One of the provocative phrases of '80s was summed up as “greed is good”. And the most famous character depicting good greed was Gordon Gekko, the character portrayed by Michael Douglas in the 1987 film by Oliver Stone, Wall Street. This past week, I had the opportunity to watch the sequel, Wall Street 2: Money Never Sleeps. Given the recent turn of events that have nearly brought our economy to its knees, and our recent readings of leadership and ethics, I thought I’d touch on Gekko’s character as an interesting character study.
For those of you not familiar with the original movie, the original Wall Street covers the story about power traders who are so taken with greed and power they end up devouring whole companies out from under the nose of stockholders. In the movie, Bud Fox (Charlie Sheen) is a young, rising hot shot who gets seduced by the allure of big money, and soon joins the big insider trading corruption. He aspires to become like his cunning boss, Gordon Gekko (Micheal Douglas), who stops at nothing to get rich at the expense of others. Through the movie, Stone provides a gripping cautionary tale of corruption, greed and betrayal in the world of Wall Street. Gekko’s character also instantly becomes the executive icon that oozes power and charisma while also displaying chillingly stunning and calculating greed. He is, quite possibly, Barnard’s (1937) antithesis of a responsible leader. And, if Wallstreet is a person, Goodpaster (1982) would call him Satan.
Wall Street 2 starts off with an older, more subdued Gordon Gekko (and a more lizardly looking Douglas). Although the financial world is collapsing around the main characters, Oliver Stone again touches on the issues of greed, power and betrayal. Everyone eventually betrays someone else. Just in case you haven’t seen the movie yet, I’ll leave it at that!
In terms of leadership and the implications ethics has in leadership, lets turn our attention to Gordon Gekko. According to Choi, Gekko’s charisma and his ability to influence and gain a following would categorize him as a leader, though only in a narrow, “personalized” way that exploits others for his own benefit (2006). Indeed, the dark side of Gekko’s self-aggrandizing manner combined with the ease in which he rationalizes away personal accountability is what lands him in prison and destroys so many around him. Gellerman would say that this is the type of dangerous executive who because of his motivations, is inherently prone to corporate misconduct and will not be looking to “exert a moral force within the company”(1986).
In the sequel, we also find Gekko stripped of his position and his fortune after he gets released from prison. Yet his influence remains, and financial circles inevitably follow him again with his new book release and provocative sound bites: “I once said greed is good…but now it seems it’s legal”. His new mantra to his new, enraptured younger audience is, “You are the Ninja Generation. No income. No job. No assets. You’re all pretty much f***ed”. While his charisma draws a following, he doesn’t empathize with them. He doesn’t paint them any inspiring vision of the future, either. According to Choi (2006), Gekko would do well to at least feign a smidgen of empathy, but Khurana aptly describes his new charismatic style of being the outsider looking in as a destructive impulse that inevitably destabilizes organizations (2002).
So, is Gekko a leader? I would say yes, but most definitely not the kind that Goodpaster, Barnard, or Khurana would point to. He acquired a following, and drew them in with power, influence, position and charisma, but in the end as Cadbury (1987) and Barnard (1938) highlight, there was a complete lack of responsibility in Gekko’s leadership that led to systemic unsustainability- and eventually - organizational and even personal failure.
I highly recommend you watch Wall Street 2, and leave you with a few parting questions:
1. Do you think Milton Friedman would like Gordon Gekko?
2. Interestingly, Oliver Stone’s original Wall Street came out about the same time as business ethics was the hot topic in business management- what does that say about the 80’s? What do you think is today’s new buzz word in leadership and management and what does that say about us and our time?
3. Gordon Gekko knew what he stood for and consistently played by his own rules in the movie. How does that differ from Cadbury’s (1986) understanding of ethical managers?