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CEOs: Back To Ethical Basics

My, how Enron, WorldCom, and other business scandals have altered the national mood!

"Could Capitalists Actually Bring Down Capitalism?" asks a New York Times story. The Monitor today also looks at the betrayal of capitalism by some chief executive officers (see story, page 1).

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Of course, free enterprise will survive this challenge, as it has so many others. Probably some needed reforms will be made in the system.

Thoughtful business leaders are now pondering what has happened that so many executives have strayed from the straight and narrow.

CEOs, like other human beings, are complex in their motivations. But it seems clear that several factors may have led them into ethical trouble.

One is moral contagion. If an executive sees other executives cooking the books to please stock market analysts, it becomes easier to take the same path. Egos are involved. Ethical backbones aren't always strong enough to resist the temptations.

Another problem is stock market options. They provide an incentive for CEOs and other executives to use bookkeeping tricks to pump up the value of their stocks unrealistically. Options have pushed executive compensation to unnatural heights in recent years. Greed must be restrained.

The popular, supercapitalist view that shareholders are the only corporate stakeholder that counts has provided an excuse for excesses. Other stakeholders, employees, and community count only if it helps stock values. To a degree, CEOs must again see themselves as statesmen, balancing the needs of all the stakeholders.