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Lessons from the FIFA scandal

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People in a position of great power often seem to feel that they are above the law, and tend to act accordingly.

Almost inevitably, they come to find out they are indeed not above the law, and end up facing harsh consequences in light of their actions. Many times, it is not a single offender, but a pattern of corruption perpetrated by an entire organization.

Case in point: FIFA.

World soccer’s governing body has been rocked to its core by current investigations into allegations that bribery, kickbacks and rigged voting processes helped determine host countries of previous and yet-to-happen World Cup events – the biggest sporting event in the world.

FIFA has been embroiled in this most recent scandal since U.S. Department of Justice officials indicted 14 people including nine top FIFA officials on corruption charges in May while Swiss officials simultaneously opened their own investigation into how the 2018 and 2022 World Cups were awarded to Russia and tiny Qatar. These investigations in turn led to FIFA President Sepp Blatter’s defiant resignation, and have caused the 2026 World Cup bidding process to be put on hold.

Blatter’s second in command, FIFA Secretary General Jerome Valcke, is also under scrutiny and abruptly canceled his scheduled attendance at the Women’s World Cup happening in Canada this month.

And then you have former FIFA Vice President Jack Warner, who has previously been suspended indefinitely by FIFA in 2011 for bribery. He was arrested by the Justice Department and is alleged to have taken $10 million in bribes in order to give South Africa the 2010 World Cup instead of Morocco. He is threatening to release substantial information about corruption running rampant throughout FIFA’s upper echelon.

Another FIFA official, Chuck Blazer, has already pled guilty to 10 counts including taking bribes and is considered a “chief informant” in the Justice Department investigation.

Corruption runs deep in that organization, and few would doubt that it’s been that way for years or even decades as FIFA maintained its virtually monopoly on controlling the highest levels of the world’s most popular sport.

So what lessons does this provide for the successful advisor? A few come to mind:

• You are not above the law. While an organization as large, visible and powerful as FIFA obviously never flew “under the radar,” so to speak, certainly there is some hubris there. Officials probably believed no one would dare challenge the way they conducted global business. Whether it’s a famous athlete, a high-powered CEO or the trust fund kid living off the family name or business, the rich and powerful seem to sometimes feel invincible, have a sense of entitlement and feel they should be above the rules that apply to the “common” people. Anyone who has become a wealthy, highly successful and well-known professional in their community should beware of the traps this feeling lays down. All it takes is one incident of bad behavior brought to light to knock you off that high horse.

• Remove high incentives for misconduct. Whenever you have the potential for someone to be able to cash in by exchanging a vote, extending influence or breaking the rules for monetary gain with little oversight, you have a scenario ripe for bad behavior. More than one advisor has been tripped up by rationalizing a “one-time” ethical misstep as being “just the way things get done” in certain circles, such as the circle a bad client runs in. Surely he won’t make the same misstep again, unless he gets away with it the first time or a similar situation arises.

One transgression often leads to another, and before long an advisor who never thought he would find himself on a slippery slope is caught in a pattern of morally disengaged actions. Corruption will eventually cause any legitimate business to implode, so it is important to create and enforce a strong ethics policy making it clear that such transgressions will not be tolerated.