Financial Ethics

Many people don’t finish the books they start reading..

On my business travels people ask me what our company does and when I tell them it’s quite common to hear the person mention Stephen Covey’s book: ‘The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People’. I ask them if they’ve read it and quite often they tell me they skimmed through the first 3 habits but didn’t finish the book. I’m like: “But dude, it’s the 7 habits….”

Many business people rave about Jim Collins’s book: ‘Good to Great’ and I’ll ask them if they’ve read it and in response they’ll tell me they only read the “good” part and I’m like: “But dude, the great part comes next”.

As a person of faith its not uncommon for people to tell me they got stuck in the Old Testament and I’m like: “But dude, it all comes together in the New!”

I just finished the book: ‘The Smartest Guys in the Room — the amazing rise and scandalous fall of Enron’. It was a long book filled with so many life lessons especially on the other side of the conjunction.

After finishing the book I was left with three big questions:

1. How much money is enough?

The base salaries some of these individuals were making were perhaps ten times more than most people would need to live on, let alone the bonuses earned from their shenanigans.

2. What kind of legacy did they leave?

Many of the senior leaders involved in the corruption saw their marriages breakdown due to their own infidelities. Even sadder was to read of the suicide of one of the executives. So burdened by his guilt he saw no point in continuing living and left behind his wife and young children. It does indeed seem the love of money is the root of all kinds of evil.
3. Why didn’t more employees speak up?

The Enron house of cards began to topple mainly due to the stubbornly inquisitive questioning of a couple of investor analysts. One or two employees did ask about some of the transactions they were instructed to process but were silenced with silver.

I’ve come to the conclusion from reading the book that some employees were wooed away by the jolly green giant of the dollar. Their salary, bonuses and stock options were of much greater importance to them than their own integrity. I’ve also come to realize some employees didn’t see anything wrong — they just thought the senior leaders were being very clever, twisting or working around accounting rules.

Rules are mankind’s attempt to set boundaries on what is “right” and what is “wrong”. The problem with rules is: we can’t have a rule for everything and so, at some point the principle has to be the guide. In accounting we have many, many rules but the fundamental principle is called: “a true and fair view”.

To illustrate — the rules of the highway and freeway are written within the driver’s education handbook. The principle on which these rules are based is the sanctity of human life. The rules are not primarily intended to save fuel or have a nice commute or help the environment, but rather protect human life — that’s the overarching principle. I can’t find anything specific in the driver’s education book that tells me I am not allowed to drive while shaving and while drinking a café latte and while simultaneously stroking a poodle on my left knee. Nope, I can’t find it in the rulebook but I innately know to do so could endanger human life.

The principle must always trump the rule. In the case of Enron they lost sight of the principle: “a true and fair view” in worship of their money gods convincing them to make all sorts of illegal maneuvers and dangerous turns on their business trip. What I know about the human condition is there has been and there will always be an Enron. I just wish more leaders would finish reading the books written to help them — whether it’s the little books from Covey or Collins et al or much bigger books like the Bible. I saw a banner in an elementary school once, which read: “Great readers become great leaders”. I have found that lesson to be so true even if it’s so err… elementary. I wonder when all the books will be closed and we will learn the lesson.

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