The Week in Ethics: What Murdoch, Corzine, and Strauss-Kahn Have in Common

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Several years ago I heard the expression “self-cleaning oven.”

It was applied to situations where someone was causing harm or making a mistake, and the situation was likely to take care of itself, the way a self-cleaning oven intensely burns off the spills inside.

While there are limits to that metaphor —  it has some relevance applied to the ongoing crises facing Rupert Murdoch, Jon S. Corzine, and Dominique Strauss-Kahn.

The crises resulted from their behavior and action or inaction.

The leadership of each has been criticized and discounted; their reputations badly damaged. Labeled arrogant, reckless and lacking accountability, two lost their jobs, and Murdoch, who created his empire, still holds his.

Most importantly, in behaving consistent with how they always have appeared, what worked for them in the past finally failed to deliver at a crucial time.

I was reminded of the story William Bridges recounts in his classic Transitions: Making Sense of Life’s Changes. He uses the myth of Oedipus, pointing out that “after a certain point the very ways of being that brought forth and sustained a life phase begin to destroy it.”

Oedipus didn’t see that acting the way he’d always acted blocked his seeing when a different way of acting, in a different time, was required: “Having so strenuously resisted the summons to change, Oedipus suffered terribly in the process of transformation.” Bridges says, “Oedipus’s story makes us realize that we are likely to resist and misunderstand significant transitional changes–at a time when it is terribly important to seek another perspective.”

Rupert Murdoch– A Parliamentary panel concluded this week that Murdoch was “not a fit person” to run News Corporation and “turned a blind eye and exhibited willful blindness” to the illegal phone hacking. “The report said, “Even if there was a ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ culture at News International, the whole affair demonstrates huge failings of corporate governance at the company and its parent, News Corporation.” News Corporation’s board soon after issued a statement that Murdoch had their full confidence.

Jon S. Corzine — Ousted Co-CEO of Goldman Sachs, one-term U.S. Senator and New Jersey Governor, Corzine was CEO of MF Global, presiding over its collapse and bankruptcy last fall. Investigations are continuing. Among the issues is $1.2 billion missing customer money still not fully accounted for. Whether he eventually will face criminal charges or not,  he has been criticized for excessive risk taking and an inattention to management skills, characterizations colleagues have said are consistent in his career.

Dominique Strauss-Kahn — An alleged sexual assault on a chambermaid  cost the former managing director of the International Monetary Fund his job and a chance to be the Socialist Party candidate challenging French President Nicholas Sarkozy in elections this weekend. Strauss-Kahn insists allegations of his involvement with a prostitution ring are merely a conspiracy effort against him perpetrated by Sarkozy’s people. At what point do unabashedly libertine (philandering) ways reach a tipping point? While rape charges were dropped, last week, he lost the argument  that  diplomatic immunity should protect him from the civil trial, which is proceeding.

Self-cleaning oven. What we rely on about ourselves can make us our own worst enemy and vulnerable to critics: undone by continuing to trade on power or  money to save the day when it no longer works, and an insistence on our own “rightness” blocking out new ways of seeing how to operate differently.

Ethical leadership doesn’t stand a chance in these conditions.

Gael O’Brien       May 3, 2012

The Week in Ethics

Gael O’Brien is also a columnist for Business Ethics Magazine. Her previous column was on banks and rebuilding trust, and her May column is about corporate culture and bullying.


2 thoughts on “The Week in Ethics: What Murdoch, Corzine, and Strauss-Kahn Have in Common

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  2. Pingback: The Price of Unethical Leadership: Aubrey McClendon’s fall from glory-LEADERS IN THE NEWS – Theories of Leadership

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