Unethical, criminal or victim?

    Business Spotlight 4/2019
    Carlos Ghosn
    © Frederic Legrand-Comeo/Shutterstock.com
    Von Professor Peter Franklin

    Carlos Ghosn, intercultural business leader par excellence — and in the past, celebrated in Japan for having rescued carmaker Nissan from financial disaster — now stands accused in Tokyo of financial misconductFehlverhalten, Vergehenmisconduct on a grand scale.

    So grand, in fact, that, apart from the Japanese chargehier: Beschuldigungcharges of under-reporting his pay and receiving improper payments from a joint venture, further allegationAnschuldigungallegations include using the Palace of Versailles for birthday and wedding festivities, partly at his French employer’s expense. Ghosn insists that he is innocent of all charges

    Is this another case of the nemesis of an over-successful top manager who is no longer guided by simple ethical standards of honesty and decency, let alonegeschweige dennlet alone the law? Or is Ghosn the victim of the Japanese and French cultures that he brought together so successfully in the Renault-Nissan-Mitsubishi Alliance but that he ultimately failed to master? Or even a victim of political plot(ting)Verschwörung, Komplottplotting at the highest level?

    For an intercultural leader, it all began so promisingly. Born in Brazil of parents with a multicultural background, brought up and Jesuit-educated in Lebanon, a multilingual graduate of elite engineering schools in Paris, Ghosn had from the start the potential to be a cultural be a cultural boundary-spannerPerson, die kulturelle Barrieren überbrücktboundary-spanner. Not restricted to the culturally influenced norms of a single culture of origin — and thus apparently equipped with the ability to take numerous cultural perspectives — Ghosn made an international career as “the auto industry’s most celebrated turnaroundTrendwendeturnaround artist”, first at the tyre manufacturer Michelin and then at French carmaker Renault.

    In one leadership challenge after another, from Brazil via the USA and Europe to Japan, Ghosn gained an early reputation as a cost killer, going on later to rescue Renault and then Nissan from near bankruptcy. His cross-functional and interculturally inspired approach to management and leadership was used most notably in shaping the Renault-
    Nissan-Mitsubishi Alliance to become one of the largest automakers in the world. Almost uniquely among international business leaders, he saw cultural differences not simply as a threatening source of difficulties to be solved but as a potential resource to be exploited.

    And then, at the peak of his career, it all started to go wrong. A combination of what appears to be an insufficiently robust ethical compass and the lack of a key intercultural competence can be seen as the factors that led to Carlos Ghosn’s fall from graceAbsturzfall from grace as the poster boy (US)Aushängeschildposter boy of intercultural leadership.

    Ghosn’s own hints to the press that he had been considering to depose sb.jmdn. absetzendeposing his Japanese CEO colleague Hiroto Saikawa as part of a shake-up (ifml.)Reorganisationshake-up to bring Nissan and Renault closer together in a single company made resistance of some kind almost inevitableunvermeidlichinevitable. The reorganization would reportedly have threatened hundreds of Japanese management-level jobs.

    Ghosn apparently failed to understand how others would see him

    Ghosn’s reported assumption of “plot and treasonVerrattreason” in the Renault-Nissan boardroom therefore sounds plausible. For, with such a reorganization, Ghosn could, in the eyes of the Japanese, have appeared to be laying claim to even more status than he had already achieved. His salary in the fiscal year 2016–17 was more than seven times that of Saikawa’s, according to Nissan. The sacking (ifml.)Rauswurfsacking of Saikawa and other high-level Japanese managers would have been the to be the final strawder Tropfen, der das Fass zum Überlaufen bringtfinal straw.

    The immediate and perhaps overly simple cultural interpretation of this? Such an action would have been an implicit criticism of Saikawa and his managers, causing them irretrievableunwiederbringlichirretrievable face loss. But Ghosn may also be the victim of plotting motivated by higher strategic and political considerations. It has been widely reported that Nissan — “astonishingly”, as The Economist said — is supplying the Tokyo prosecutorsStaatsanwaltschaftprosecutors with evidence that is damaging to Ghosn. And, according to the Financial Times, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has been lobbying France’s President Macron to prevent the planned full merger of the Alliance companies. A Japanese manufacturing icon in the hands of a foreign company in which the French state had a stakeBeteiligungstake would be an unacceptable face loss for the Japanese.

    Ghosn’s intercultural leadership qualities didn’t support him in the French cultural setting either. He failed to recognize the dangers of the extremely high payment for his efforts, although at shareholders’ meetings, the French state (with a 15 per cent stake) regularly opposed it. Ghosn’s indulgenceSchwelgereiindulgence in the trappingsInsignientrappings of the jet-set business elite, and his self-glorification in Roi Soleil (French)SonnenkönigRoi Soleil Louis XIV style in Versailles, is perhaps encouraged — or can at least be explained — by the hierarchical nature of large French organizations. In such organizations, the person at the top, le Président-Directeur-Général, both chairman and CEO, may enjoy enormous power and status.

    But news of such status-to flaunt sth.etw. zur Schau stellenflaunting and material self-enhancementSelbststeigerungself-enhancement indicates at the very least a lack of cultural sensitivity at a time when income inequalities in France are driving discussion in the media — and driving demonstrators on to the streets. Even if the spending of the firm’s money on such self-glorification is compliant with the lawgesetzeskonformcompliant with the law, it tends to be regarded with disapproval rather than with envy. Ghosn should have known that, sooner or later, such behaviour would get him into trouble. And in the end, Renault also dropped him.

    In the final analysis, the polycentrism that Ghosn had apparently acquired during his multicultural upbringing and education failed to to kick in (ifml.)hier: Wirkung zeigenkick in. He also seemingly lacked the key intercultural competence needed by all those working across cultures: self-awareness, the ability to perceive and reflect upon himself.

    Ghosn apparently failed to understand how others in Japan and in France — with values, norms and practices different from his own — would see him. He didn’t consider, or just didn’t care about, the judgements that they would probably make, based on their own culturally influenced set of norms. And he failed to anticipate the actions — the revealing by the Japanese of his conduct, presumably tolerated until then — that would follow from these judgements and bring about his downfall.

    Self-awareness is the basis of the flexibility and adaptation in behaviour necessary in intercultural interaction. Ghosn wasn’t self-aware and didn’t adapt his behaviour when it was necessary.

    Unethical? You could say so. Criminal? The the jury is still out on thatdas letzte Wort ist noch nicht gesprochenjury is still out on that. A victim? Not so much a victim of the Japanese and French cultures as a victim of his own lack of an essential intercultural and leadership competence: self-awareness.

    Neugierig auf mehr?

    Dann nutzen Sie die Möglichkeit und stellen Sie sich Ihr optimales Abo ganz nach Ihren Wünschen zusammen.

    Das Business Spotlight Sprachmagazin