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Putting ‘America First’ means following the rule of law

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Teaching ethical leadership in a top-ranked MBA program, I interact with leaders in business, the military and government every day.

At the University of Maryland (UMD), we teach leaders how to think under fire, react during crisis and ultimately do the right thing. This is a difficult skill to learn, and many times, leaders receive no practice before being forced into the crucible.

From athletic scandals, business scandals or showing courage under actual gunfire, we teach leadership in crisis by following established policies (like Securities and Exchange Commission-required codes of conduct) because making key decisions during crisis can lead to bad results.

Frequently, competing interests like short-term gain and the path of least resistance tempt leaders, but short-term results do not necessarily result in long-term value.  Research and case studies show these tensions exist not only in business, but in academia and in government as well.

Three very good examples of this in academia and business are the recent UMD athletic scandal, Merck CEO Ken Frazier’s resignation from the president’s Manufacturing Council and Americans running toward gunfire during a terror attack on a French train.

At Maryland, ESPN published an exposé revealing a widespread culture of fear in the football program, which ultimately led to the death of student Jordan McNair.

The only student willing to go on record was one of my ethics students. That took immense courage that we should celebrate; he has brought about real change to the entire athletic program, despite risking his NFL prospects.

With regard to Ken Frazier, he has become a case study in our MBA ethical leadership course because we must study how to respond to very difficult choices when your role as leader may conflict with your personal belief structure.

Sometimes, as we learn in class, the two may coincide. In the French terror attack, we learned that others will follow, but only when that first person signals leadership and courage, and says, “Let’s get him!” The lesson in all three is that it takes leadership by example, but it can literally change or save the world.  

Most recently, the president made a statement supporting the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia after the brutal murder and dismemberment of Virginia resident and Washington Post contributor Jamal Khashoggi.

He was killed by a Saudi assassination team almost certainly sent by Saudi Arabia’s crown prince. The president’s statement directly links the short-term gain of defense contracts to publicly traded American corporations (including Lockheed Martin, which provides major financial support to the University of Maryland) over the rule of law.

Unfortunately, like in business and academia, failure of leadership, and focus on short-term gain, will not place “America First.” As the former chief investigator of the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), I understand this better than almost anyone.

I worked for the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation and SEC during our own market meltdown. The very things that make our market different, and resilient, is the rule of law.

This legal and political stability, (even with our own varying political crises over the years), has led to a trust in the market that is unrivaled by any other nation and makes us the envy of the world. One need only look at the Chinese securities market to understand what really makes America First.

When our leaders engage in moral equivalency, they help great power competitors argue that our market is no longer different, nor special. We should never allow that to happen.

David P. Weber is a lawyer and certified fraud examiner. He is a full-time faculty member at the University of Maryland, College Park, where he teaches in the MBA, MS and undergraduate business programs. He is the former assistant inspector general for investigations of the SEC, the SEC’s chief investigator. He has provided foreign technical assistance to many government law enforcement and regulatory entities, including in Russia, China and India.  


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