It’s Perilous at the Top (Just Ask Governor McDonnell)


Last September, former Virginia Governor Robert McDonnell and his wife Maureen were convicted of multiple counts of conspiracy, corruption, and bribery.

On January 6, Governor McDonnell was sentenced to two years in prison for accepting $177,000 in gifts and loans in exchange for government favors.

“More than 440 people sent letters to the court asking for mercy on the grounds that McDonnell was a ‘good man,’” says McCombs Professor Robert Prentice, whose research and teaching focus on corporate governance, regulatory oversight, and ethical decision-making. “That’s a lot of witnesses, so there are certainly grounds upon which to conclude that he is a good man. But there is also overwhelming evidence that he did a bad thing.”

The governor and his wife reportedly accepted a $6,500 Rolex, $20,000 shopping spree, lavish vacations, exclusive golf club perks, and $120,000 in cash payments for promoting pharmaceutical company Star Scientific.

So why would such a good person (with hundreds of letters written on his behalf) do such patently wrong things? One reason is what behavioral ethicists call instant entitlement bias. Studies show that when someone is selected as the leader of a team — even if they have done nothing to deserve that title — they tend to keep a much larger share of the resources for themselves. “Think of former Tyco CEO Dennis Kozlowski, who spent $2 million in company money on his wife’s birthday party,” recalls Prentice.

McCombs’ own Ethics Unwrapped Program explores this concept in depth in one of its newest videos, Ethical Leadership: Perilous at the Top.

Says Prentice, “Sometimes leaders just naturally think that they’re so important that they obviously deserve the little perks that come their way, like Rolexes and Ferraris, whether paid for by shareholders or taxpayers. But if you’re a leader, you must monitor your own behavior to ensure that you do not fall victim to this behavioral bias.”

Because evidence also shows that the people who surround you may be too intimidated by your authority to say something and stop you.

Click the image below to watch the video.



"Bob McDonnell, A Gift for Grab"  Image Credit: DonkeyHotey/Flickr Creative Commons


Faculty in this Article

Robert Prentice

Professor, Business Law

Robert A. Prentice is chair of the Department of Business, Government and...

About The Author

Adrienne Dawson

Adrienne is the editor of Texas Enterprise. She holds an MBA and has previously been a writer and editor at Rice University and MD Anderson Cancer...

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