The toll in the Enron fiction astounds: shareholders lost $60 billion, employees lost $2 billion in pension money, 5,600 people lost their jobs, founder Ken Lay was found guilty on six charges of fraud and conspiracy, former CEO Jeff Skilling found guilty of 13 such charges, and both were convicted of other charges having to do with stock sales and audits that exposes Lay to a sentence of up to 165 years in prison and Skilling up to 185 years behind bars.
What went wrong? Whistleblower Sherron Watkins, writing in Time magazine (June 5, 2005, p. 35) says: “Unfortunately, in life, our strengths can become our weaknesses. Just as the dark side of charisma is narcissism, the dark side of innovation is fraud. Enron fell victim to both... Our corporate culture became narcissistic; we were focused on our image, not our customers or our products.”
Speaking of leadership, she adds: “I still wonder whether we truly recognize and value the appropriate traits in our leaders. We want honest leaders who are decisive, creative, optimistic and even courageous, but we so easily settle for talk that marks those traits instead of action. Worse, we often don’t even look for one of the most critical traits of a leader: humility. A humble leader listens to others. He or she values input from employees and is ready to hear the truth, even if it is bad news. Humility is marked by an ability to admit mistakes.”
Waktins says of Lay, “By taking care of himself, Lay violated on of Jesus’ leadership lessons, found in Mark 9:35: ‘If anyone desires to be first, he must be last of all, and servant of all.’ We need to applaud the servant-leader, the one who clearly demonstrates that the interests of the organization and its customers, employees and investors (in that order) come first, not his own. Humility is a critically important trait in leaders. We have to ask ourselves, Is our society cultivating humility? Do we exhibit that trait individually and collectively as a nation? Will we stop and learn from the Enron lesson in leadership failures, or will we just shrug our shoulders and thank God we’re not Ken Lay?”
Watkins is co-author of Power Failure: The Inside Story of the Collapse of Enron.
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