“Nobody goes down with the ship anymore,” complained a pundit recently. “Whatever happened to the idea of personal integrity?” he opined.

His complaint was in response to Enron in particular, and more generally about our contemporary CEO culture, which has responded to the realities of short-term Wall Street thinking by creating a most curious disdain for the consequences of their actions.

In the mind of too many CEOs these days, the best justification for any disaster, any scandal, is: “I’m fine — what’s your problem?”

Attitudes like these do make for a certain nostalgia of those times of intrepid polar explorers and fearless naval heroes, when leadership conferred not just perks and power but obligation.

I’m all in favor of the latter, but I’m also not so sure how yesterday’s strictures would translate into today’s world. In fact, it’s quite a job to pinpoint what a CEO’s sense of honor should entail these days.

First consider the phrase “going down with the ship” — to our ears, a shopworn cliche. But 50 years ago it was still to be taken literally. It was not rare for leaders to feel that life would not be worth living in the aftermath to a failure to safeguard their vessel and passengers, even if the disaster was a thing of chance or fluke of war.

In the early, bad days of World War II, a number of American and British naval officers chose death over the possibility of having their decisions questioned. In the strongly patriotic mood of he time, these sacrifices were not to be dissected or even discussed for their strategic lessons — at least, not in public.

But behind the scenes in both the U.S. and British naval headquarters, the horror over the human loss did not blind the leaders in charge of winning a war. They could put together from after-action reports a worrisome picture: Far too many of the ranking officers had shown an appalling incompetence in battle, based on their refusal to learn about emerging technologies such as radar. In short order, on the advice of their War Departments, President Roosevelt and Prime Minister Churchill OK’d a tremendous mass promotion of younger officers, those whose minds weren’t still focused on waging the last war.

Nor were these leaders limited to the branches of military service, either; as witness the choice of the Titanic’s Captain Smith to refuse a place on a lifeboat — not when over 1,500 others were going to their assured death in an icy ocean.

Captain Smith knew he was more than just symbolically responsible for those inevitable deaths. He’d allowed his ship’s schedule to be set in order to meet the requirements of an extensive publicity campaign. He orders the ship to run at top cruising speed in he dark of night into an area well known for pack ice. He let himself be distracted by social duties, dining instead of reading the telegraph messages piling up — he never even delegated anyone to read them, so the warning about icebergs ahead never reached him. No, there was more than mere nobility that motivated Captain Smith to stay at his post.

Nobody goes down with the ship anymore

Time change, and fashions of personal accountability change with them. In the aftermath of World War II, opportunities to literally go down with one’s ship have vanished. The metaphor has gone out of style, too. The way Kenneth Lay of Enron opted for the lifeboat — or, rather, the Gulfstream — is just the latest example of the CEO Teflon-itis. For this he has been excoriated in the media.

For those looking in from the outside, all this may have seemed like a very satisfying spectacle, a sort of business “Crime and Punishment.” But it does raise an inconvenient and, to some, uncomfortable question: Once Enron lay in ruins, what else was CEO lay to do except exit? What is the modern equivalent of going down with the ship? Even if it existed, would there be any point to it?

Scapegoating a CEO won’t fix the system

I ask this not to absolve Lay for Enron, but to see what lessons for other leaders can be extracted from a messy affair. What Lay stands accused of, after all, differs only in degree from what most CEOs have practiced for decades: The maximizing of paper profits and short-term gains over any viable long-term strategy.

Would it be better to have a culture where CEOs commit hara-kiri in atonement for failing to meet quarterly expectations? That was Japan’s story, and it doesn’t seem to have helped them out of their economic quagmire.

Perhaps hara-kiri will ultimately prove worthy of consideration, but first let’s ask ourselves why Lay has come in for such opprobrium. Could it be because many of Lay’s congressional critics have since been revealed to be benefactors of Enron’s largess?

The sheer volume and intensity of the scorn heaped on Lay would seem to indicate a desire by the business and political communities to deflect attention from their own complicity in a system that seemingly favors the plunging gambler over the careful steward.

For a start, let’s work on finding a way to reward long-term management strategy. That way, a CEO need never choose between business success and personal honor.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.