By: George M. Wilson & Carol A. Stacey
This famous quote has been in our thoughts over the last several months:
“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
George Santayana, the poet and essayist, wrote these famous words in his book The Life of Reason. Many other people including Winston Churchill have thoughtfully incorporated this fundamental principle of life in speeches and remarks.
Another favorite variation of the idea comes from Mark Twain:
“History doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme.”
The lesson here is that if we learn history we can hopefully avoid making the same or similar mistakes in the future. As we discussed a couple of posts back, recent public company news shows that many organizations have not been learning from the past.
One person who can help us learn about history we do not want to repeat is Cynthia Cooper. She was the WorldCom head of internal audit who built and lead the team that worked almost “under cover” to find the largest fraud ever discovered. This was a tone at the top fraud, involving the CEO, CFO and CAO. Her book is a sometimes-chilling story of how bad tone at the top results in fraud.
Sharron Watkins is another person who can help us learn how to not repeat history. She was the Enron Vice President, a direct report to Andy Fastow, who blew the whistle about Enron’s accounting irregularities. And we all know perhaps too much about that fraud which was even the subject of a book and related movie “Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room”.
Corporate ethics will never be easy, but as history and current events show, it does matter. If leadership of an organization sends the message that making money is the most important thing an organization does, if it sends the message that if you don’t make money you will be fired, if it sends the message that other values can be sacrificed if you make money, the ultimate result is inevitable. In countless frauds over centuries, from Ivar Kreuger, the match king in the early 1900s, to Equity Funding in the 1970s, to Madoff, to Enron, to the companies we are talking about today, this lesson has been proven time and time again.
These stories can help us learn and avoid the mistakes others have made. They can be the focus of training and learning. They can be the foundation for building awareness and support for these issues in organizations large and small.
As always, your thoughts and comments are welcome.