The Danger of Yes-Men

Ninth Sunday after Pentecost-Year B

He was the son of a Baptist preacher.  He chose to go into business; however, one of his sons did carry on the family tradition and become a Baptist minister.  As a corporate executive, he was the type of boss for whom you would want to work.  His employees said that it didn’t matter who you were-- from the most junior employee to his top executives, he treated them all with the same dignity and respect they deserved as children of God.

When asked in an interview how his faith impacted his approach to business, he said that he had a very strict code of personal conduct that was based on Christian values.  He was known to start business dinners with a prayer.

He believed in sharing his success with others.  The list of charities he supported is long and varied.  The American Heart Association, a camp school for the deaf, Child Advocates Inc., The Counsel for Alcohol and Drugs, an episcopal high School, his local United Methodist Church, the Holocaust Museum, a local women's center, a food bank, the NAACP, a breast cancer foundation, the Salvation Army, the United Negro College Fund, YMCA, think tanks, and universities. One year, he and his wife gave $100,000 to the United Way.

His company and its employees reflected their CEOs generosity.  They created a cancer prevention clinic, a Boys and Girls Club, professorships, and scholarships for high school students valued at $1.4 million.

In addition to being generous he was also described as honest, deceit, hardworking, and kind.

The financial world was shocked when the truth about Enron’s accounting practices started to come out.  The folks who worked at Enron could have told the analysts that the company’s core values—respect, integrity, communication and excellence—were merely PR flourishes in the company’s code of ethics handbook.

But what about the CEO, Ken Lay (that son of a Baptist preacher who ran his business according to Christian values)?  What did he know and when did he know it?  That was what the judicial system was still hammering out when Mr. Lay died of a heart attack.  He had been found guilty of fraud and was facing prison time.  However, the verdict was being appealed, and Ken Lay maintained his innocence to the end.

Maybe the financial officers of Enron had created a spreadsheet so convoluted and vague that even the CEO could not understand it and had no idea what was being done to hide the business’ debt and failures.  Maybe he was being given the impression that all was well and that the company deserved its title of “Most Innovative Company” in the world.  Even if this is true, I still find fault with him for surrounding himself with Yes-Men, people who would never report bad news, not to him, not to shareholders, not to customers.

Yes-Men are dangerous.  Yes-Men feed the fantasy that everything you do is great, honorable, smart, even virtuous.  

Enron’s Yes-Men had many reasons for holding back bad news.  If someone made a fantastic deal for millions of dollars and you were the one who had to sign off on the deal, there was incredible pressure put on you to give your approval.  Approving the deal meant the income could be reported on quarterly earnings reports.  Everyone who owned stock in the company wanted good earnings reports because this helped push the price of the stock higher.  Closing deals meant reaching sales targets and for those who met sales targets the rewards could translate into thousands, even millions of dollars in bonuses and stock options.

No one wanted to hear from the analyst who said “This deal is overvalued.”  “This deal will cost more than it will make.”  The analysts learned to keep their mouths shut and their concerns to themselves or risk having their climb up the corporate ladder come to a screech halt.  No-Men got transferred to dead-end jobs.  Yes-Men got promoted to the executive suite.  Ken Lay had a lot of Yes-Men working for him.

Still, no one saw it coming.  Everyone thought he was a good guy and a smart business man.  He certainly believed that about himself.  

The Bible makes it look easy to pick out the good guys from the bad guys.  As this morning’s the Psalter lesson says, the Bad Guy is the one “confounding the plans” of the poor.  The Good Guy is the one feeding the poor as Jesus does in the Gospel lesson.  

But I think people are more like David from the old testament lesson.  He’s the Lord’s anointed, he is victorious in battle, he lives in a fabulous palace and is adored by his people.  

He can justify to himself taking another man’s wife and conspiring to have her husband killed.  Hey, things happen in wartime.  Soldiers die.  And there he is ready to take in the poor widow and provide for her and her unborn child.  What a humanitarian.

How do we protect ourselves from ourselves, from our own tendency to justify everything we do, to see all of our actions as good enough, on the up-and-up . . . mostly.  How do we avoid the fate of Ken Lay, who was sure that God was guiding his career path, opening up doors of opportunity and that he just needed to walk through these openings without hesitation or second thought.  The blind faith that tells you you must be doing the right thing because A) you’re a Christian or B) you go to Church and C) God will lead you away from anything underhanded or any other rationalizations that support our delusions of self-righteousness.

Ken Lay was so sure of his business model that nothing could persuade him otherwise.  Did he change his business model when Congress and state governments failed to deregulate the energy market?  No.  Did he cut his losses when the technology to run his broadband division wasn’t available?  No.  Did he restructure the water subsidiary when it became evident that it was so poorly managed that they didn’t know how to bill customers or collect from them?  No.  

He just kept throwing money at the business model because he was so sure it could work.  And Enron executives kept hiding the losses because they were so sure that in time the losses would be covered by all the profits that their business plans would eventually deliver.  Hey, they were Enron.  They were the best and the brightest.  No one was smarter, no one knew more about the energy business.  They couldn’t fail.

There was no one there to say—this plan is no good, this model won’t work, we don’t have the expertise to pull off this strategy, we don’t know what we are doing.

We all have our blind spots, places in our lives where we can not be objective, and even if we are surrounded by nay-sayers, we still won’t be able to see things their way.  It’s a form of faith after all, not logic or rationality.  We believe because we believe and it’s hard to convince us otherwise.

Enron had a system of corporate oversight, but the people responsible were bullied into going along with what management wanted.  The church also has a system of oversight.  We do things by committees, not because it is the most effective way to get things done.  Not because we like to spend hours debating issues and listening to all sides.  No, we vote in committees to make sure no one person’s blind faith is leading the church down the wrong path.  

Religious groups have this unfortunate history of falling under the sway of charismatic leaders who claim to know the mind of the Almighty.  All the followers have to do is obey the leader and ask no questions because that would be a sign that they lack faith.

Committee work is preferable to blindly following one person’s interpretation of religious duty.  We can’t be sure the majority is always right and on the side of righteous, but a majority decision is favorable to getting a leader like a Ken Lay, who is so convinced of his goodness that he can’t see when he is making a mistake.

So let the church debate, about decorating the sanctuary, about buying an organ, about the parsonage trees, and the person with the most persuasive argument will sway the majority of the votes.

Such a decision-making process makes it clear that this is not a pronouncement handed down from heaven.  No angelic messenger showed up to tell the church what to do.  The burning bush did not speak.  It was just people, showing up for a meeting, voicing their opinions, pro and con, trying to convince others, voting, and then majority rules.  The process won’t save us from making mistakes as a church.  But maybe it can save us from delusions of self-righteousness.