Monday, January 20, 2014

Leadership, Ethics and The Wolf of Wall Street

By Pascal Dennis

LPI Leadership & Ethics Series

Last time I asked: How are Leadership & Ethics related? Why do they matter?

Today I'd like to riff on Martin Scorcese's splendid new movie The Wolf of Wall Street.

Here's a very brief overview: Leo DeCaprio, in arguably his best performance, plays Jordan Belfort, a corrupt stockbroker who defrauds and ruins thousands of people.

Belfort lives a life of wild excess, and gleefully breaks every ethical standard. He's finally caught, spends two years in jail and emerges as a motivational speaker.

How have people reacted to the film?

The BusinessWeek reviewer, who watched the movie with a theatre full of Wall St. touts, was disturbed by it, and by their reactions to it.

The touts wildly cheered Belfort's outrageous swindles, and booed the FBI agent trying to bring him to justice.

New Yorker and New York Times reviewers were troubled by the invisibility of Belfort's victims.

Why, they ask, does Scorcese leave them out, and put Belfort front & centre?

What does the movie have to do with Leadership & Ethics?

Let's begin with Scorcese, a deeply Catholic director, for whom Ethics and spirituality is a central theme.

"I'm a lapsed Catholic," he tells us. "But I am Roman Catholic, there's no way out of it." (Once of his most personal and important movies, The Last Temptation of Christ, is an explicit attempt to wrestle with these themes.) We can be sure that Scorcese reflected deeply on the ethical implications of the Belfort story.

In my view, by making the movie an over-the-top farce, Scorcese has smuggled Ethics into the discourse. Bathing Belfort's crimes in such an appealing light is jarring, and to many people, disturbing. As a result, major media outlets like the New Yorker, BusinessWeek, and the New York Times are asking questions they normally might not ask. Certainly, people are looking at Wall Street with an even deeper fear and loathing than before.

Is Belfort a leader? Yes and no. He has charisma, energy and creativity. He even has a sense of generosity and loyalty to his team. But he's undone by the absence of an ethical anchor. Reportedly, the real Belfort has found a moral core and is much happier because of it. (See the fine BusinessWeek piece a few months back.)

So Belfort has become a much better leader, and one with staying power.

I'm sure he's also a lot more boring. As Lean practitioners may attest, good organizations are also boring.

Week after week, year after year, they achieve their business targets - no fuss, no muss. Good leaders are the same way, and good parents.

By making an outrageous, roller-coaster of a farce that glorifies grossly unethical behavior, Martin Scorcese has struck a blow for Ethics!

Well done, Marty!



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