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January 24, 2014

Wolves, Gekkos and the consequences of unethical actions

One of the most talked about movies this January is the box office smash The Wolf of Wall Street. Over three hours it relays the tale of New Yorker Jordan Belfort, stockbroker and debauched con-artist, and is based on Belfort’s memoirs written post-imprisonment. He is also the son of accountants, as it happens, who dropped out of dentistry school to make "serious money."

Leonardo DiCaprio’s depiction of the fraudster has been highly lauded with potential Oscars in the pipeline. As well as the accolades for director Scorsese’s film, there has also been debate regarding how the excesses of the period are portrayed and, for some, the lack of focus on the victims and longer term impact of Belfort’s actions.

Scorsese will argue that was not the film’s purpose, positioned as an un-judgmental way of presenting the darker side of human beings. DiCaprio, in an interview with US magazine Variety, admits his interest in understanding "these people on Wall Street who’ve screwed over so many people since 2008."

Parking the question of artistic licence, it is worth remembering there are consequences to actions, even those that may not have been criminally intended. Belfort’s corrupt practices, including money laundering, clearly were.

I am not sure if such consequences are in the mind of those, as press reports show, who are throwing "Wolf on Wall Street" parties and special screenings on both sides of the Atlantic. These gatherings are both parodying and, one assumes for some, celebrating the "greed is good" philosophy.

As the UK’s Evening Standard reported one booking company had ”received unprecedented enquiries for its cinema venues, including from shipping companies, trading firms, banks and consultants, and has already organised half a dozen corporate screenings.”

In the Variety piece, DiCaprio recognises that "This film may be misunderstood by some; I hope people understand we’re not condoning this behavior, that we’re indicting it". Michael Douglas has been quoted as saying that young stockbrokers over the years have let him know that his depiction of Gordon Gekko – the "legendary" fictitious corporate raider in 1980s iconic film Wall Street – was their inspiration.

One wonders if Leo’s Belfort may create a similar "role model" that may usurp Gekko in years to come. Interestingly, the follow up to Wall Street in 2010, following Mr Gekko on his release from incarceration, together with his box like cell phone, did reflect the financial system’s shortcomings and contribution to the crisis.

With a growing focus on the culture of organisations and the importance of creating an environment to enable staff to "do the right thing" it is a priority for any business that aspires for long term success, to consider the consequences of their actions. Whatever the industry.

Challenging times lay ahead for business leaders, with actions under ever more scrutiny, both in real and cyber worlds. Have we learned from the mistakes that led to the recent global crisis, with so many clear and present dangers? CIMA, as with other professional accounting bodies, offers a range of resources and support to help guide both their members and their employers to act responsibly. In the interest of business, society and long term success.

We have released a short video message that raises important business challenges including bribery, banking scandals and human rights violations. Professionally, qualified management accountants have a central part to play in restoring trust in business around the world and to consider the consequences of short term actions and self-interest.

With a growing spotlight on corporate conduct, companies need to be ever more vigilant and to consider the public interest. However entertaining and gripping a Hollywood movie may be there are many more tales to be drawn from the narrative. When a film finishes its worth remembering, the story hasn’t.

Tanya’s previous blog postAs a great leader passes what can we learn?


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