Ebbers: gleeless comeuppance

The Germans seem to have a word for everything. Schadenfreude is usually translated as “glee over another’s misfortune.” And it’s how I expected to feel when the news came down last month that a New York jury found Bernie Ebbers guilty of conspiracy and eight counts of accounting fraud.

Guess what? I’m not feeling gleeful. The closest way to describe how I feel is relieved. Relieved because 12 ordinary New Yorkers actually get it: It’s not OK to lie, cheat and steal your way to success. And it’s not OK to let others do your dirty work and then argue that because you didn’t understand the details you should be let off the hook.

The value of a guilty verdict, in many cases, isn’t the ability to deter future criminals or cause current ones to suffer. It’s a way we as a society associate a comeuppance with a crime, and by doing so, define who we are and what kind of people we want to be. By saying certain behaviour merits punishment, we’re also defining what kind of behaviour we expect and demand from our citizens.

Telling the truth and taking responsibility for our actions are two of the values that were reaffirmed last month. So I’m relieved that at least some of us still know right from wrong and believe in accountability and personal responsibility.

That doesn’t mean the verdict is a happy event. Convicting Ebbers doesn’t return the US$11 billion to shareholders who lost their life’s savings. It doesn’t return jobs to the thousands of MCI Inc. and WorldCom Inc. employees who lost their livelihoods. It doesn’t resuscitate the trashed careers of the executives at other telcos who had to compete with fraudulent performance and cooked books.

Sending Ebbers to the slammer just adds one more damaged life and family — his — to the thousands his actions left in their wake. No, this conviction is not an occasion for glee or even quiet rejoicing.

But it is a good reminder to take a minute and review our fundamental beliefs, the standards of behaviour that we expect and demand from citizens, and the violation of which become grounds for prosecution.

Here are mine:

• Leaders (whether senior executives at for-profit or not-for-profit organizations, politicians or their appointees, or military officers) assume responsibility for defining and living up to a high ethical and legal standard. They set the example for every individual in their organizations.

• “I didn’t know” isn’t an excuse for leaders. It’s your job to know. If you don’t, step down and ask someone else to lead.

• Trust is an essential commodity that must be earned on an ongoing basis, by telling the truth and living up to your word, and, when necessary, admitting and making reparations for errors.

• CEOs of public companies need to remember that they’re stewards of the public trust. If they want glamour, glory and limited personal responsibility, they ought to become actors or rock stars. Maybe Ebbers should have stuck to coaching basketball.

Johnson is president and chief research officer at Nemertes Research LLC, an independent technology research firm. She can be reached at johna@nemertes.com.

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