The following comments, spoken by a once-prominent business executive, appear to be a warning for graduates about the ethical challenges awaiting them in the business world. As it turns out, his words provide a hint that the speaker is a crook.
“You will be confronted with questions every day that test your morals. Think carefully, and for your sake, do the right thing, not the easy thing.” –Commencement Speaker to St. Anselm College’s Class of 2002
The Story Unfolds
You might remember seeing news stories about Kozlowski’s lavish lifestyle—a vintage yacht, millions in artwork, a $2.1 million birthday party for his wife in Sardinia—all paid for by the money he looted from Tyco.
What in Kozlowski’s seemingly helpful commencement remarks should have alarmed us to his lack of ethics? He played his hand by suggesting that doing the right thing is a choice—one that requires careful consideration.
“Truly ethical leaders know that behaving ethically is not an option to be weighed day-by-day, or question-by-question.
You’re either ethical or unethical. If you have to stop and think about how to respond to life’s moral tests, odds are you’re the latter. And that’s what should have tipped us off to Kozlowski’s true character.
“Doing the right thing should be an automatic reaction. But is doing the right thing always enough?”
Too Big to Fail?
When a handful of New York City protesters first took to the streets to Occupy Wall Street, they were calling attention to an obvious injustice: the Wall Street leaders whose greed and corruption caused the Great Recession managed to escape the crisis largely untouched.
Taxpayer bailouts restored their companies’ damaged balance sheets—along with their outrageous personal bonuses—while ordinary Americans lost their jobs, their homes, and their faith in fairness.
In a sense, the Wall Street Occupiers are modern-day revolutionaries who, by standing up to corporate misbehavior, have fired a symbolic first shot in an emerging class war between the haves and have-nots.
“What took so long for the rebellion to begin?”
Why is it that, nearly four years into a devastating economic downturn, someone is finally pointing out that Wall Street institutions were not victims of the financial crisis—as many of them would like us to believe?
They were, to a large extent, the perpetrators who created it.
To be sure, critics of Occupy <your city name here> say the “movement” is too unorganized, too unfocused, or even too irrelevant.
But regardless of how you feel about them, these grassroots demonstrations are providing a needed reminder that ethical leadership requires a greater commitment than simply behaving ethically.
As leaders, we have the added duty to confront the unethical behavior we witness—to call out those people involved, lest they go unpunished.
Ironically, Dennis Kozlowski’s plummet from sought-after commencement speaker to convicted criminal symbolizes the wave of corporate corruption that made Business Ethics:101 a must-take college course.
For its part, Occupy Wall Street offers a lesson not covered in most business ethics classes: the willingness to speak out against unethical behavior—at work or on the streets—is a requirement to being an ethical leader.
And, like always doing the right thing, there really is no other choice.
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Learn, Grow & Develop Other Leaders™
George Brymer is the creator of The Leading from the Heart Workshop®
He delivers Leadership Workshops that help leaders at all levels evolve
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Image Sources: ritholtz.com, governmentbailout.org