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How Good Executives Become Corrupt

Jim Collins, best-selling business author, writes about the crisis of business ethics in the wake of the bankruptcies at Enron and Worldcom. He describes how some business people went wrong:

[Some business executives were a part of] the malleable masses. These were people who, in the presence of an opportunity to behave differently, got drawn into it, one step after another. If you told them 10 years ahead of time, "Hey, let's cook the books and all get rich," they would never go along with it. But that's rarely how most people get drawn into activities that they later regret. When you are at step A, it feels inconceivable to jump all the way to step Z, if step Z involves something that is a total breach of your values. But if you go from step A to step B, then step B to step C, then step C to step D…then someday, you wake up and discover that you are at step Y, and the move to step Z comes about much easier.
Social psychologists call this process "commitment and consistency." In Milton Mayer's essay, "They Thought They Were Free," he explains the process this way: A farmer never notices the corn growing minute by minute. But if he stays in the field long enough, he wakes up one day to discover that it has grown over his head. The people who make up the malleable masses weren't bad at the outset. But through a series of gradual steps, they ended up in bad situations—in over their heads….

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