Are We Empowering Greedy, Selfish Leaders?

Just what is it about sociopathic hypocrites in positions of power that makes for entertainment?

Have you watched Terence Winter’s HBO series, “Boardwalk Empire,” or Oliver Stone’s movie sequel, “Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps”? Both are among the latest cinematic fiction about powerful, self-absorbed schemers for whom greed trumps simple personal values.

Why do greedy leading characters fascinate us so? What are we hoping for?

Greed on the Big Screen: Art Imitating Life?

In “Boardwalk Empire,” Steve Buscemi of “Fargo” fame plays the disturbingly incongruent leader, Nucky Thompson, treasurer of Atlantic City during Prohibition. Nucky is instantly charming and a vicious pychopath, simultaneously gaining our sympathy and horrifying us. We watch like NASCAR fans, thrilled by the glamour and craft while looking for pandemonium at any moment. We’ve been here before, with “Sopranos” and “Dexter” and “Enron.” What is the message? What intrigues us so?

In “Wall Street,” we are treated to similarly crooked kingpins. The values corruption is seismic, and it’s questionable if we’d be watching if it were moderate. Powerful men lacking character are characterized by charisma.  Megalomaniac millionaires fund worthy charities for self-righteous appreciation.   Gordon Gekko – a workaholic, narcissistic, greed-crazed father – cons his own daughter out of a fortune.  All this, in the midst of the mortgage backed securities debacle and economic meltdown of 2008/2009 produced by mischievous captains of greed and superficiality in the Federal government and financial sector. Art mirrors life. What’s our reflection?

Authority as a Substitute for Leadership

I’m guessing we don’t know how to deal with the incongruence of some in authority. Surely, the father superior who threw us down the stairs will see us and smile appreciatively? We glimpse core civil values gutted by powerfully charismatic characters, and we are fascinated and frightened, simultaneously. Feeling powerless to address the disturbance, we choose to be entertained and distracted.

True leaders courageously stand up in front of ”authority” and pronounce, “This is wrong!” Why are they so scarce? Lacking both courage and common sense, managers and boards failed to make values-informed decisions that would stand as life lessons for their children. Are they even aware that they failed? Where is our country headed? Do they care?

Do we so need to believe in white-collar authority that we allow the corruption, even in the face of values foreclosure? The recurring theme of authority figures being rewarded while they are crushing core values, frankly, fosters despair. We can’t quite work the geometry in which corporate execs get to take TARP funds and keep their jobs, while their boards of directors smile.

Empowering Values-Centered Leaders

Well, I suspect we know that most people in positions of authority are not like those who have lined their pockets at society’s expense; that innovating and serving customers is the surest way to serve shareholders; that what goes around comes around, eventually.  Core civil values can only be maintained when individuals act effectively to hold leaders responsible for the values congruence on which this country was founded.

Effective leaders are out there. They will be there in the future, too. With individual initiative and insistence on values accountability for everyone, we can keep the Gordon Gekkos and Nucky Thompsons in fiction, where they belong. The simple rule is: unless we impose common sense and accountability, the leaders we have are the ones we deserve.

Let’s explore this together. What do you think? I’d really like to know.


…And right action is freedom
From past and future also.
For most of us, this is the aim
Never here to be realized;
Who are only undefeated
Because we have gone on trying…

– T.S.Eliot, “The Dry Savages”