by Gael O’Brien

It is inevitable that the milestones in the 2007 – 2008 economic meltdown (including the fifth anniversary September 15, 2013 of Lehman Brothers’ bankruptcy filing)  trigger questions about what has been learned to avert future crises.

An avalanche of blame for the meltdown extended to investment banks, regulators, rating agencies, “synthetic financial instruments,” failed leadership and faulty assumptions about how things are or should be. Former Federal Reserve Chairman Allen Greenspan was forced to acknowledge to a congressional committee in 2008 a flaw in his economic theory: the self-interest of lending institutions didn’t protect shareholder equity.

In a situation so complex, with ongoing debate  on whether the right systemic safeguards are being put in place and what else is needed, a central question is what will leaders do differently in our increasingly uncertain and unpredictable world.

The reality that no leader of a Wall Street firm has been prosecuted in spite of expectations to the contrary fuels concern that status quo reigns. In the case of Lehman, although the 2010 Bankruptcy Examiner’s report identified ethical, non-culpable and potentially criminal issues Lehman and its former chairman and CEO Richard Fuld  might face regarding balance sheet manipulation and misleading investors, the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) closed its investigation. against Lehman, Fuld and others in 2012. The New York Times reported this month that there had been considerable internal debate over the sufficiency of the legal evidence.

Leaders can minimize an organization’s potential vulnerability to future crises through how they view the footprint of their organization, the relationship of accountability to fueling trust, and the role of non-financial performance areas, along with the financial, in fostering sustainability.

Footprint: The crisis provided dramatic evidence of how a business’ footprint extends beyond those directly involved (investors, employees, customers etc.) and impacts bystanders — a community, a country, and potentially countries around the world. The footprint of the crisis challenges the limitations of primarily focusing on maximizing shareholder value. It argues for expanding the definition of shareholders to stakeholders or some other term that recognizes all those who are impacted by a company. In doing so, it expands the definition of corporate social responsibility – as well as a leader’s vision of what is possible – to bring one’s company into relationship with others. This precludes isolated self-interest and pushes the organization to look at the broader equation of business profitability + business impact determines business success.

Accountability: With limited transparency there is limited accountability and trust. While satisfying a legal standard that a company misled investors was not met in the SEC investigations of Goldman Sachs and Lehman, congressional hearings and investigations repeatedly brought examples of unethical conduct to the public’s attention. The crisis resulted in demands for more transparency and accountability from financial institutions, which will have an impact on other industries. Being more transparent necessitates thinking through unintended consequences in decisions before finalizing them; it requires being aware of organizational impact which increases the likelihood of recognizing the potential for ethical issues before they occur. Not acting accountably resulted in a high cost to financial institutions in fines, reputation damage, and legal fees (Bloomberg reported  that banks have paid $103 billion in legal costs alone for fees, litigation and settling claims). It is too soon to tell how or the degree to which leaders are incorporating accountability for ethical behavior into the culture of “how we do things” but the degree to which they do will have a significant impact on how their organizations avert future crises.

Financial performance: A recent study by Stanford University’s Center for Leadership Development and Research of 160 CEOs and directors of North American public and private companies, indicated that boards prioritized financial performance above everything in evaluating CEO performance. “While accounting, operating and stock price metrics are assigned high value by boards,” non-financial areas like product service, quality, customer service, workplace safety and innovation factored in less than 5 percent of evaluations. The longer boards’ stay stuck, or self-seal around this issue, they will be narrowly focused on the type of leadership that served organizations in the past, but by short changing the non-financial areas may be creating organizational vulnerability in an unpredictable future.

The financial crisis proved that assumptions can’t be counted on. In a world that is volatile and ever-changing, we’ve learned that obsessive self-interest narrows vision, closes the lens of interconnectedness, ignores footprint, increases the likelihood of doing harm, and in the process encumbers agility and perspective needed to explore options that can prove more sustainable.

We know that legal tightropes can be walked and huge resources spent for damage control to improve reputation and brand image. However, leaders can’t yet know what the lasting result will be of trying to restore lost trust in this unpredictable world or how its lack may end up affecting long-term business success.

The biggest take away from the financial crisis may turn out to be how leaders misjudged footprint and what going forward they are willing to do differently to change that.

Gael O’Brien, a Business Ethics Magazine columnist, is a consultant, executive coach, and presenter focused on building leadership, trust, and reputation. She publishes the The Week in Ethics and is The Ethics Coach columnist for Entrepreneur Magazine.

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