Practical insights for compliance and ethics professionals and commentary on the intersection of compliance and culture.

Martin Shkreli and unethical leadership

“Pharma bro,” financier, and entrepreneur Martin Shkreli is as well-known for his controversial antics on social media and in the press as he is as a biotech CEO. Shkreli gained public attention in 2014 and 2015 for acquiring the rights to market drugs and then hugely raising prices, first at Retrophin with Thiola and next at Turing Pharmaceuticals with Daraprim. In August 2017, Shkreli was found guilty on two counts of securities fraud and one count of conspiracy to commit securities fraud by a jury in New York after standing trial where he was accused of defrauding investors in a Ponzi scheme.

Shkreli gains and sustains attention by modelling reprehensible conduct and immature, immoral behavior. His entire persona is calculated to shock and outrage, promoting a confident attitude in the face of ethical and even legal wrongdoing. The prominence of such a flamboyantly, defiantly negative character presents an affront to the conventions of compliance and ethics in business.

  • Shkreli is far from alone in his controversial and ethically questionable pricing and business practices, though his attention-seeking behaviour and criminal prosecution has kept him in the spotlight. He’s also joining other corporate wrongdoers in his business at exploiting opportunities for profit typical in the pharmaceutical industry, despite their effects later on consumers:  Newly Convicted ‘Pharma Bro’ Martin Shkreli Shined a Light on Pharma’s Biggest Scandals
  • And, despite Shkreli’s preciousness and loud belief that he is a genius, he can also be seen as just another fraudster in a long American tradition of trusting bad people because of a cultural eagerness for innovation and disruption:  There Is Nothing New Under the Sun, Martin Shkreli Edition
  • Emotional intelligence is a popular term in management theory, borrowing ideas from psychology to suggest that leaders who understand their own emotions and those of others, and sensitively incorporate this information into their decision-making and leadership style, are more capable. Typically this is used to inspire positive behaviour like better communications or more sustainable business strategy. Shkreli is a defiant example of the opposite effect, claiming brilliance yet totally disregarding emotional interdependence and the greater good of society. In his mold, ethical behavior and integrity have no relevance to his sense of personal victory:  The Emotional Intelligence of ‘Pharma Bro’ Martin Shkreli
  • Time will tell what the sentencing outcome will be for Shkreli’s recent criminal convictions (many legal commentators think he will receive limited jail time, Shkreli’s defense team has suggested he may serve none at all), but a guilty verdict which would subdue some people has made this famous misbehaver even more boastful:  Martin Shkreli’s lawyers fail to corral bragging ‘pharma bro’ ahead of sentencing
  • Can Shkreli’s legal team convince him that his “people skills” need to be improved to keep him out of prison in the future? Seems unlikely, as his reputation of being bold, odd, and obnoxious gets him attention and keeps him relevant, which seemed to have been appealing to the investors he defrauded, some of whom made money anyway because of side agreements with him. Clearly he sees himself as another peculiar but brilliant business visionary, pointing out the danger in the cult of personality around difficult and immoral leaders who mistreat their employees and partners and use eccentricity as a pretense for selfish, unethical behavior:  Martin Shkreli’s Lawyer: ‘Pharma Bro’ Has an Image Problem

Even through his criminal prosecution, Shkreli seeks and thrives off the attention he gets for acting out in poor taste. He uses moral relativism and the “everyone else is doing it” defense for his unethical and fraudulent behavior, and the profits he gains for himself as the justification.   His financial success should not be admired or enabled by any organization wishing to sustain a business while contributing to a more transparent and responsible society for the future.

Corporate cultures must not reward this type of person with commercial partnerships or philosophical support; while they may make profits, they do so through scheming to deceive and defraud. People like Shkreli are the true rare bad apples that narrow the ethical framework and make the right choices problematic for the otherwise good people they influence.

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