The Road to Hell is Paved with Good Intentions

The road to hell black asphalt red sky
Photo by Mikhail Dudarev

The spectacular rise and even more spectacular fall of Enron was covered extensively by media and various authors. One of America's largest and most scandalous corporate bankruptcies has led to fierce debate on divisive issues (e.g. deregulation), but despite the contentious and complex nature of the disastrous bankruptcy, observers on both sides of the political fence agree that the underlying human flaws that ultimately led to their downfall were pride, arrogance, and greed. Most troubling and tragic is that Enron began with some good ideas and the best of intentions. "Ask why?" was their motto and they promised to be innovative in positive ways. They sincerely believed they were going to change the world for the better, but their good intentions very quickly became twisted and perverted by ego, hubris, and greed. And you know the rest of the story. 

It's easy to demonize and feel above the likes of Ken Lay and Jeffrey Skilling (who both helmed Enron), but the truth is, we're all vulnerable. Lest you believe that you are ethically superior and would never fall like they did, studies of business ethics have found that most people who engage in unethical behavior never intend to. In truth, any endeavor, even charity, community service, and mission work (as history has shown), can go awry under the human tendency towards pride. There's an old expression: "The road to hell is paved with good intentions." (This phrase has been attributed to Samuel Johnson and Saint Bernard of Clairvaux who both penned approximations, but the exact origin is unknown.) No matter who you are or what you do, your good intentions can quickly or eventually become warped by arrogance, self-righteousness, and various forms of greed (not necessarily for money.) Or even more frightening, what are actually evil intentions, under the self-deception of arrogance, can be believed to be good intentions. Example: the Nazis sincerely believed their intentions were noble. As Spike Jones jokingly observed in his song lyrics for "Der Fuehrer's Face" in 1942, the Nazis' motto in essence was: "We bring the world to order."

Pride is blinding. Even though justice, to some extent, has been served in the Enron case, Ken Lay (who passed away in 2006) and Jeffrey Skilling, to the end, never seemed fully convinced that they did anything wrong. They appeared genuinely bewildered by the turn of events and hypnotized by an enticing logic and rationalization: "We grew so much, employed so many people, and made so much money, how could we have possibly done anything wrong?" We can laugh at this or judge this, but how easily one can slip into this mindset or a similar mindset, given the opportunity. (Be honest with yourself.) Like it or not, we're all weak and susceptible to twisted reasoning and rationalization, the irony of human limitation being, the bigger and better one's intentions, the more one is susceptible to pride.

(Executive coach and corporate consultant Julian Moody encountered ego and greed on a perhaps more tame scale than Enron. He discusses them in the topics "Ego" and "Greed" in our project Dialogues with Julian Moody: On Life, Business, Sustainability, and Other Things.)

(Posted 5/31/2012)