This month Max Mosley, the controversial, all-powerful, president of the Federation Internationale de l’Automobile (FIA) which oversees Formula One and Grand Prix racing, finds himself at the end of a 16-year reign, felled by fallout from leadership some call dictatorial and a sex scandal 19 months ago that smeared the organization he helped build. Mosley has had such a tight grip on FIA’s governance that it took a long time to end his tenure.
His style, his control, and the apparent inconsistency applied to how charges of stealing intellectual property among racing teams were investigated or not and fines and other punishments handed down, or not, earned him enemies. Mosley was the victim of a sting that ensured that his private actions indulging in a sadomasochistic fetish with five prostitutes would become public. One of the prostitutes secretly videotaped Mosley’s five-hour S&M orgy with the prostitutes all dressed in Germanic-looking prison garb, in what looked like a dungeon, speaking German.
The prostitute sold the video to a British tabloid in March 2008 which immediately put it on the internet with accompanying headlines carried around the world because of FIA’s prominence and Mosley’s stature in world motorsports. What fueled the scandal was the tabloid’s depiction of it as a Nazi prison camp orgy based on the guard’s uniform, the atmosphere and speaking German, as well as whatever the prostitute told the tabloid. It was also common knowledge that Mosley’s father, a fascist leader, and his mother had been life-long, outspoken supporters of Adolf Hitler, who had attended their wedding.
Public outrage and calls for Mosley’s resignation followed. FIA members spoke publicly as well. Ferrari’s president called on him to resign over issues of lost credibility. Honda, Toyota, BMW, and Mercedes-Benz condemned behavior that appeared racist and anti-Semitic. Mosley’s was outraged at having his privacy violated; he vigorously denied the Nazi characterization, calling it a German prison camp fetish and announced he would sue the tabloid. He fired back at the FIA teams publicly critical of him that they had never called to ask if the story was true, adding that given the German automakers role in World War II it is understandable that they’d seek to publicly distance themselves from all things Nazi.
Mosley as chair of the FIA General Assembly called for a special meeting in June 2008 which resulted in his receiving a secret-ballot vote of confidence. He had reportedly sent letters to members conveying the dire consequences to the organization if he was forced out of office. In July 2008, he won his lawsuit against the tabloid. The judge ruled he didn’t find any Nazi theme to the German prison camp staging of the sex video. The prostitute who released the tape didn’t show up to testify.
In March 2009, Mosley said that while he had won damages, he would never recover his dignity. He called the experience “a wholly unwarranted invasion of his privacy.” His firm control of FIA had also been shaken. As a result of disputes last spring and early summer with Formula One teams that threatened to split off and form a rival organization, Mosley had to agree not to stand for re-election this month.
October 20, 2009 marks an election for a new president for FIA, and a new era with calls for a clear and transparent system of governance. Mosley, at 69, can save face by calling it a well-deserved retirement and there are many who herald his accomplishments on behalf of FIA during his long career in motorsports.
A leader’s legacy to an organization is about what positions it for success and builds its reputation. Mosley won a personal legal battle about his right to privacy, but what did FIA win out of that ordeal? Leaders who lead their lives in such a way that they make themselves vulnerable to scandal forget their obligation to the organization they serve. The loss of dignity for themselves, they chanced. However, the loss of dignity to their organization that they bring about is too high a price for an organization to be asked to pay.
Gael O’Brien https://theweekinethics.wordpress.com
October 15, 2009