The Culture of Corporate Corruption

In my talk at #sxsw yesterday, I talked about a culture of corporate corruption that has been an enabler for the breakdown of our economy. (Specifically, I talked about my experience at the Stanford Directors College some years ago, in which I expected to learn about how to be a good director of a public company, guidance on how best to look out for the interests of the shareholders, and instead was treated to session after session about director liability and how to cover my ass.)

There were a couple of great illustrations of this breakdown of business morality in today's New York Times. The first, and most striking, was Andrew Ross Sorkin's piece about bankers not disclosing conflicts of interest in M&A deals (one example was of a Goldman Sachs banker who owned a significant shareholding in a company being acquired by the company whose interests he was supposedly representing), and the complicity of law firms in whitewashing these conflicts.

The other was about the potential failure of prosecutors to be able to hold MF Global for raiding customer funds in a last-minute attempt to prop up their firm.

These are two of many examples of the pervasive corruption of values that came to a head in the financial crisis of 2008, but has still not resulted in the kind of reforms that we need.

We need a shareholder revolt with a focus on good corporate governance. Thomas Jefferson once said that for liberty to flourish, government should fear the people. There is a parallel notion corporations should fear their shareholders. Right now, corporate leaders continue to act like aristocrats before the French Revolution.
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