A New Era of Stakeholder Activism: Why We Are Disoriented and What to Do About It – Part 3

By Keith Darcy and Morgan Hamel


The expectations of stakeholders of business have grown substantially over the past several decades and will continue to expand as the awareness and consciousness of society members continue to be raised through advanced media and information delivery systems. Perceiving social responsibility, however, as building shared value rather than as damage control or PR for the firm will require dramatically different thinking in business.

Historically, corporate thinking has viewed markets and, indeed, a firm’s social engagements as a zero-sum game based upon what they can “take” rather than “give.” Some companies continue to view customers and shareowners merely as actors to fulfill their self-interest. Yet recent events have made it clear that businesses can no longer manage or “spin” information that is freely and instantaneously available.

Unfortunately, the values and corporate ethics programs that companies have historically leaned on in difficult times are not providing protection in the way they once did. Rather, they create a high bar by which stakeholders measure action, and inconsistencies are pointed out promptly and publicly.

In addition, while the concept of “stakeholder capitalism” is appealing in theory, implementing it is rife with practical challenges. As Elliot Schrieber points out in his book “The Yin & Yang of Reputation Management: Eight Principles for Strategic Stakeholder Value Creation and Risk Management”:

“Generally speaking, value is the difference between what one gets that is perceived to be of benefit, and what one must give in order to get it. It is difficult to give more value to one stakeholder without diminishing value to others.”

What to Do

In 2012, Facebook introduced the “share” function, and the “like” button began to be used more widely. This, paired with a crisis in confidence for governments globally, has increased expectations for businesses and their leaders and has resulted in an entirely different landscape of business and risk management than that which existed before. Stakeholders have very high expectations of corporations and their leaders for topics that were previously considered the purview of governments. We call this distinction Pre 2012 and Post 2012 and suggest that it has created an environment in which the corporation is essentially naked, with inconsistencies between its formally stated commitments and actual practices exposed for all to see. Those responsible for managing risk, reputation, communications, ethics, ESG or business have good reason to be worried.

We suggest that managing risk in this new era requires that leaders/companies do the following:

  1. Develop skills at the Board and C-suite level to discuss topics that stakeholders perceive as moral/political
  2. Raise awareness of senior leaders/managers/PR/HR/Legal/Ethics/ESG of the rapidly emerging Post 2012 concerns
  3. Review current Speaking Up/Whistleblower Social Media policies/processes with a Post 2012 lens (either add stakeholder activism elements to these policies or develop stand-alone policies/procedures)
  4. Form a cross-functional team to proactively eliminate gaps between formally stated commitments and actual behaviour that could lead to a trust/reputation crisis
  5. Ensure a robust crisis management process to quickly address Post 2012 Problems when they arise
  6. Stress-test the system with cases and recalibrate where necessary

About the Authors

Morgan Hamel is President of MH Partners Inc., an independent consulting firm dedicated to helping firms navigate moral nuance to build long-term stakeholder value. Having earned a Master’s in Applied Ethics from Utrecht University (2010), worked in the ethics office of a large corporation for 11 years, and built a successful ESG-centric fashion marketing company, Morgan brings together the academic, corporate, and entrepreneurial elements of ethics and business in a unique and accessible way. She has a particular passion for helping organizations work through challenges resulting from rapidly emerging stakeholder activism and has a strong desire to contribute to a better world for her two children.

Keith Darcy is President of Darcy Partners Inc., a boutique consulting firm founded in 2002 that works with boards and senior executives on a wide variety of complex corporate governance, ethics, compliance, and reputation risk challenges. Therein he has worked across six continents and in all business sectors. He has combined a 45-year career as a senior executive and corporate director with his passion for education, having taught at The Wharton School for 24 years and served as associate dean and distinguished professor of business at Georgetown University.

A New Era of Stakeholder Activism: Why We Are Disoriented and What to Do About It – Part 2

An Essay by Keith Darcy and Morgan Hamel

Previously, employees and other stakeholders were reluctant to raise concerns and lacked an effective means to do so. Today, however, social media has changed the game completely – stakeholders everywhere have awakened to their power to demand seismic changes in the way businesses conduct themselves.

A report from the law firm Herbert Smith Freehills (HSF) warns of an unprecedented rise in workplace activism across all sectors and geographies, with 95% of respondents envisaging a rise in employees making their voices heard over social media in the next five years. Respondents to the survey said that workforce activism could result in a loss of revenue up to 25% per year.

We’re seeing this play out in real-time as global companies (still catching their breath from the pandemic) race to distance themselves from doing business with and/or in Russia. Hundreds of companies have ceased or suspended operations in the country, and while these actions feel appropriate to many witnessing the atrocities, devastation, and loss of innocent life in Ukraine, it raises questions about which causes companies care about, and how far they are willing to go to satisfy which stakeholders.  Management consultant Laurence Duarte points out that some are questioning whether companies should have to take a stand against Russia, given strife elsewhere in the world. She raises the point that if brands act in Russia they might be asked to do the same in China over human rights violations or where their business interests may be significantly larger.

Witness Disney’s CEO Bob Chapek’s late response to the “Don’t Say Gay” bill signed into law by Florida Governor Ron DeSantis. It was later disclosed that Disney had made political contributions to lawmakers who voted for the bill. Mr. Chapek’s memo to employees seeking to explain Disney’s silence on the anti-LGBTQ legislation poured gasoline on the issue instead and immediately started the hashtag #Boycott Disney movement. He later announced a $5 million grant to the Human Rights Campaign, which immediately rejected the offer and immediately removed Disney’s name as a corporate sponsor of their annual gala. Since this company crisis emerged Disney’s stock fell over 15%. Until this issue arose Disney has long boasted of its efforts for being at the forefront of the LGBTQ+ movement.

Similarly in Texas, 65 corporations – including IBM, Apple, and Capital One – signed a letter in the Dallas Morning News opposing Governor Greg Abbott’s investigation of instances where young children are being treated for transitioning. More recently, Citigroup announced it would pay travel costs for employees affected by the restrictive abortion law in that state. Uber, Match Group, and Salesforce have introduced similar policies, and the leak of Roe v Wade has ratcheted up pressure on corporations.

This poses a significant challenge for leaders and companies who have so far been able to squeak under the stakeholder activism radar with neatly framed board room posters highlighting corporate values like “integrity”. As Alison Taylor – executive director of Ethical Systems and adjunct professor at the Stern School of Business – points out, “The Roe v. Wade leak shows that cynically stoking the culture wars for short term brand advantage is ultimately a pyrrhic victory. Internally, stakeholder capitalism rhetoric has unleashed armies of purpose warriors who know that if their demands aren’t met, strategic leaking offers a powerful form of leverage. Externally, touting your “purpose” can stoke domestic and international political risk.” Executives find that increasingly they have to take a stand on divisive social issues such as reproductive rights because their workforce and customer base has strong opinions on the subjects. The challenge? Stakeholders don’t always feel the same about moral topics in business. These issues can have significant implications for recruitment and retention of employees and on customer loyalty.

These are just a few instances where stakeholders’ perceptions of what’s right or moral can have enormous implications for companies and their leaders whose personal reputations are at risk if they’re caught flat-footed. All it takes is for an issue to go viral to impact employee and customer responses, as well as to affect shareholder value.

Stakeholder Activism – Employees

It is an age of restructuring, re-engineering, rightsizing, reorganizing, and flattening of organizations. As employees reluctantly trade the comforts of the old social contract (job security for modest pay), dependence upon and loyalty to the company has been replaced by estrangement and cynicism.

Employees, customers, and shareholders are putting pressure on companies to make public commitments regarding pressing issues such as: diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI); climate change; pandemic safety; environment, social and governance (ESG); and Russia’s war Ukraine. A recent Financial Times survey asked business leaders where the greatest pressure to speak up was coming from. More than 70% cited employees. Attracting and retaining employees today depends upon acting on the company’s stated values, something especially important to Generations Y and Z, who make up the majority of today’s workforce.

Failure to respond to stakeholders in a way that they find satisfactory can have extremely negative consequences for both leaders and their organizations. In 2018, for example, 20,000 employees of Google walked out to protest sexual harassment, racial and gender discrimination, and an end to forced arbitration. Among the issues was the severance payment of $90 million to one of the company’s top executives who resigned in a sexual harassment case.

Similarly, in 2019, over 4 million employees in 150 countries walked out to protest the lack of urgent plans by businesses worldwide regarding climate change.

The cost for leaders who fail to adequately navigate the moral demands of their employees is high. In 2020, Yael Aflalo, CEO of fashion brand Reformation, stepped down after accusations of racism by a former employee, only to be found “not racist” in an investigation. The report, conducted by the law firm Morgan, Lewis and Bockius LLP and published in October 2020 found the “workplace culture is not ‘racist’,” and asserted it “did not find any evidence that [former CEO and founder Yael Aflalo’s] conduct toward any Reformation employee was racially motivated.” Aflao’s reputation was nevertheless severely compromised.

Stakeholder Activism – Shareholders

Over the past decade, there has been a dramatic increase in shareholder activism to exert pressure on management regarding certain issues. Some of these include:

  • Racial and gender gaps, including on boards of directors demanding plans for improved diversity, equity, and inclusion
  • Environmental, social and governance (ESG) plans by the company
  • Excessive executive compensation viz a viz the rank and file
  • Governance weaknesses
  • Purpose versus profits as well as stakeholder capitalism

Increasingly, shareholders look to business as critical to leading change on a variety of social issues, especially given the inability of governments to effectively deal with them.

Last year, a case example occurred when Engine No. 1 purchased a very small stake in Exxon/Mobil, and enlisted support from BlackRock, Vanguard and State Street Bank. It enabled Engine No. 1 to place three directors on Exxon’s board to accelerate plans to reduce carbon emissions, the failure of which would have significant negative consequences on its long-term financial performance. Subsequently, Exxon’s shares have risen dramatically.

Elsewhere, Goldman Sachs is subject to a class-action lawsuit by several teachers’ unions for securities fraud resulting in $13 billion in losses from material misstatements and failure to disclose conflicts of interest. Specifically, the shareholders claimed Goldman made generic representations in earlier SEC filings that inflated its stock price, including: “We have extensive procedures and controls that are designed to identify conflicts-of-interest; honesty and integrity is at the heart of our business; our representation is at the heart of our business;” and “our clients’ interests always come first.” The Supreme Court returned the case back to the Second Circuit Court of Appeals for clarification.

The outcome of this case will have significant ramifications. Can organizations be held legally accountable for their words, stated beliefs, and values or are they merely marketing slogans which have no meaning? In an age of “purpose over profit;” ESG (environment, social, governance) and corporate responsibility statements are proliferating companies may now need to be extremely cautious in their public pronouncements. However the Goldman Sachs case is resolved, executives must be reminded that words without actions are an empty chalice, and stakeholders everywhere are taking notice. The focus on social issues by shareholders has risen dramatically and represents an important seismic shift in long-term investing.

Stakeholder Activism – Customers

Given the extraordinary availability of information, customers (as well as employees, shareholders, and regulators) are acutely aware of gaps between a company’s stated values and its actual practices. Company brands can be destroyed by overstating intentions or worse, exposing significant gaps between their words and actions. The organization “Brand Trust” surveyed over 12,000 people globally and found that 71% said that if they perceive a company as prioritizing profit over people, they’ll lose trust in the company forever.

The challenge for all businesses today is significant: customers are looking for leadership on issues of real consequences, and they are aligning their dollars with their ideals. Indeed, 58% of Edelman Trust Barometer respondents (2022) said they would buy or advocate for brands based on their beliefs and values. Issues demanding attention include:

  • High cost of healthcare
  • Education
  • Climate change and sustainability
  • Gender equity
  • Racism
  • Inclusion
  • Gun violence
  • Voting rights
  • Etc.

Protecting a company’s brand is essential to its long-term success. Companies that have suffered the consequences of their actions include:

  • Uber’s loss of subscribers when its frat culture was exposed.
  • VW and its involvement in creating “defeat devices” to manipulate the EPA carbon emission tests cost the company over $40 billion in settlements and lawsuits, as well as an extraordinary loss of reputation.
  • Wells Fargo and a completely misguided compensation system that led to cheating their customers caused long-term brand damage.
  • And in the recent trial of Elizabeth Holmes, ex-CEO at Theranos, the defence argued unsuccessfully that her public claims of success were mere puffery and aspirational.

In a crowded marketplace, companies strive for a unique selling proposition that can separate them from the competition in the minds of consumers. Customer loyalty can be built upon those companies whose distinctive ethical values are outward-facing and stakeholder supportive. Companies like Starbucks, Patagonia, Wegman’s, and Costco have long understood the benefits of good corporate citizenship. These companies have a distinct advantage in that they were clear about what they stood for in the beginning. Companies late to the “purpose” game are wise not to overstate their commitment to social causes lest they be accused of being inauthentic and “purpose washing.”

Stakeholder Activism – Communities

Peter Drucker believed that firms were accountable to society beyond the bottom line. According to Drucker: “Free enterprise cannot be justified as being good for business; it can only be justified only as being good for society.” Drucker’s primary focus was on creating and satisfying customers and those external to the enterprise. Thus, as social issues arise creating negative externalities impacting the community, he believed business had social obligations to address them. 

The recently released Edelman Trust Barometer Study found that stakeholders do not believe business is doing enough to address societal issues (52% on climate change; 49% on economic equality; 46% on workforce reskilling).

As companies attempt to position their activities as values-based and beneficial to their stakeholders, they are increasingly being challenged to put their words into action. For example, Lululemon, Canada’s official sponsor of the Olympic and Paralympic games recently faced criticism in Calgary when stakeholders pointed out that one of their stores was not wheelchair accessible.  The City of Calgary was pulled into the controversy when it was disclosed that local laws prohibited changes to the heritage building that would allow wheelchairs. Situations like this, where unknowing organizations (in this case, The City of Calgary) are unwittingly pulled into a moral controversy are becoming commonplace.

A New Era of Stakeholder Activism: Why We Are Disoriented and What to do About It

By Morgan Hamel and Keith Darcy

Part 1


In 1970, Alan Toffler and his wife, Adelaide Farrell, wrote a best-selling book, Future Shock, wherein he defined the title of the book as “disorientation due to premature accelerated change.” Toffler wrote that the speed of change leaves us confused and disoriented. Looking back, however, the environment in 1970 looks more like a three-layer cake compared to today’s increasingly complex world. As the once familiar maps and guideposts blur, we grope into the future seeking a new understanding of the world and our responsibilities in it

Today’s extraordinary speed of change has contributed to an age of disruption:

As if these issues aren’t enough, leaders everywhere are keenly focused on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and its potential impact on businesses everywhere, as well as concern for the potential for the war expanding into NATO territory.

No one is immune from these issues. Board members, C-suite leaders, ethics and compliance executives, ESG professionals, management consultants and academics have been shaken by world events and trends leaving them “disoriented.”

In days past, companies relied upon well-written statements of values, codes of ethics, sustainability reports and PR campaigns to address stakeholder concerns. The corporate world order as we knew it, however, isn’t what it used to be. It has taken on a moral dimension that presents new challenges to leaders everywhere. A quote by the renowned ethics professor Kirk Hanson captures this shift:

“I am convinced we are now seeing a long-term trend, indeed, a megatrend, that companies, boards, and business associations will (be forced to) speak out on a limited set of issues many will still call political but are actually critical ethical questions. The challenge for companies is to be able to recognize the genuine moral issues and act on them before inaction destroys public confidence in them.”

While one may or may not agree with Kirk Hanson’s framing (Joe Zammit-Lucia makes a compelling argument that these issues are political), many stakeholders view issues that were previously the purview of governments as “moral” and as topics that require action by business and their leaders. Companies are wise to realize this.

About the Authors

Morgan Hamel is President of MH Partners Inc., an independent consulting firm dedicated to helping firms navigate moral nuance to build long-term stakeholder value. Having earned a Master’s in Applied Ethics from Utrecht University (2010), worked in the ethics office of a large corporation for 11 years, and built a successful ESG-centric fashion marketing company, Morgan brings together the academic, corporate, and entrepreneurial elements of ethics and business in a unique and accessible way. She has a particular passion for helping organizations work through challenges resulting from rapidly emerging stakeholder activism and has a strong desire to contribute to a better world for her two children.

Keith Darcy is President of Darcy Partners Inc., a boutique consulting firm founded in 2002 that works with boards and senior executives on a wide variety of complex corporate governance, ethics, compliance, and reputation risk challenges. Therein he has worked across six continents and in all business sectors. He has combined a 45-year career as a senior executive and corporate director with his passion for education, having taught at The Wharton School for 24 years and served as associate dean and distinguished professor of business at Georgetown University.

At 50

For Lynne
by Keith Darcy

On June 17, 1972 I married the love of my life.

We met in college when I was a senior and she a freshman. It was love at first sight. I was immediately smitten by Lynne, a beautiful brunette filled with sunshine, unbridled joy, and optimism. It was at a time when my world was shrouded by darkness and seemingly without hope. I was quickly drawn to her radiance. There was an energy I had never witnessed or experienced before, or since. She was fully alive, while I was struggling through significant first family dysfunctions and rejection.

We were both young, innocent, with visions of an exciting journey together. Little did Lynne or I know how chaotic the road would be that lay ahead of us. Despite all the family wars to be fought, Lynne was constantly leading us to embrace all that life has to offer. She was never deterred, always hopeful that something positive would emerge just around the corner. Notwithstanding all of my doubts and negativity, she made me believe that anything and everything in life was and is possible. To this day she remains a constant, a rock in a world that had been ever changing and challenging around us. Her presence is fully ennobling.


As a youngster and teenager, I was shy, afraid of rejection (a natural development from having been emotionally abandoned and abused by my family). I dated very little during my formative years. I imagined that, perhaps someday in my late thirties, I might settle down with someone, who, like me, shared the awkwardness of searching for a mate. I never envisioned that love, real love, was something I would experience. I didn’t know what it was. And then, this beautiful brunette in a mini-skirt landed in my lap – and fifty years later continues to walk with me and illuminate the road ahead.

Trying to find words to describe Lynne does not easily capture her essence.

First and foremost, she has always been the greatest wife, mother, best friend, and love of my life.

As mother of our children, Lynne did everything for our kids. She created an art box for Erin and set up a drum set for Tim, encouraging their creativity. She planted flowers with them in the spring, swam with them in the summer, played in piles of leaves in the fall, and built snowmen in the winter. When it rained, she painted their faces, took them everywhere they needed to be, and gave them unconditional love. She was there, always there, even when I wasn’t, physically or emotionally.

Without Lynne, my life most certainly would have been entirely different. David Brooks wrote in his book, The Social Animal, “Ultra-motivated people are driven by a deep sense of existential danger. They often meet someone who shows them the way, and who fires their sense of possibilities.” It was Lynne who orchestrated my salvation from an emotional dungeon.

She supported all my career decisions, including the many bad decisions I made. I can’t imagine what she thought when I decided to go to seminary in my mid-30’s and, later, when I told her I wanted to quit a successful career in banking to embark on a journey in a then non-existing profession in business ethics. She never hesitated. During that time there were over two years where I earned less than $40,000 collectively, which was especially painful and financially punitive at a time when Erin was going off to college. She remained my rock. I remember that night in a restaurant on M Street in D.C. when she asked me if I wanted to quit my prestigious position at Georgetown and return to New York. She was enjoying her experience living in Washington, D.C. immensely, and teaching at The National Cathedral School. She could see, however, that I felt defeated and depressed. Once again, she subordinated her needs and interests to mine.

Ten days before her fiftieth birthday, I was sitting in my home office and was inspired to write an article about her. When finished, I neatly put it in an envelope and mailed it to a local newspaper. What follows is an excerpt from that article written 21 years ago.


The person who has had the greatest influence on my life is my wife and sweetheart, Lynne. In June 2020 we will be married 29 years. She entered my life 32 years ago as a college freshman, jumping on my lap as I sat in the passenger seat of an open Jeep on campus and introducing herself. She was simply adorable, had legs all the way up to her neck, and a smile that radiated through me. I never felt such an energy and life force in my life. It was this energy that eventually carried me out of the darkness of a home plagued by alcoholism. She showed me that I could have a life worth living.

I have learned many things over the years from Lynne. She believes life is not something you plan in advance, but an adventure to be lived every day with new possibilities ever present. Flat tires, interruptions, and job loss open different paths to be explored.

The poet David Whyte wrote, “You’ll know you’re on the path (to happiness) when the path in front of you disappears.” Lynne has lived on the Path of Life for as long as I’ve known her. She has long espoused that life is the gift we have been given. What we do with our life is our gift in return. As the Buddha observed, “The Great Way is not difficult. Only do not make distinctions. Take away the likes and dislikes. Then everything is perfectly clear.”

Given this clarity about life, Lynne has an astonishing sense of truth and lives in it. Her grounded-ness, and the exciting possibilities of abrupt change, allows her not to live in some delusion of the present or future. The truth is the truth. It is both compelling and disarming and, to some that live outside reality, possibility threatening. In all, it is part of the life force that Lynne exudes.

Lynne has a child-like innocence. She sees the world as simple and fundamentally good.  She lights up observing the spontaneity of children, animals, birds, and people. The beauty of sunsets, full moons, storm clouds, and snow mesmerizes her. She gasps at the majesty of mountains and the song of the river. She sees the reflections, hears the acoustics, and understands the rhythm of life as no one I have ever known.

Because of Lynne, I can now see every leaf on every tree, enjoy the taste of pancakes, inhale the smell of church, feel the dew on the grass, and experience perpetual dawns. I am no longer at war with the world. I am in love.

For 32 years, Lynne has, through the sacrament of presence, taught me the joy of living. “Tomorrow is a new day. I wonder what adventure will be in store for us,” she constantly proclaims I have never met a more beautiful person in my life, inside and out. She is a generous, caring, loving person. I truly believe there was divine intervention when Lynne came into my life. I have been extraordinarily blessed in this, our shared journey.


I haven’t always been easy to live with. But, then again, no one said life would be easy. We’ve grown old(er) together and gotten used to each other. We finish each other’s sentences and read each other’s mind. At this stage of my life, however, I never take for granted how lucky I am to share my life with the greatest person I have ever known.

Lynne’s the one that could always see the light, especially when I couldn’t. She still fascinates and inspires me and remains the number one earthly reason for my existence. We are now married 50 years. I cannot imagine a life without her. I am saddened only by the realization that someday it is likely I will leave this life before her (the women in her family live forever). Despite that, I know the day will come thereafter when I will be re-united with a beautiful brunette, who will greet me and will then jump in my lap, and we will live eternally in love, forever.

Lynne Darcy, I am madly in love with you, have been since the moment I saw you, and will always be.


Proverbs 31: 10-11

Who can find a good woman?
She is precious beyond all things.
Her husband’s heart trusts her beyond all things.
She is his best reward.

“There are souls in this world who have the gift of finding joy in everything and leaving it behind them when they go.”

Frederick William Faber

I Believe

Growing up in the Bronx in the 1950s I was still in my single digits. Television was in its infancy. Our first t.v. had a three inch screen, and later we graduated to a thirteen inch set, both black and white. One of my favorite shows in those early days was Peter Pan starring Mary Martin, a story about the innocence of childhood and the desire to never grow up. The show was a live production staged without a studio audience, although it attracted 65 million viewers, a record for its time. I saw it several times over the decade before it disappeared for unknown reasons.

In 1989 the show returned to television. It immediately took me back to my childhood love of the show. There was one scene that particularly grabbed me. It was the moment that Peter was about to drink the poison when Tinkerbell swooped in and quickly gulped it down to spare Peter’s life. Her light began to flicker signaling the mortal danger she placed herself in. Peter turned to the camera, broke through the fourth wall and asked the audience:

“Do you believe in fairies? Oh, please, please believe! And wherever you are, clap your hands.”

As a kid I clapped my hands so hard I thought I might take off like a butterfly. As an adult, however, I was caught by the words, “Do you believe…” It gave me pause to consider what is it that I believed. Shortly thereafter I sat down and wrote the following (written 33 years ago), which I recently found:

I believe

– George Steinbrenner screwed up the Yankees

– Elvis does not live in Wisconsin

– Greater downtown Buffalo is really an oxymoron

– George Washington told a little white lie…

….and Richard Nixon told a big black one.

– The moon isn’t made of cheese

– The world is round (except from Tulsa to Dallas)

– Spauldeens bounce higher than Pensy Pinkies

– And if it itches, scratch it.

I believe

– Barbara Streisand has an extraordinary voice

– Cher doesn’t (but I like her anyway)

– Sammy Davis Jr. was a gifted entertainer

– Roger Maris always belonged in the Hall of Fame (without an asterisk)…

…and that Gil Hodges and Phil Rizzuto belong there, too…

…and until Pete Rose acknowledges he has a problem, he doesn’t.

I believe

– Nacho Cheese Flavored Doritos

– Entenmann’s Crumb Cake

– Breyers Vanilla Bean Ice Cream

are all candidates for the junk food Hall of Fame.

And that

– Hellman’s Real Mayonnaise

– Goulden’s Spicy Brown Mustard

are candidates for the condiment Hall of Fame.

I believe

– my heart beat rapidly at age 9 for Natalie Wood when she appeared in West Side Story

– and that my heart still beats rapidly for my wife, lover and best friend.

I believe

– in rainbows

– sunbeams

– moon drops

– and twinkling stars

– that leaves fall in autumn, but will grow back in the spring…

…and people, like dandelions, will grow back after stepping on them.

I would like to meet the Maker of Dew, the Inventor of Rain.

I believe

– creepy, crawly caterpillars turn into beautiful butterflies

– that every snowflake is beautiful and unique

and that every person born into this world is equally beautiful and unique.

I believe

– that children believe in

  • Santa Claus
  • Tooth fairies
  • Easter bunnies
  • And monster under the bed

…and I believe in children

…and I believe in fairies (clap, clap).

I believe

– there is no smell so fresh as a forest after a rainstorm

                        (except maybe a baby after a bath)

– the banana is unique in color, shape, texture, and taste

– nothing grows faster than corn (except 14 year old boys).

I believe

– people of color have less opportunities

– Martin Luther King Jr. was an extraordinary person

and a loving witness to peaceful co-existence.

I believe

– the world is filled with limitless opportunities

and that there is unlimited potential in each of us.

I believe

– strategic plans and business projections don’t excite me as much in my 30’s and they did in my 20’s

– that there is massive alienation and estrangement in the work force

– and that people at work desire, intellectual, emotional, and spiritual growth, and that without it the soul dies.

– I believe my parents were both alcoholics

                        and that they would have loved me if they could.

– that smoke is offensive, even though I smoked for over 20 years

– and that booze will kill you just as surely as it killed my mother and father

                        and destroyed my family.

I believe

– death, isolation, and loneliness hurt.

I believe in Love

and that Love conquers all things.

I believe

– in God

– in God’s unconditional love and forgiveness

– in angels and miracles and the power of prayer

– and that we can know God through the love of each other.

Most of all I believe in you, and I believe in me.

In an interview with Joseph Campbell in the late 1980’s Bill Moyers asked: “Joe, do you have faith?” to which he answered, “Faith? No, I don’t have faith. I have experience.”

“Oh, do you believe….?” Clap your hands.

“Oh, please, please believe! And wherever you are, clap your hands.”

Peter Pan

Keith Darcy is President of Darcy Partners Inc., a boutique consulting firm that works with boards and top executives on a wide variety of complex governance, ethics, compliance, and reputation risk challenges. Website: Darcy.Partners

God’s Work and Conflicts of Interest

[Click above to download full article to be published in REVUE INTERNATIONALE DE LA COMPLIANCE ET DE L’ÉTHIQUE DES AFFAIRES.]

U.S. Supreme Court, June 21, 2021, Goldman Sachs et. al. v. Arkansas Teachers Retirement System et. al.


In November 2009, the world was still recovering from the catastrophic impact of the Great Recession. In response to criticism of the firm’s outsized bonuses, then CEO of Goldman Sachs (Goldman), Lloyd Blankfein, justified the bonuses in an interview with The Times of London by declaring: “We are doing God’s work”.

In 2011, a group of investors filed a securities-fraud class action lawsuit against Goldman and a group of executives, including Blankfein, for trading losses in Goldman’s stock (purported to be $13 billion) resulting from making material misstatements and failure to disclose conflicts-of- interest related to certain collateralized debt obligations (CDO). This lawsuit was brought by several retirement funds following a settlement by Goldman with the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) for $550 million for misleading investors, as well as an investigation launched by the Department of Justice (DOJ), which resulted in a steep price decline. Specifically, the shareholders claimed that Goldman made generic representations in earlier SEC filings which inflated its stock price, including: “we have extensive procedures and controls that are designed to identify and address conflicts-of-interest”; “integrity and honesty are at the heart of our business”; “our reputation is one of our most important assets”, and; “our clients’ interests always come first”.

While there are numerous complex legal technicalities embedded in this case, this article is focused on 2 critical issues: (1) the importance of this decision going forward, and; (2) the potential impact on the ethics and compliance profession.

The Importance of this Decision

On June 21, 2021, the U.S. Supreme Court (The Court) reviewed whether the certification of class, which was approved by the Second Circuit Court of Appeals, was complete. The Court held that the generic nature of misrepresentation is important evidence of price impact in determining whether and when to certify a class in a class action suit. In addition, the Court held that the defendant (Goldman) bears the burden of persuasion to prove a lack of price impact at the certification stage. As a result, the Court returned the lawsuit to the Second Circuit Court of Appeals to reconsider whether it had properly considered the generic nature of Goldman’s misrepresentations based upon the trial court’s determination of the record evidence on price impact – specifically, did these statements artificially inflate Goldman’s stock.

The materiality of generic integrity statements by companies is now in the spotlight of legal proceedings. Whether Goldman’s generic statements in fact caused the price of its stock to be artificially maintained is a $13 billion question that will be addressed by the Second Circuit Court of Appeals on remand from the Court2. Interestingly, when arguments were presented in March, both parties agreed that general misrepresentations asserting corporate integrity could be held actionable and give rise to fraud claims. Instead, the focus was narrowly limited to procedural rules regarding shareholder class actions. The more nuanced question remaining that divided the Court is who bears the burden of proving or disproving “price impact” for class certification.

This decision will have a long lasting impact on: (1) generic statements being held as actionable; (2) the impact of such statements on stock price, and; (3) whether they constitute the basis for certifying a class of plaintiffs and, thereby, expanding the potential liability of a defendant in a fraud class action lawsuit.

The Potential Impact on the Ethics and Compliance Profession

Can organizations be legally held accountable for their words, stated beliefs, and values, or are they merely marketing slogans, which have no meaning? In an age when “purpose over profit”, ESG (environmental, social and governance), and corporate social responsibility statements are proliferating, companies may now need to be extremely cautious in their public pronouncements.

Ethics and compliance executives are responsible for overseeing a growing range of risk domains. Their responsibilities begin with ensuring the company meets its obligations to laws, regulations, and company policies – the formal system. As the ethics and compliance profession has evolved, regulators and enforcement authorities are increasingly demanding companies to focus more on ethics, culture and integrity initiatives – the informal system – and less on adding layers of rules and procedures. Ethics and compliance executives play a prominent role in shaping the culture at their respective organizations. Culture is a system of values based upon the underlying assumptions, beliefs, attitudes and expectations shared by an organization.

MIT Professor Emeritus Edgar Shein, considered by many as the leading thinker on corporate culture, believes culture is captured through: (1) a company’s artifacts, i.e. language, rites and ceremonies, legendary stories, as well as myths and legends; (2) the formal and publicly stated values espoused by the company, and; (3) how things really get done, i.e. are a company’s words and actions consistent and in alignment.

The questions confronting ethics and compliance executives from the Goldman case are: (1) do words matter? and; (2) if so, how will it impact organizations going forward? Regarding the former question, in this case both plaintiffs and the defendant (and the Court) agree that misrepresentations are actionable and can be the basis of fraud claims. The latter question, however, focused on who is responsible for proving price impact on class certification. The answer to the latter question will determine the extent of liability in such fraud cases.

Joe Murphy, a pioneering global leader in the ethics and compliance profession, worries that if companies can be sued for their compliance and ethics words, it won’t be long before in-house lawyers are telling us “Don’t say anything about ethics and compliance in writing”, concerned that that these statements are mere bait for plaintiff lawyers. What companies will be willing to make such pronouncements in their annual reports, recruiting material, training programs, or marketing brochures? Who will be willing to make presentations at conferences about their company’s code of ethics, or in keynote speeches by top executives? It seems likely we may see more statements that are merely “aspirational”, rather than standards, ideals, or goals for the firm to achieve. The extent to which companies dilute its statements of values, how will it impact corporate culture, or a company’s brand?


Clearly, the outcome of this case will have a significant impact for years to come on companies, as well as on ethics and compliance executives in managing fraud risks. I have long said that words without actions are an empty chalice. The outcome of this case opens the possibility of significant personal and corporate liabilities. Ultimately, the answer will determine which companies are really doing “God’s work”.

1 See V. Dindzans et al., SCOTUS Vacates Class Certification in Suit against Goldman Sachs and Clarifies Appropriate Scope of Price Impact: Goodwin Law, July 27, 2021.

2 See M. Scott Barnard et. al., SCOTUS Remands Securities Class Action Back to the 2nd Circuit: Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld LLP, July 28, 2021.

Keith Darcy is President of Darcy Partners Inc., a boutique consulting firm that works with boards and top executives on a wide variety of complex governance, ethics, compliance, and reputation risk challenges. Website: Darcy.Partners

Back to the Future?

By Keith Darcy

After all we’ve been through, how do we get back to the future? And is that the future we want to get to?

As we all know too well, the fallout from the pandemic has been overwhelming. Fear, combined with social isolation, has resulted in unimagined loneliness and depression. Death and grief have consumed the entire world. Blurred boundaries between work and family have resulted in the feeling that we’ve lost control, leaving us anxious, spinning our wheels. Our coping mechanisms have been lost, our energy is spent, and enthusiasm is gone.

You cannot fix what you cannot talk about.

Last year, life expectancy in the United States fell by a full year due to the virus, deaths by drug overdoses, and heart attacks. Black and Latino communities were especially hit hard. Black Americans lost 2.7 years, and Latinos 1.9 years, while white Americans lost 0.8 years. Similarly, Covid-19 highlighted healthcare inequity that communities of color face, evidenced by identified cases and deaths, which amplified the social and economic disparities that result in poor health outcomes. While many Americans are facing severe economic hardship resulting from the pandemic, Black and Latino Americans have experienced hardships at significantly higher rates than white people.

Mothers disproportionately lost their jobs, along with any financial security. Two million five hundred thousand mothers left the workforce, while 1,800,000 men left the workforce. Parents who were able to work from home simultaneously juggled childcare, education, household chores on top of their professional duties. “Covid-19 took a crowbar to gender gaps and pried them open,” said Betsey Stevenson, an economist at the University of Michigan. In addition to the economic fallout on mothers is the mental health crisis and how it is affecting their children. There has been a surge of pediatric emergency admissions for mental issues like panic and anxiety. In 2020, ER admissions for mental issues rose 24% for young children and 31% for adolescents. Social isolation and remote learning have significantly impacted the social, emotional, and mental well being of young people. Trauma faced at this developmental stage can continue to affect them across their lifespan.

While progress in addressing the pandemic is evident in rising vaccines, declining number of cases identified and lower deaths reported, Covid-19 isn’t done with us. Variants are appearing, and India, Brazil and elsewhere in the southeast Asia and the southern hemisphere, which represents significant risks to the rest of the world.

Given all this, what does the future hold in store for us? We should not be naïve to think that “business as usual” is just around the corner, or that we’re headed back to the future we imagined before the pandemic arrived.

As the science fiction author and essayist William Gibson once wrote, “The future has already arrived. It’s just not evenly distributed.” This is not just true in the United States, but it’s also true across the globe. The pandemic is a global issue. We cannot move forward safely in this country until everyone can move forward in theirs.

When the pandemic arrived at our door unannounced last year the familiar refrain was, “We’re all in this together.” Yet we experienced significant divisiveness throughout 2020. Race and gender issues exploded. While we are making significant gains against the virus, we must still address the many critical issues it has exposed.

The gift of life comes with responsibility. And while we are not obligated to complete the work, neither are we free to ignore it.

The starting point is to acknowledge what ails us. You cannot fix what you cannot talk about. America – and the world – has been severely wounded. In addition to the gender, racial, emotional, and economic impact of the pandemic, our roads and bridges are broken, tunnels and rail lines in disrepair, the power grid is failing, education and healthcare is a mess, and climate change represents a global existential threat. It’s well past time to set aside our differences and work together toward, and invest in, a future worthy of our children and grandchildren. The gift of life comes with responsibility. And while we are not obligated to complete the work, neither are we free to ignore it. Our life will ultimately not be measured by what we complete, but by what we start.

Events of the past year turned our lives upside-down. The present isn’t what it was, and the future isn’t what it used to be. Uniquely, however, we have an opportunity to help shape the future. But it will take all of us acknowledging the hard truths in front of us, and committing to work together towards a better future for all.

A Failure of Leadership

Most of us remember exactly where we were and what we were doing on the morning of September 11, 2001. I remember the day clearly. At 8:50 a.m., I was sitting with the bank’s CFO in a conference room facing the Hudson River and New York Harbor at our headquarters in lower Manhattan. We were discussing a bulk asset sale with two guests from another bank.

Suddenly, we were interrupted by an employee, who rushed into the room breathlessly announcing that a plane had just hit the north tower of the World Trade Center just a few hundred yards away, its imposing presence blocked from our view by a building. Like so many others, my immediate thoughts ran to the possibility of an errant single-engine Piper Cub. Before I could even comprehend that possibility, I looked out toward the Hudson and saw the second jet flying straight toward us, making its ominous turn toward the South Tower –- much too low, much too near, much too loud. To this day I can still recall the sound of the engines screaming louder and louder as that son-of-a-bitch piloting this suicide mission accelerated, crashing into the South Tower.

Several times that morning I tried to go to the Trade Center to see if I could find my brother, who worked in the North Tower. I couldn’t see more than 10 feet in front of me. It was terrifying. Lower Broadway on a normal day would be busy and filled with people. I could see no one through the fog of dust and asbestos. I was alone, all alone. Unable to see where I was going, I proceeded to Braille my way forward, grazing the walls of buildings to guide me forward. I never made it to the Trade Center.

The history of that awful day is remembered in thousands of stories. As time passed, I have often reflected on the fact that we did not need a federal commission, new laws, regulations or company policies to tell us the right thing to do. Everyone instinctively responded by reaching out to help someone. People stood shoulder to shoulder with family, friends, neighbors and strangers in the weeks and months that followed as we collectively mourned the loss of so many innocent lives. We came together to help each other. For many of us, however, the emotional scars of that day remain.

Today we are faced with a different enemy, one that we cannot see. Covid-19 knocked on our door in January without warning. No living generation has ever experienced a pandemic. Given the absence of leadership from Washington, we must Braille our way into a completely uncertain future. To date, over six million have contracted the virus, and the number of Americans who have died is fast approaching 200,000. Experts tell us that these numbers will likely double by year-end. Our failure to act at the federal level has launched an economic tsunami the likes of which not seen since the Great Depression. Tens of millions of people are jobless, with no immediate hope in sight. Businesses everywhere are shuttering. And communities of color have been disproportionately hard hit economically, as well as from the pandemic. Without question, the failure of a coordinated federal response has left people feeling that no one cares.

To make matters worse, the proliferation of unfounded conspiracies theories, often promulgated by the highest levels of government, combined with widespread and pervasive truth decay, has fueled hatred, division and disarray everywhere.

Soon the fall season will be upon us. Our days grow shorter. Before too long winter will set in, brining with it cold and darkness. The summer brought us the opportunity for sunshine and fresh air. Now many will be driven back indoors.  In addition to our physical and economic health, our mental health is taking an enormous toll. Indeed, we know from those who have bravely fought in war conditions, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is very real. It manifests in numerous different ways, including emotional numbness and isolation, loss of interest in daily activities, distrust, hyper-vigilance of other people, extreme anxiety and helplessness among other symptoms. Suicide ideation, especially among the young, has risen dramatically. People are no longer rooted in a world once familiar to them. They are disoriented, adrift. The absence of leadership leaves us feeling extremely vulnerable, stoking anger – both of which substitutes for our grief.

We have heard a familiar refrain, “We’re in this together,” but never has the need to strengthen our connections and help our brothers and sisters in need been greater. These problems cannot be settled by a few slogans. Even a vaccine is not a cure-all. The pandemic will be with us for a long, long time. In addition, our COVID-induced PTSD will take time to heal. We are, without question, experiencing a crisis of leadership and moral bankruptcy today. We must get back to basics and restore the sacred trust and respect that holds us together as a community of people. The failure to do so will cause the cancer of failed leadership to continue to fuel risks to our health, economy and national unity, which are wreaking havoc on democracy and capitalism. We need leaders who are faithful to something other than the sound of their own voice. We need leaders who are committed to raising-up everyone in the country, rather than merely their own short-term self-interests. Life comes with responsibilities. At our core, what defines us as Americans are the bonds of human connections and our commitment and responsibility to one another, especially in time of crisis.

Keith Darcy is President of Darcy Partners Inc., a boutique consulting firm that works with boards and top executives on a wide variety of complex governance, ethics, compliance, and reputation risk challenges. Website: Darcy.Partners

Ethics and Compliance in a Pandemic Environment

[Click above to download full article as published in REVUE INTERNATIONALE DE LA COMPLIANCE ET DE L’ÉTHIQUE DES AFFAIRES – N° 4 – AOÛT 2020.]


The life-threatening pandemic, along with the global economic collapse, raise significant new risks for organizations everywhere. Ethics and compliance executives are challenged to deal with these new (ab)normal conditions, while facing considerable pressure to do “more with less.” This article explores these issues, and calls attention to how and where risk managers need to prioritize their time and activities in order to manage against a tsunami of increasing risks.

These are troubling times. A still surging life-threatening virus has brought the entire planet to its knees. Health systems and front-line warriors are completely overwhelmed and at risk. In our attempt to respond to COVID-19, by sheltering in place, we face a global economic collapse not seen since the Great Depression. People are waking up every day, stunned and dazed by a world turned upside down. Businesses have shuttered everywhere, resulting in massive unemployment worldwide. These conditions have exposed racial and economic divisions, all made worse by the spread of disinformation and hatred. And so many people are dying.

“Business-as-usual” no longer exists and is unlikely to ever return. Sales teams and traders working remotely pose special challenges. The virtual workplace for them creates significant control and surveillance issues, as well as confidentiality issues.

For ethics and compliance executives, this tsunami of bad news requires significant and additional vigilance, because of the new risks and the change of global business environment (I) with serious impact on the interactions with employee, stakeholders and third parties (II)

I – The change of the global business environment and new risks

Where to start – The starting point is to acknowledge the brutal truths that everyone is experiencing, and how it is impacting the way business is conducted. Clearly, a dynamic and continuous risk assessment process, one that considers the rapidly deteriorating and changing business conditions, is critical. “One-and-done” assessments are completely inadequate. In that regard, it is further essential that all risk managers operate in unison. Risk managers operating in silos do so at their own peril, and expose the enterprise to additional internal and external threats. Compliance, human resources, internal audit, legal, chief technology and information officers must coordinate and share data that monitors and measures emerging risks and trends across the enterprise.

Use of technology – On the issue of risk measurement and monitoring, it is more critical than ever that technology be deployed to follow for issues and trends. While some technology for ethics and compliance professionals has been developed in recent years, due to the investment necessary it has generally been slow to be implemented. The time is now. Technology can be a great enhancement in monitoring for risk. Unfortunately, given the global economic collapse, there are extraordinary pressures to contain expenses in most industries and all departments, including ethics and compliance departments. It would be foolish to consider any diminishment of resources in managing risk. At a time when risks are rising, as well as the expectations of enforcement authorities, this could expose companies to significantly greater risks. Regarding those companies that downsize risk management resources, I’ve seen this movie before (tech bubble crash, Great Recession, etc.), and it ends very badly.

Price gouging – Although generally not illegal, price gouging in some countries regarding specific items (e.g. food, medical equipment, health supplies, etc.) may be noticed. A perhaps bigger risk, however, to price gouging is reputation risk to the enterprise. “War profiteering” in this environment will be severely frowned upon by all stakeholders. Reputation risk today is at least as great as strategic, operating, and financial risk. All it takes is one incident gone viral, and it can destroy a firm’s reputation. How a company treats its customers, suppliers, and communities where they do business will forever define its brand.

Digital fraud – Ethics and compliance executives need to be on the alert for digital fraud, including fake websites, phishing, malware, and other schemes. Also, because more and more of the company’s business operations now happen online and/or from home, cyber risk by definition increases, including employees discussing or exchanging confidential information, or use of unauthorized chat applications. These risks can impact both individuals and organizations.

False claims risks – For companies involved in medical technology, pharmaceuticals, and other areas of healthcare, the potential for creating false claims rise. This is particularly true of those products and services especially important in addressing COVID-19 related issues (e.g. vaccines, treatment of the pathogen, protective equipment, ventilators, etc.). Making false claims for public corporations is particularly troublesome, as it creates opportunities for senior officials who are rewarded in stock, options, and other paper programs, for manipulation and self-dealing.

Aid programs – Across the globe massive amounts of government assistance programs have been enacted to financially support troubled companies and individuals through this crisis. As a result, it creates extraordinary potential for corruption and fraud. I have long said that wherever there is money, there is the potential for corruption. And wherever there is lots of money, there exists the potential for lots of corruption. Abuse and/or misuse of government support funds bears potentially heavy costs.

So, too, are the reputation risks for top executives of companies accessing government support, where they reduce staff while maintaining large compensation packages.

II- Interactions with employees, stakeholders and third parties

Fraud triangle – When economic bubbles burst, it exposes rot. This is an important time to be reminded and wary of the elements of the fraud triangle – pressure, opportunity, and rationalization. These elements may be particularly important when considering supply chains. For example, the European Union’s 5th AML Directive (anti-money laundering) imposes on member countries specific requirements regarding a beneficial ownership directory. From an anti-corruption and money laundering perspective, compliance officers have to identify the natural person(s) owner of third parties, vendors, and suppliers so as, among other things, to expose a hidden government official as a means to pay a bribe.

Import/export control issues – Addressing beneficial ownership also intends to addresses import/export control issues regarding Specially Designated Nations (SDN’s). Compliance officers must consider how many tiers of due diligence are necessary to uncover the true beneficial owners. In France, the enactment of SAPIN 2 law sharpened the focus of enforcement authorities regarding corruption, and the requirements for boards and top executives. This was further strengthened on June 1, 2020 when the French Ministry of Justice issued a memo to prosecutors outlining how it plans to investigate and prosecute illegal bribes paid by French companies to secure business in foreign countries.

Work environment – Among the biggest areas for risk for ethics and compliance executives should be employee concerns. It is important to recognize that so many people in the company workforce are suffering from fear and trauma. They are afraid for their lives due to the pandemic, as well as afraid for the potential loss of their jobs. Many will have either lost a friend or loved one, or know someone who did. And the prospects for a second wave, and maybe a third, remain high according to experts. For everyone, there is a deep anxiety, indeed, terror at the loss of a predictable future, even as we awaken from a self-induced economic coma and re-open for business. The psychological impact, and potential for depression and/or post-traumatic stress, will grow over time as this virus will be with us for a long time.

Given these circumstances, it is important to place employee safety as a top priority. How a company treats its workforce in this troubled time will forever define its culture. Creating a safe and healthy work environment is critical to employee performance, and organizational success. In an era of truth decay, leaders must be honest to engender the trust necessary to lead today and into the future. Trust, real trust, demands truth – they are two sides of the same coin. In an era of transparency, you cannot spin the truth. Building trust will contribute to a culture of employee accountability, increase traffic to the helpline and other methods to “speak up.” This is especially important in a socially-distant workplace. And as we encourage a “speak up” culture, so too, we must create channels for significant two-way communication. People need to feel part of a social system. It is fundamental to being human. Compliance executives need to strengthen their relationship with business and human resource leaders in this regard.

Similarly, senior executives who cut their salaries as a magnanimous gesture while furloughing or downsizing the workforce, but are rewarded with outsized equity grants, may suffer reputational conflicts down the road.

All crises follow a similar path. They have a beginning, middle, and, hopefully with COVID-19, an end. Clearly, the present isn’t what it was, and the future isn’t what it used to be. We stand at the end of an age, and the beginning of a time not yet defined. Uniquely, we have an opportunity to participate in defining it. Ethics and compliance executives have an extraordinary opportunity to provide leadership in defining a “new normal.”

There is a familiar refrain these days – “We are all in this together.” Clearly, we cannot get through this crisis alone. In the days ahead we will be challenged to find new ways to create interdependencies, and search for new ways to experience community where we live and work. It’s time we begin to plan for a future worthy of our children and grandchildren – one that is built upon a foundation of integrity, dignity, and human worth.

Keith Darcy is President of Darcy Partners Inc., a boutique consulting firm that works with boards and top executives on a wide variety of complex governance, ethics, compliance, and reputation risk challenges. Website: Darcy.Partners

A Reflection: Arthur Ashe

photo by Ron Cogswell CC by 2.0

As a lifelong competitive tennis player, tennis has been my refuge from the day-to-day battle with the world; a place where I can trash talk with my friends, hit some winning shots, and mishit many more losing ones than I hate to admit. For sure, I‘ve had some accomplishments on the courts in days gone by. However, as Bruce Springsteen sings “Glory Days, well they’ll pass you by.”

Over the years I’ve had some outstanding doubles partners. Two of them in particular got bad bounces in life, and passed away prematurely. I still think of them often, and with affection and admiration, blessed by their friendship.

Another person who got a bad bounce was one of my role models, Arthur Ashe. I admired Ashe ever since he broke onto the tennis scene. Looking back, there were several things that drew me to Arthur: (1) the quality of his game, so smooth and precise; (2) his incredibly composed manner on and off the court; (3) the way he, as a Black man, conducted himself in a white man’s game, and, most importantly, (4) the causes he stood for and fought against.

Ashe was an active civil rights activist. On the issue of racism, he modeled an alternative to the rise of Black Power advocates and their call to fight. Ashe aligned himself more in the nonviolent camp, although he was certainly not deaf to the cries of others. He used his celebrity to raise awareness of class differences.

Similarly, he became a tireless crusader against apartheid. Despite years of being denied visas to join the rest of the tennis world in the South African National Tennis Championship, he persisted using his celebrity to bring attention to the issue of discrimination. After receiving an approved visa, he refused the play before a segregated audience, causing the government to acquiesce to his requirement. His visit to South Africa, along with the work of the Rev. Leon Sullivan and many others, he solidified a movement that helped bring down apartheid, and brought with it freedom from prison for Nelson Mandela.

I felt like I knew Arthur. When I learned he had AIDS, I was saddened beyond measure. Yet, in typical Arthur form, he continued on in his life and the causes he fought for, until it was no longer possible. I remember reading when he was diagnosed with HIV after undergoing a blood transfusion during heart bypass surgery that his immediate thoughts and concerns were directed to his wife Jeanne Moutoussamy, and his fear of her being infected. She said to him, “You and me, babe. You and me.” I held my wife Lynne tighter that night than ever before.

On February 6, 1993 I was at our tennis club one evening for a team match, when news of Arthur’s death was announced on the television. He was 49 years old. I broke down and wept. Soon thereafter, I published the following article.


Finding True Leadership Next Door

In Memoriam: Arthur Ashe

GPA Photo Archive (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Leadership is one of the most discussed and least understood phenomena. The Wall Street Journal recently ran a feature piece on a prominent leader, his work, sleeping and eating habits, and lifestyle. As the article exhibits, leadership has become a celebrity watch. It’s ironic that in this age of information, the more we know about our leaders, the clearer it becomes how little we know about the subject of leadership.

What is it that makes us dash off to the bookstore looking for a copy of biographies of leaders, or seeking Stephen Covey’s The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, or Blanchard’s (the microwave leader) One Minute Manager?

Why do we measure the power of executives by the floor they sit on on, their proximity to the corner office or, as a young Turk once observed to me, “the number of window panes in my corner office.”

What is leadership? Where can it be found?

Leadership must be on another floor, or in an office down the hall. Maybe we’ll find it in the next best-selling book.

We search in vain for leaders we can have faith in. Our doubts about today’s leaders are not so much about their skills, talents and accomplishments, but about their trustworthiness. We are unsure whether they are serving their organization, institution, or themself. One thing is certain, however: they aren’t serving us.

I live in Westchester County, New York. Recently we lost a wonderful neighbor, and the world lost a truly great leader. Interestingly, he never led an army. He never ran a company. In fact, he was never in charge of anyone except himself. He never published a book outlining his leadership philosophy, although you knew where he stood on every important issue. He was an intensely private man, neither showy nor flashy. He was certainly not charismatic. Most of his life work was confined to a small area and, while he was excellent at his craft, he was not the best of his time.

In this day and age when leadership has become a celebrity watch, in the person of this quiet, unassuming man was a truly great leader. His name was Arthur Ashe.

He was born into a segregated Southern community in Richmond, Virginia. His ancestors were direct descendants from Amar, a West African woman that was enslaved and brought to America in 1735. Growing up he was precluded from playing in his home city’s indoor courts, or from playing against white children. Nonetheless throughout his career he broke the color line at scores of all-white country clubs, including – without question – the biggest all-white country club of them all: South Africa. Although he enlisted in the U.S. Army, where he served with distinction, he later quietly and peacefully demonstrated his desire to see the war in Vietnam come to an end.

When a congenital heart condition abruptly ended his still flourishing career, he used his misfortune as a way to educate others. And in the final chapter of his life he showed us we must have compassion and a great sense of urgency for AIDS victims.

Arthur Ashe taught us how to handle conflict and adversity in confronting racism, war, apartheid, heart disease and HIV. As his niece so eloquently said at his memorial service, Arthur Ashe was committed to “breaking down human fences.”

Arthur Ashe handled both success and adversity with similar dignity and class. The Rev. Jesse Jackson observed that, “Arthur managed to build a code of conduct for the gifted.” Indeed, in doing so, he connected the haves and have-nots, the well to do and the voices of the oppressed.

In a television interview one month before he died, Ashe responded to an interviewer’s praise by saying, “Look, I’m not a hero, I’m not a legend. I’m just a man.” There are no labels you can put on Arthur Ashe. Yet, by his example, he taught us all something about what it means to be fully human. It was because of his humanity that he was awarded the Medal of Freedom, posthumously.

Arthur Ashe was a great leader. He looked no further than himself to find it. And as long as we’re seeking it somewhere else, we’ll never find it ourselves.

Arthur Ashe understood that his tennis accomplishments were merely a platform to contribute his humanity to important societal issues (once again, tikkun olam – “to repair the world, and build a more just, humane future”). It is that unselfish sense of giving that is the hallmark of real leaders. When I think of Ashe, I am reminded of the words of the sportswriter Grantland Rice:

When the once Great Scorer

finally calls your name,

it’s not whether you won or lost,

it’s how you played the game.


Arthur Ashe was born on July 10, 1943. He would have been 77 years old next week. At a time when statues are being torn down, one stands proudly on Monument Avenue in Richmond, VA. Bless you Arthur Ashe.

Keith Darcy is President of Darcy Partners Inc., a boutique consulting firm that works with boards and top executives on a wide variety of complex governance, ethics, compliance, and reputation risk challenges. Website: Darcy.Partners

%d bloggers like this: