Reasons Leaders Behave Badly

badEveryone makes mistakes, but not all mistakes are equal — especially when the people making those mistakes are leaders in positions of power who are violating generally accepted ethical norms.

Related: Are Business Ethics at a Low Ebb?

While some may argue that there are no generally accepted ethics and that all conduct should be driven by situational circumstances, the truth is that there exists a useful ethical standard to measure our personal and professional behavior against.

That standard is the question, “Would I want to live in a world where everybody did what I’m about to do?”

With that question as a guide, it’s safe to say that few people would willingly choose to live in a world where the universally accepted standards were inequality, greed, lying, stealing, cheating and corruption.

Certainly those things happen every day — and we may tolerate mini-versions from friends and family. But we tend to be less forgiving when those behaviors are exhibited by people in authority, especially business leaders. In fact that was the point of the Occupy Wall Street movement, in 2011.

However, the ethical lapses of business and government leaders are particularly puzzling for several reasons, including: the high financial and reputational risks associated with unethical behaviors; potential civil or criminal litigation depending on the nature of the violations; and the near-certainty that those leaders will eventually be found out.

Why would they risk it, especially when the fear of loss usually trumps the desire to acquire gains? Here are five likely reasons:

1. Easiest option

For some leaders and executives, breaking the rules and unethical behavior comes easily. For instance, Bernie Madoff leveraged his ethnic heritage to gain inroads with several Jewish foundations and not-for-profits, to then turn around and steal millions from those who trusted him. Sometimes, such icy exploitation is second nature.

2. Privilege

Professional athletics is one of the few professions where you could cut salaries in half and the employees would still come to work. In other words, it’s a privilege to be paid to compete in professional sports.