.
Our inner cities are gang-dominated war zones.
My point is this: We cannot fix the corruption, greed, and failures of leadership that exist in our businesses today until we begin to fix the “seed factory”—that is, society—where our corporate leaders are produced and grown.
Serving a Higher Calling
What does this have to do with us business leaders who follow the rules, you ask? As leaders in our communities, it has everything to do with us. I have always believed that serving as a business leader is a higher calling to stewardship that transcends the specific companies we represent. In many respects, we are no different than various clergy who have a calling that transcends the specific religion that they represent.
As business leaders, society has granted us the stewardship of its assets—namely, its capital, its human resources, and its trust and well-being. In turn, we have the duty and responsibility to prudently convert those assets into needed products and services, employment of our fellow citizens, and the betterment of society.
If, however, we don’t believe this principle in our heart of hearts and use it as our moral compass, then I fear that power-hungry government leaders will rise up like sleeping giants to wield their swords of regulation and take this stewardship away from us. Why? Because government believes that its higher calling is to protect society’s assets if we don’t. And if that happens, the spirit of innovation that fuels the American dream will be doomed forever.
While the business community cannot immediately fix the issues that exist in our businesses today, there are some things that we as business leaders can do to start setting a new direction. We must insist on honorable and ethical behavior.
When I was a kid, my neighborhood had a cop on the street corner. His job was to maintain social order and to protect us from those who would harm us. As business leaders, we have been given the mandate and the responsibility to be that cop. We all need to proudly wear our moral leadership badges so that people will know there is a corporate cop in our corner offices, in our boardrooms, and in our communities.
And they need to know that we, like the cop on the corner, are not going to tolerate any misbehavior or wrongdoing.
Now, more than at any time in our history, business leaders must be the beacons for ethical leadership. We need to stand up for what we believe in and speak out. The corruption on Wall Street and in our boardrooms and businesses was allowed to occur due to fear-based silence and complacency. Speaking out takes a great deal of courage, but it is our moral duty to do so.
And for the sake of our children’s future, we must lead the reformation of the idea of success, redefining it in more wholesome terms. For instance, under a new standard of accounting, we would not call it progress if we gained in wealth but injured the psyche; we would not call it achievement if we gained in estate but sacrificed spiritual integrity; and we would not call it profitable if we achieved a promotion but lost a relationship in the process.
In Luke 12:34, the Bible says, “For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.” Well, where is your heart today? And where is the heart of the business you run or serve? Is it wrapped around your wallet and the pursuit of money, power, and extravagance?
There’s a Chinese proverb which says that a fish rots from the head down. As business leaders, we are the head. And if we don’t provide the leadership to reform our core values and to redefine success more positively, our economy and our culture will continue rotting until capitalism itself is dead. And thus we will condemn our children and grandchildren to an uncivilized society and a future of global agony.
The choice is ours.