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Enron’s Lesson in Failed Leadership Ethics: An Interview with Joanne Ciulla

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Joanne Ciulla, professor and Coston Family Chair in Leadership and Ethics at the University of Richmond Virginia, has been teaching for 27 years, and she said the Enron problem is not new to the world of business. What set it apart was the shear size of the problem.

“The Enron situation is amazing because of the scope of it,” Ciulla told EthicsDaily.com in a recent interview. “It is like the mother of all scandals because it affected all levels of the company—accounting, consulting, off-shore companies, pension plans, corporate governance, not to mention the impact on employees.”

Ciulla said the fact that it continued for so long and fooled so many in this information age is shocking.

“Companies do things like Enron did all the time,” Ciulla said. “They try to tighten their belts in one way or another.”

The dynamics are the same in many unethical business cases, she said, but the Enron situation provides an opportunity to teach people how to be good employees and employers.

“It all comes back to ethics in leadership,” Ciulla said. Even in the Bible, with the story of David and Bathsheba, we see the negative effects of an inflated ego due to leadership. “The challenge in leadership is not to get puffed up or arrogant,” she said.

Leaders get into trouble when they have no accountability, Ciulla said. She sees this when leaders surround themselves with “yes” people or have a board that is scattered and overpaid.

Ethics are the same everywhere, only the problems vary, she said.

Work = Identity
“In America, work is the key source of many people’s identity,” Ciulla said. “The first thing we ask someone upon meeting is ‘What do you do?'”

The answer to this question holds valuable information about the class, education and income of the respondent, Ciulla said. This question is how we find out about others without asking those other questions that would be “too personal.”

“The ‘Renaissance Man’ used to be the ideal,” Ciulla said. “Now the ideal is to do one thing.”

Karl Marx found this idea of doing just one thing very disturbing. Ciulla remembered a quote from Marx in which he said the ideally one could be “a carpenter in the morning, a fisherman in the afternoon and a critic at night.”

This tendency to focus on one thing—one work—is culturally shaped, Ciulla said; it does not follow the law of nature.

“Work affects what you do in your leisure time,” Ciulla said. “Generally boring work leads to boring leisure time.”
She said we all like to imagine that people with boring jobs can have very exciting and interesting leisure activities, but they usually do not.

“My Working Life”
Ciulla turned her interest and studies about work into a book, The Working Life: The Promise and Betrayal of Modern Work.

“I began writing a book about life,” she said. The book places emphasis on work, because of the emphasis people place on work.

Ciulla said the book is a look at the history of the meaning of work, a critique of how the 20th century managed work and accelerated the individual, and a reflection on time, leisure and the “meaning of life.”

“We thought that if we had more machines we would work less,” she said. “Why doesn’t technology free us?”

Technology is not “labor saving, it is production increasing,” she said.
How much of an influence work has in one’s life comes down to the choices one makes, she said.

Ciulla looked at what she called the “four values” in people’s lives: interesting job, security, leisure and consumption.

Consumption, she said, plays a large part in determining choices.
“Most choices are based on consumption,” Ciulla said. “You don’t have to have two cars, credit cards. You don’t have to buy into consumerism.”

Choices to consume more determine the job value, the leisure value and the security value. “Our choices can lead to tethering ourselves to work based upon our bills,” she said.

And technology does not loosen the tether.

“With technology, we more readily commit to 24 hours of potential work,” she said. Having a cell phone makes one accessible even outside the eight-hour working time.

“We have freed ourselves from having to be there, but we are still tethered to work,” Ciulla said.

Ultimately, Ciulla said, we must examine how our choices have led us to where we are. If we don’t like it, then start making new choices.

Jodi Mathews is BCE’s communications director

Order Ciulla’s books from Amazon!
The Working Life: The Promise and Betrayal of Modern Work
Ethics, the Heart of Leadership