Blogs & Comment

Are the unethical in business also untalented?

If disgraced hedge-fund manager Raj Rajaratnam were good at his job, couldn’t he have done well without insider trading?

If disgraced hedge-fund manager Raj Rajaratnam were good at his job, couldn’t he have done well without insider trading?

Unethical (and illegal) behaviour in business is often compared to breaking the rules in sports. And it has always seemed to me that the sportsman who cheats is basically admitting he’s not good enough to win any other way. Same goes for the student who cheats on a test — she cheats because she knows she hasn’t got what it takes to get a passing grade any other way.

Too often, in the world of business, those caught doing something unethical end up being regarded as “great but flawed.” The story that gets told is usually a Shakespearean one of a talented business mind driven to the dark side by greed, ambition, etc. So Rajaratnam gets described as “brilliant”. And Enron’s Jeff Skilling was, after all, “the smartest guy in the room.”

Now, this line of thinking has occurred to me before, namely that if you have to do something unethical to make a profit, then you’re just not very good at your job. But I was reminded of it by Andrew Potter’s recent blog entry on countersignalling, and how refusal to use modern, high-powered hunting bows might be a way of signalling the hunter’s true skill, and consequent refusal to ‘cheat’.

I sense there’s an opening for a potent new narrative here. When someone is caught doing something unethical in business, we should, in addition to criticizing their lack of character, and perhaps worrying about the institutional structures that facilitated their wrongdoing, also mock their lack of business acumen. Yes, mock. We should mock them the same way we might mock the hunter who uses a sniper rifle to take out a deer. Or maybe the guy who shoots fish in a barrel. Oh, congratulations, tough guy. And we should reserve our praise not for the shrewdness of the Rajaratnams and Skillings and Madoffs of the world, but for the quiet sagacity of the other guy, the truly talented one who quietly goes about building and maintaining a thriving business without having to resort to cheating.