Simon Bolivar, Scott Sullivan and the Labyrinth

People don’t wake up and say,” I will become criminal today”. Instead, it is often a slippery slope, and we lose footing one step at a time.
Cynthia Cooper, Vice President Internal Audit, WorldCom

Queen Pasiphae of Crete gave birth to a creature called Minotaur – it had head of bull and body of human. When Minotaur grew up it started devouring human. To keep him in control a labyrinth was designed by craftsman Daedalus and Minotaur was kept at its centre. To keep Minotaur alive, people were pushed into labyrinth, once inside it was impossible for them to get out, and ended up getting devoured by Minotaur. Minotaur was finally killed by prince Theseus.


In real word, many successful men get trapped in labyrinth which most of the times is their own creation and so is the monster that destroys their career.

We have two such examples – one a historical figure and other from corporate world.

Nobel laureate Gabriel García Márquez wrote novel “The general in his labyrinth”. It is a fictionalized account of the last days of Simón Bolívar. Simon Bolivar was one of the greatest freedom fighters of South America who liberated South American countries from Spanish rule. He became president of Gran Colombia (consisting of 5-6 nations freed from Spanish rule). But success and his dictatorial style resulted in problems of infighting and betrayal. This coupled with declining health forced him to abandon president ship and consider migration to Europe. He began the journey to reach Santa Marta to catch ship for Europe, with few close followers. He could never leave South America; he died at Santa Marta. He got trapped in labyrinth of his own making and died.


Another example is that of Scott Sullivan, CFO of WorldCom. Scott was brilliant finance professional and at one stage was highest paid CFO in US corporate world. Telecom companies started facing problems after dotcom bust. But Scott managed to keep WorldCom profitable. Profitable WorldCom meant Scott could justify his high salary and lavish lifestyle.

But his subordinates Betty Vinson and Troy Normand were unhappy and anxious. The profit was result of financial jugglery –  the operational cost was shown as capital expenditure i.e. line cost expenses were moved from income statement to balance sheet, which Betty and Troy were doing quarter after quarter. Fearful of losing their jobs and financial security for their families, Betty and Troy followed the orders of Scott, changed the numbers on the balance sheet and hiding the truth from the public.

Cynthia Cooper, the head of internal audit smelled a rat and started her own investigation, since she did not get much help from their external auditors-scam specialist Arthur Anderson. By the time Cynthia blew whistle, the company had lost billions, employees their jobs and shareholders their lifetime savings.


Betty and Sullivan received prison sentences of six months and five years, respectively, and Troy received three years of probation. Scott got trapped in labyrinth and devoured by monster- both his own creation.


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