The agony, the irony, and the challenges of leading through the current dark tunnel

Banks going belly up. Automakers readying themselves to declare bankruptcy. Stocks tanking. Layoffs, layoffs and more layoffs. The news is so unremittingly bad that it seems the apocalypse is imminent. Even worse, in some ways, is the numbness that has set in, making bad news seem so “normal” that we barely blink at each new bit of gloom.

Then along comes something to pierce the armor of numbness – such as reports that German-based engineering firm Siemens AG has agreed to pay a record-setting $1.6 billion to U.S. and European authorities to, according to the New York Times, “settle charges that it routinely used bribes and slush funds to secure huge public works contracts around the world.”

Hard on the heels of that item came the news that 70-year-old Bernard Madoff had managed to single-handedly rip off major world banks, nonprofit foundations, members of the social elite, and thousands of wealthy and not quite famous investors in an estimated $50-billion Ponzi scheme.

Nevertheless, one of the first (and second and third) reactions I had to both bits of news was looking at it from a darkly humorous perspective.

The vision of Siemens employees delivering “suitcases filled with cash to bribe foreign officials” does sound like a caper straight out of a bad B movie from the 1930s or ‘40s, doesn’t it? Beyond that, the logistics seem to me to be a bit mind boggling. You have to wonder just where someone goes to get a “suitcase full of cash.” Did no one at the banks notice that the supply of petty cash had disappeared? Did no banker wonder why someone would want a million dollars or so in fives and tens? Or why the cash was tucked neatly into a Gucci carry-on bag? And what about those customs agents? Did they get to take home a smaller Hermes bag that was bulging with Euros for looking the other way? The questions go on and on.

As for Mr. Madoff, I say he’s proof of why age discrimination is wrong on so many levels. Clearly, this is one guy older than 50 who has not lost initiative or a creative touch. What’s funnier in an even sadder way is Mr. Madoff’s Web site. The site itself seems to have been scrubbed, but Google his name and the link still pops up. And what does it say? “Clients know that Bernard Madoff has a personal interest in maintaining the unblemished record of value, fair-dealing and high ethical standards that has…”

Ah, the irony. It’s almost funny. But it’s not.

The fallout from these ethical lapses has a domino effect that’s spreading globally. And it’s going to take a long time for some corporations in general to recoup any semblance of credibility and trust. And they can’t do it by words alone – every company that issues a report on corporate social responsibility or sustainability parrots sentiments similar to the ones on Madoff’s Web site. And we see how trustworthy that turned out to be. The solution lies instead with leaders who live those words rather than just say them. And doing so effectively in this era of cynicism is what’s the really hard part of leadership.