CBS and the Defining Moment of Ethical Leadership That Could Have Been

by Donna Boehme

Every Company, every organization, every CEO, every Board of Directors, and every Leader comes upon a rare Defining Moment that affords it the opportunity to define its values, demonstrate ethical leadership, set the always elusive “tone from the top”, and build trust in its employees, customers, business partners, the community, and all of its stakeholders. Entertainment giant CBS has just found – and squandered in the most spectacular way possible – its very own Defining Moment, handed on to it on a silver platter by none other than Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporter extraordinaire, he of #MeToo Harvey Weinstein fame, Ronan Farrow, in his not one, but TWO explosive New Yorker articles on sexual harassment and smarmy misdeeds by disgraced former Chairman/CEO, Les Moonves.  I didn’t think it possible, but Farrow was able to get 12 women on record confirming acts so despicable and smarmy that Moonves makes Weinstein look like a wayward boy scout.

I have written before about two examples of a company (Lockheed) and a leader (Pope Francis, the “Humble Pope”), which and who have masterfully used their own Defining Moments to great advantage.  As both have demonstrated (and Campbell’s drilled home in its iconic, funny TV commercials and marketing campaign described below), the time to make the right decision and capitalize fully on that Defining Moment is BEFORE you have taken an alternative, wrong-on-so-many-levels decision and embarked on a path of disaster that sends reputation, brand, earned trust and prospects into the dustbin of #EthicalLeadershipFailures, instead of soaring to the heavens, defining irreversibly for its customers, employees, business partners, communities, networks and prosperity exactly what it stands for, its values and principles, its driving purpose and degree of ethical leadership.

This immediately brings to mind the iconic strapline and brilliant circa 1970’s marketing campaign by Campbell’s vegetable juice product V8 (“The V is for Vegetables”): “Wow, I coulda had a V8”, in which hapless, clueless subjects realize that after drinking or eating any other product in the universe, with a loud ‘smack’ to the head, that they “coulda had a V8”.  We all remember those, don’t we?

CBS coulda had a V8.  CBS coulda had a Defining Moment of Ethical Leadership.  No company, Board, CEO, or Leader in recent memory has squandered a Defining Moment in as spectacular fashion, on the world stage, as CBS has just done, in its ham-fisted, disastrous, outrageously poor, morally bankrupt response to the Ronan Farrow expose, as detailed here.  Instead of seizing on its Defining Moment as the world was watching, CBS decided to respond by farming the matter out to its corporate lawyers and General Counsel who then engineered an outcome that reached new levels of corporate cluelessness, tone-deafness and professional and ethical malpractice: (1) Moonves allowed to resign but STAYING ON AS AN ADVISOR, with office space, services, and security for two years; (2) Paying $20 million to #MeToo charities (no doubt prescribed by its PR Wizards of Smart); (3)Paying his #MeToo money and putting $120 million in a grantor trust, which the disgraced Moonves may receive (less his #MeToo settlement money) upon conclusion of the ”with or without cause” investigation; (4) Issuing an internal memo that dodged any mention of sexual harassment or misconduct with an anorexic reference to diversity and cultural issues (PR Wizards of Smart clearly working overtime); and (4) Allowed Moonves to issue his own self-serving statement denying accountability and any bad acts.

Now let’s examine what a V8 woulda tasted and looked like: (1) A “public hanging” in the virtual corporate town square that fired and condemned Moonves for the specific causes and bad acts detailed by the New Yorker and Mr. Farrow; and (2) An open, transparent and honest statement to employees and the world.

This is what the “perp walk” and walk of shame on TV crime procedurals is all about.  But just as Campbell’s taught us in the 1970’s, it is way too late for CBS to salvage its reputation, brand, corporate soul and decades of hard-earned trust in its relationships.  Instead of “Looking forward” as new CEO Iannelo wrote in the subject line of his memo, CBS should be “Looking inward” – to rediscover and reclaim its values, morality, ethics, and corporate soul.  One Defining Moment of Ethical Leadership squandered, replaced by one spectacular Ethical Train-wreck.  Smh, I cry.  CBS coulda had a V8.

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