Power and greed have most certainly been around as long as there have been humans. In this great country of promise and opportunity, it has been a little too easy throughout our history to turn a blind eye to these “aberrant” traits and stay hopeful and positive. As a nation, maybe we’ve cloaked ourselves in illusion and, if that’s the case, it’s time we start calling out abuses of power and greed wherever we see them.
What started me down this track was the combination of seeing the Oscar-winning movie Spotlight and witnessing the incivility of our current political climate. Both illustrate how blatantly and absolutely power and greed can corrupt our most cherished institutions—including our corporations. Instead of nurturing the American Dream, it seems we are dancing with disaster everywhere we look. But there is much we can do to tango in a different direction.
At their essence, power and greed are about the betrayal of trust. In Spotlight, it’s the clergy betraying the trust of innocent children and the refusal of the Church to stop the widespread and systemic abuse. In politics it’s the candidates’ complete lack of respect for one another and the system, making it impossible for voters to trust either candidate or system. The corporate world is no better. It was just fifteen years ago that Enron’s downfall was named the greatest company scandal in the history of the U.S. economy and the symbol of corruption and unadulterated greed for the entire Western economic system. This was followed a few years later by Qwest’s pervasive fraud, led by management. These and other instances of corporate power and greed contributed to the Great Recession and subsequent mistrust of corporate America.
What is most striking about all of these stories are the millions of individual lives that were radically changed by the actions of a powerful few, and how long it took before these few perpetrators were taken down, or even seriously questioned. The individual monetary and emotional costs of power and greed are staggering. Did we not see, or did we not want to see?
Culture is an interesting thing and we, as business leaders, have the opportunity to model the more positive aspects of the American ideal. People spend more waking hours at work than in any other endeavor—and this gives us the opportunity to counteract much of the negativity that’s impacting our broader culture today. This means emphasizing and recognizing respect, generosity, kindness and power sharing within our own organizations and having zero tolerance for bullying, grandstanding, or abuse of any kind. We cannot simply ignore it when we hear a racial or gender-related slur in a meeting, witness the public dressing down of an employee, or allow a negative attitude to destroy the morale of an otherwise productive team.
Now, more than in the recent past, we need to take our business leadership a step further. We need to think broader and deeper and be aware of the consequences of not speaking out when we see the abuses of power and greed, no matter how small and no matter where in our organizations and beyond. We can be the inspiration for civility. When people experience civility eight hours a day, why would they accept anything less in other aspects of their lives?
Enterprise is foundational in American culture. As business leaders, we have a role to play in sustaining that great heritage by modeling the ideal and speaking out against anything less.