In an interesting editorial in today’s Chicago Tribune (reg. req’d), my friend Professor David Skeel of the University of Pennsylvania Law School discusses the use of faith as a defense to criminal charges by several prominent CEOs, including Bernard Ebbers of WorldCom Inc., Richard Scrushy of HealthSouth Corp., and Kenneth Lay of Enron Corp. David wonders, “How did it turn out that the leaders of three of the most scandal-ridden companies all publicly professed their faith?”
David briefly discusses the re-engagement of evangelicals with mainstream society from the mid-1900s on, the importance of the South as a locus of economic activity, and a third factor that he calls “the worm in the apple–persecution as confirmation.” David writes:
As Christian Smith pointed out in his book “American Evangelicalism,” we evangelicals tend to thrive when we feel surrounded and embattled. The sense of opposition can sharpen one’s faith–Christ himself said, “blessed are those who are persecuted for my name’s sake.” But it can be dangerous if used for self-justification, to treat even legitimate criticism as persecution to be resisted–as when Ebbers insisted he hadn’t done anything wrong and his principal concern was that “my witness for Jesus Christ will not be jeopardized.”
The practice of resisting even legitimate criticism is not reserved to evangelical CEOs. This was arguably the cause of Carly’s downfall at HP. But the problems at WorldCom, HealthSouth, and Enron went beyond bad business strategy. The executives in those companies (allegedly) lied, cheated, and stole in service of their vision. And this prompts me to wonder about the issue that David is keen to avoid:
I don’t mean to suggest that Christian CEOs are uniquely susceptible to ethical failure. The reality is that the executives who climb to the top of the corporate ladder–Christian or not–are invariably decisive, self-confident and willing to eschew conventional wisdom. The very qualities that make them successful can cause them to ignore warning signs when a once-successful company starts to falter. The point is that even CEOs who seem to have strong moral values aren’t immune from this risk–a fact we would do well to underscore in the ethics classes every business student takes in business school.
Obviously, David is right that “even CEOs who seem to have strong moral values aren’t immune from this risk,” but what about the possibility “that Christian CEOs are uniquely susceptible to ethical failure”? Aren’t people who are driven by a supposed higher calling even more dangerous in some ways than people who are driven by avarice? We understand avarice, and we think we know how to combat it (threaten loss of wealth for cheating). Evangelical ferver, on the other hand, does not respond well to worldly constraints. Indeed, if David is right, such fervor is only strengthened and justified by attempts to constrain. The same fears we feel about Islamic terrorists — that they are irrational and will not respond to the usual incentives — arise in this context, don’t they?
Thanks to Christine for the tip.