Monday, June 29, 2009

Lessons Learned from Michael Jackson

After the saddness over Michael Jackson's passing fades a bit, and Bernie Madoff was sentenced for the biggest ever ponzi scheme, I can more clearly see a lesson for corporate America in the life and demise of Michael Jackson. Like Elvis Presley and other famous people, Mr. Jackson appears to have surrounded himself with "yes men" and "yes women," including health care providers, who didn't use their influence to break him from his prescription drug addictions, if any. Although we'll all know more when the toxicology studies come back from the lab in a few weeks, it appeared that Mr. Jackson was barely over 100 pounds at 5' 10" tall. His children's nanny has made public statements that she had to assist in pumping Mr. Jackson's stomach on many occasions because he had taken too many narcotics and was ill. He appears to have sedated himself into permanent unconsiousness with prescription medications obtained from his own doctor, who reportedly received $150,000 a month. Being an unethical doctor isn't a crime in and of itself. He has a duty, however, to take note of addictive behavior and change medications or therapies if it is in the best interest of the patient. Again, awaiting the lab results, it should be noted that the only thing that keeps a doctor from being a drug dealer is a medical license and a fiduciary duty to "do no harm." As an attorney who used to successfully defend doctors in front of their hospital peer review committees and their state licensing boards, I am very confident telling you that doctors are slow to pull someone's medical license. Self-policing doesn't work in the US. Period. Unless a doctor has a long history of severely injuring patients, he or she will get a "second chance." Sometimes a third chance. It's a shame Mr. Jackson didn't get a "second opinion" about his daily use of painkillers. Anna Nicole Smith appeared to have prescribed drugs in her possession that killed her due to addictive abuse. To claim this was "news" is sort of ridiculous when Ms. Smith appeared on many talk and award shows higher than a kite. Did anyone ever hear what happened to the doctors who kept her in supply? I didn't read a word about it in the media after the dust cleared.

Mr. Jackson is not that different from some powerful corporate CEOs or Presidents in the fact that he could fire people who tried to redirect him and was driven by a strong sense of self confidence. He also experienced some fantastic results with the choices he made. The irony is that this strong drive and lack of the ability to listen to other people's ideas and warnings can be dangerous, or in Mr. Jackson's case, deadly. In a company, confronting the CEO with what an executive believes is illegal or unethical could result in an ugly confrontation that takes weeks to recover from or result in a termination. When this behavior by a leader is evident, it "chills" communication and the leader starts to work in a vacuum, lacking support and direction from those who surround him or her.

Whether you are discussing the bad decisions by Kenneth Lay at Enron or Mr. Jackson's possible decision to surround himself with a physician who would prescribe drugs that he has a history of not being able to use in moderation, the result is the same. Everyone around them sees a disaster coming, but no one wants to walk into the line of fire and do what might be considered "right" because the risk is too high. The result is also disturbing. Whether its the demise of 14,000 people's jobs and 401ks at Enron despite many people in the company knowing about the fraud before it was discovered by the SEC or the death of a cultural icon when friends and family fail to intervene, it shouldn't have to happen. It wouldn't have happened if people who knew said something.

We should also take a lesson from the loss of Michael Jackson and say what we need to say, now, before it's too late.

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