The reporter caught me while I was sitting in the sanctuary of First Presbyterian Church awaiting the joyous and celebratory graduation services of my daughter's grade school. "What do you feel about the verdicts?" Since I had met with Ken Lay in August 2001 to warn him of Enron's shady accounting and Lay for the most part ignored my warnings, the reporter wanted to know, "Do you feel vindicated?" My mood did not remain joyous or celebratory. I stammered something about being satisfied that justice prevailed. What I couldn't convey in words is a sense of sadness, sadness for what could have been.
In early 2001 Lay and Jeff Skilling, Enron's longtime leaders, unveiled a new mission statement. No longer would Enron strive to be "The World's Leading Energy Company"; we were going to be "The World's Leading Company." Why limit ourselves to energy? Enron was fast-paced, inventive, exciting; we epitomized the New Economy, able to innovate virtually overnight. Unfortunately, in life, our strengths can become our weaknesses. Just as the dark side of charisma is narcissism, the dark side of innovation is fraud. Enron fell victim to both. Our finance, accounting and legal departments pushed the use of off-balance-sheet vehicles over the line that separates creative transactions from fraudulent ones. Our corporate culture became narcissistic; we were focused on our image, not our customers or our products. The most alarming revelation is how easy it was to co-opt the outside world into joining us as we sang our praises: auditors, lawyers, bankers, the media.
Are we now less likely to fall victim to the next charismatic, innovative leader? I still wonder whether we truly recognize and value the appropriate traits in our leaders. We want honest leaders who are decisive, creative, optimistic and even courageous, but we so easily settle for talk that marks those traits instead of action. Worse, we often don't even look for one of the most critical traits of a leader: humility. A humble leader listens to others. He or she values input from employees and is ready to hear the truth, even if it is bad news. Humility is marked by an ability to admit mistakes.
There is no humility in either Skilling or Lay. As I watched Lay after the verdict, I was deeply dismayed by his inability to discern truth. He did not discern the truth of my warnings in August 2001. He failed to discern the truth of his own culpability; he refuses to take responsibility. He hides behind words of Scripture, but even these he misuses.
By the fall of 2001 Lay was telling us that Enron's future had never looked better, even as he was cashing in his Enron shares. By taking care of himself, Lay violated one of Jesus' leadership lessons, found in Mark 9:35: "If anyone desires to be first, he must be last of all, and servant of all." We need to applaud the servant-leader, the one who clearly demonstrates that the interests of the organization and its customers, employees and investors (in that order) come first, not his own. Humility is a critically important trait in leaders. We have to ask ourselves, Is our society cultivating humility? Do we exhibit that trait individually and collectively as a nation? Will we stop and learn from the Enron lesson in leadership failures, or will we just shrug our shoulders and thank God we're not Ken Lay?