Tuesday, March 1, 2011
I read that Bernard Madoff has been reaching out from prison. He insinuated to a New York Times reporter that banks and prominent individuals were complicit with his fraudulent Ponzi scheme. That may be the case.
Languishing in prison gives a man considerable time to reflect on the bad decisions he made in the past. I suspect that deep regrets torment Madoff. While struggling with the reality that he likely will spend the remainder of his life inside federal prisons, he may resent that others who participated in his scheme do not share adjacent cells.
According to the article, Madoff may have been instrumental in helping the trustee recover considerable amounts of money for the victims. That seems a much more constructive use of his time. From my perspective, the best strategy a man in prison can take is to work toward reconciliation. All steps that lead toward redemption will help his spirit.
I know that Madoff is not a sympathetic figure. Many people suffered as a consequence of his fraud, and there doesn’t seem to be an excuse for such behavior. What I’ve come to accept, however, is that as human beings we’re all deeply flawed. We all make decisions that we would like to undo. Sometimes, pride gets in the way, blinding us from correcting course in time to preclude more damage. The problems grow in geometric rather than linear proportions.
Although I don’t know the details of Madoff’s case or all the motivations that drove him to perpetuate one fraud upon another, I do have some insight into what it is like to face personal pressures. When under those enormous pressures that come from promises that we would like to keep–but find ourselves incapable of keeping–we sometimes sacrifice our capacity to make good decisions. That happened to me once–it’s why I can empathize with others.
In my case, the problems originated with my efforts to live as a “pleaser.” I wanted to make others happy. Strange thing being a pleaser. There were times I would do things knowing that it could end badly, but I did it anyway. My senior business partner asked me to do something unethical, I did it. My branch manager told me to cover up wrong doing, I did it. Sometimes I wanted to, sometimes I didn’t. But I always knew it was wrong, yet the temptation to please, to gain acceptance, to be apart of something trumped all. That character flaw–of not being able to say no–coupled with modeling myself after the wrong role models in the wrong corporate culture precipitated my downfall.
Of course, I will never be happy I went to prison. I am, however, pleased that I found the discipline, the resilience to work, to introspect, to better understand both the motivations behind my decisions and the decisions themselves. That is the way to thrive through prison–and life. I can honestly say that I did not serve one day in prison; to the contrary the time served me.
In my books Lessons From Prison and Ethics in Motion, I detailed all that I learned from my bad decisions. It was a long journey getting here, but I am grateful to have found what I consider to be the ultimate win-win: I spend my days helping others and myself.