In the infamous movie “Wall Street” with Michael Douglas playing the shoe-shined, spit-polished, and dressed to the nines villain, Gordon Gekko, he uttered the phrase “greed is good.” As he found out, for greed to be considered in the same ball park as good, it needs a lot of caveats. We all want more, so each of us has a greed gene inside of us, but unadulterated greed, is not good.
In the US, many of our problems can be traced to greed. We pay CEOs in the US twenty to thirty times higher than CEOs are paid in other countries, when we look at the ratio of CEO pay to pay of the average worker. While the UK and Canada and other places are more like 15 to 1, the US ratio is more like 350 to 1. Having worked with a lot of CEOs in my day, I do not believe US CEOs are worth that differential. To perpetuate this wealth and income levels, in our country we use reasonably legal, but somewhat unethical means to gain political favor. It is not a surprise with the high cost of running for office, that so many legislators retire from service with much more wealth than they started with. That wealth did not come from a legislator’s salary. In other words, our greed perpetuation is much more legitimized.
Yet, in other countries, greed has led to rampant corruption and bribery. The evicted President of the Ukraine, Viktor Yanukovych, is the most recent example of living high on the hog at the expense of a country in need. Apparently, he built himself an estate with the all the finishings, personal golf course, included. While Ukrainian people experienced severe economic difficulty, he was well above the fray. However, any leader willing to shoot on his own citizens with sniper fire, speaks volumes about his character, but that deserves its own post. Russia is now giving him asylum as their leaders value corruption as a skill.
What I have witnessed in my years as a business person, is the more totalitarian the leadership, the more corruption exists. Hosni Mubarak, when he was ousted as the Egyptian leader was worth US$ 81 Billion. So, while Egyptians were getting by on US$ 2 per day, Mubarak was not so economically challenged. It is like a current day “Animal Farm” where George Orwell described the pigs living quite nicely inside the house, while the other animals toiled away for nothing.
But, greed is not restricted to country leadership, as there are numerous examples in industry whether it be for profit or non-profit. On the latter, we have witnessed many seemingly altruistic, even religious people get caught up in greed. My favorite quote is from Reverend Jim Bakker of the Praise The Lord club who solicited millions from unsuspecting donors and lived in a house with solid gold faucets. Bakker was quoted as saying “The Lord wanted me to have nice things.” Bakker went to jail for his false advertising to people and poor stewardship with their money. Unfortunately, he has company from other religious leaders with convictions of tax evasion, bilking funders, poor stewardship, etc.
Yet, the true greed gets back to the CEO suite of for profit companies. We are only beginning to touch the issue of better governance of CEO and CEO direct reports’ pay. The issue of relativity of CEO pay to the average worker is telling. I have worked with organizations that are very egalitarian and leaders make an appropriate level of income. However, I have also worked with, consulted with and known many CEOs who are simply greedy sons of bitches. As an example, one CEO was not only paid very well, he never paid for anything that he could get the company to pay for. The company paid for his daughter’s wedding because he invited clients. And, one of his classic lines when he was being apprised of a potential benefit program for employees was to hold up his hand to stop the talker and ask “what’s in it for me?”
So, it comes down to we the people have to be as vigilant as possible. We have to question leaders whether they are in industry, philanthropy, religious organization or government. We need to challenge them to be the best of stewards with our money and resources. And, we need a healthy dose of skepticism. We need to dig underneath why someone is recommending something. Do they have a vested interest in the decision? It never hurts to ask. As the answer may be one that needs to be heard by many.