by Steve Adubato, PhD

We've all been trying to make sense of this most recent wave of corporate executives acting badly. The President and Congress can do all they want to change certain laws regarding what corporations are required to report, but ultimately much of this corporate ethics problem comes down to leadership or the lack-there-of. What causes corporate executives to be to be less than honest, likely to blame others, unwilling to listen to "bad news" from those who work for them and ultimately to be insensitive to the pain we've caused to innocent people?

Last week, in the Ledger's Op-Ed section, an article contributed by Washington Post reporter Paul Farhi explored why it is that women in corporate America appear more likely to be "whistle blowers" exposing bad corporate behavior. Is there something inherently different about how men and women manage and lead in difficult situations? In general, are women basically more honest than men? Are they more comfortable with criticism and do they empathize more with those who have been hurt by corporate greed and/or misbehavior?

Stephanie Smith (a pseudonym to protect her) has been a corporate lawyer for fifteen years and has worked with and for men and women in very senior leadership positions. While none of this is an exact science, the experiences of corporate veterans is valuable. Says Stephanie, "Overall, the women in corporate America that I've dealt with are straighter shooters than men. They are more direct, they are better team players and they don't have to always have the spotlight on them." But what about the issue of honesty? Stephanie argues that there was and always will be a good old boys network in corporate America. Her sense is that men are obsessed with being part of the "in crowd" and are deathly afraid of being left "out." She says women never feel that they are "in" even in the highest corporate positions. Therefore, she says, "men are less likely to admit that there is a problem. They become 'yes' men."

Stephanie described several women who she has worked with who tried to report corporate wrongdoing and paid a heavy price. One woman, a vice president of operations at a major corporation, was privy to a series of fundamental accounting and corporate governance problems within the organization. She very much wanted to tell the CEO and CFO what she thought was wrong, but according to Stephanie was afraid of losing her job. Ultimately, she took an early retirement package even though she was only in her early fifties. This was top management's way of getting her out of the way and ignoring this very serious internal problem. That company's stock has dropped over 75 percent in the past three years.

So what about the issue of empathy? She says women, in general, have more empathy for those who are hurt by corporate shenanigans. As she was saying this, she stopped and said, "wait a minute, I'm not so sure about that." She remembered several women executives who she felt were pretty mean spirited and downright hurtful to those around them. Then she said, "on second thought, I think this one is more of an individual personality trait and isn't all that gender-related."

Martha Stewart notwithstanding, the question is, is Stephanie Smith right about the leadership styles of men and women? In general, if women were the CEO's in corporate America, would they be more honest, ethical, empathetic and decent than men? Or, is it something about being the CEO or other top corporate executive that encourages you to become an out of touch, insensitive liar regardless of gender? Write to me.