The Week in Ethics: Gordon Gekko, Trust, and Corporate Culture
The “Greed is good. Greed is right” mantra of film character Gordon Gekko in 1987’s Wall Street, has been upended by the actor who played him. The FBI is using Michael Douglas in a Public Service Announcement, launched in the last few days, to encourage viewers to report securities fraud and insider trading to the agency.
Douglas who won an Oscar for his portrayal of Gekko 25 years ago, says in the PSA:” Our economy is increasingly dependent on the success and integrity of the financial markets.”
Gekko’s mantra hovered over the 2008 global economic meltdown. Goldman Sachs appeared among the most visible of the standard bearers for greed. In the meltdown’s immediate aftermath, executive compensation amounts on Wall Street and elsewhere seemed to mock the damage done by a focus on short-term profits.
Calamities have long tentacles. The subprime mortgage mess – considered one of the drivers of the financial crisis – continues to impact the U.S. economy, in terms of foreclosures, housing prices, lawsuits, and ongoing investigations of banking practices by federal agencies.
Bloomberg reported today (February 29, 2012) that the Goldman Sachs Group Inc., Wells Fargo & Co. and JP Morgan Chase & Co. are among the banks recently receiving Wells notices from the Securities and Exchange Commission, “warned…they may face civil claims tied to sales of mortgage-backed securities.”
Greed’s toxic power in a work culture can start out as an aphrodisiac, motivating people to work harder to succeed. All too quickly it takes on a narcissistic drive that leaves customers, colleagues, and codes of conduct thrown to the side of the road or under the wheels. Rationalizations, willful blindness and betrayal are the outcomes. Reputation is severely damaged. Trust and confidence lost.
The economic meltdown reinforced the obvious — that greed and the perception of greed erode public confidence. In June 2011, a Gallup poll on confidence in institutions revealed that only 10 percent of respondents had “a great deal” of confidence in banks, while only 8 percent had “a great deal” of confidence in big business.
It takes a long time and concerted efforts to earn confidence back, and for trust to be restored. Ethical behavior and transparency generate trust.
Figuratively, the Gekko character is the American Dream on crack cocaine. We don’t need medical researchers to tell us how it will end if the addiction isn’t broken.
The most valuable asset a company has is its corporate culture — from that its internal and external reputation emanate.
Culture is organic, and therein lies the hope!
As a living collection of values, purpose, and “the way we do things around here,” culture is impacted by those who lead at every level of the organization.
The question for every CEO is how to ensure that culture is the asset not left unattended.
Gael O’Brien February 29, 2012
Gael O’Brien is also a columnist for Business Ethics Magazine; her February 2012 column includes an interview with Gallup Chairman Jim Clifton on how managers impact culture.