CEOs who display high levels of relative fame but low levels of reputation are in the group called scoundrels. These CEOs are well known but vilified. The late Leona Helmsley was a prototypical scoundrel. Leona Helmsley’s life was a classic rags-to-riches story. Born to immigrant parents, Helmsley became a billionaire through her work as the head of an extensive hotel and real estate empire. While certainly famous, her reputation was anything but positive, as reflected by her nickname: the Queen of Mean. During Helmsley’s trial for tax fraud, her housekeeper quoted her as proclaiming, “We don’t pay taxes. Only the little people pay taxes.” Following twenty-one months in jail, Helmsley was required to perform 750 hours of community service. One hundred fifty hours were added to this sentence after it was discovered that employees had performed some of her service hours. Helmsley’s apparent arrogance, combined with her cruelty to employees and her reputation as the ultimate workplace bully, cemented her position as a scoundrel.
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The corporate governance scandals of the early 2000s revealed several CEOs as scoundrels. Perhaps the best known were Kenneth Lay and Dennis Kozlowski. Both men rose to prominence as their firms’ success and stock prices soared but were undone by dubious activities. Lay was once revered as the son of a poor minister who founded Enron and built it into a giant in the energy business. In 2001, however, he became the face of corporate abuses in the United States after Enron’s collapse led to scenes, captured on television, of employees left jobless and with retirement accounts full of worthless Enron stock. Lay was convicted of fraud in 2006 but died before sentencing.