Being Lou Mannheim: 5 Ways to be an Ethics Champion in Business

Wall Street, 1987 Directed by Oliver Stone. Charlie Sheen as Bud Fix (L) and Hal Holbrook as Lou Mannheim (R)
Man looks into the Abyss, and there’s nothin’ staring back at him. At that moment, man finds his character, and that’s what keeps him out of the Abyss.” Hal Holbrook as Lou Mannheim in Wall Street

Oliver Stone’s 1987 movie Wall Street was meant to be a cautionary tale of greed and avarice in the world of high finance. Instead, according to interviews with its star Michael Douglas (in his Academy Award winning role as Gordon Gecko), it became a recruiting tool for the real Wall Street, being cited by many professionals as the primary reason that they sought a career in finance. Talk about missing the mark!

I remember seeing the movie when it came out. As a young, brash, know-it-all 20-something, I wanted to be Bud Fox (played by Charlie Sheen ). Carl Fox, Bud’s dad (and real-life dad of Charlie, Martin Sheen), played the blue-collar, everyman. A sober, cynical and life long union man he appealed to me about as much as the Russians did in the 1980’s. Gordon Gecko was the aspirational hero for ambitious, fresh out of college types like me; he was rich, successful and not afraid to tell it like it is. To the young and rather impressionable version of me, Gecko was the epitome of cool success. I couldn’t have been more off the mark.

The Wall Street character that has stuck with me the longest is Lou Mannheim, played by Hal Holbrook. My twenty-something self saw him as a sanctimonious curmudgeon. But my middle-aged self sees him as the hero of the story. And a hero we should all aspire to emulate.

Lou Mannheim was the conscience of Wall Street. The sole, clarion call of ethical behavior in a sea of amoral, greedy, and criminal souls. He was there to notice, to preach, to warn and to look ever so disappointed when the reaper came calling for the damned.

Movies like Wall Street are meant to be contemporary parables — offering us a moral lesson within a movie. Movies make it easy to spot good decisions and bad decisions, good people and not so good people.

In the real world we don’t have it so easy. We get stuck in gray areas, there are no overtly “bad” people around you, and the decisions are often so complex that it’s hard to discern if they were made ethically or unethically. In some ways, the wrong choices are easier to make in today’s business world; quicker and maybe a bit easier for you to achieve your goals. But I believe that being Lou Mannheim is the right way to go every single time.

So, channeling Lou Mannheim, here are:

5 Ways to be an Ethics Champion in Business

1. Build an Ethical Foundation

Actions do speak louder than words. But in today’s workplace those words — blustering, boasting, win-at-all costs words — can drown out your actions. Before you can become an ethics champion, however, you must act as one. Building a foundation of ethical behavior requires commitment, dedication and, above all, honest behavior. Before you can be an example, you must set an example. Ethical behavior is not only understanding the differences between right and wrong behavior, but also championing that behavior across the organization and not turning a blind eye to behavior that may have unethical results.

2. Avoid the Shortcuts

With tight deadlines, quotas and demands of investors, managers, or your clients, it’s very easy to use shortcuts to get things done. There’s a difference between formulating efficiencies and taking a shortcut — an ethical champion sees those differences and acts accordingly. If you’re going down the shortcut path — think about why it’s a shortcut, and what you had to “cut” to make it happen. If that cut meant lying, pushing the blame onto someone else, skirting the rules or regulations, believing the “ends justify the means” — then you may have breached your duty to be ethical. An ethical champion would counsel that using unethical means in order to get a positive result is still out-of-bounds.

3. Don’t Be Too Preachy

In Wall Street, Lou Mannheim was definitely a bit too preachy. He had to be because it was a movie with limited time to make a point. That preachy-ness turned me off. After all, I was a know-it-all and didn’t need his sanctimony. In real life, however, we don’t usually walk to the middle of our office and make big speeches (Okay, so I’ve been know to do that, but that’s another story). Ethical behavior isn’t a “holier-than-thou” mentality — it’s a commitment to doing the right thing, every time, even without fanfare. One way to avoid the fiery pulpit mentality is to avoid making your views personally focused. Rather than say “you need to change your behavior” it’s really a “we need to look at our team behavior, and how we can make better decisions.” A simple change in tone can go a long way.

4. Trust is Your Selling Point

Ethical behavior has rewards in the workplace and in your life as a whole. Being ethical isn’t only about truth and honesty. Sure, those are the foundational basics, but it’s much deeper than that. Treating everyone with dignity and respect and acting honestly throughout your work engagements makes you the most important person in any organization — a trusted colleague and advisor. Think about it — treating co-workers and clients ethically, making sure to don’t cut corners, taking the blame when you did something wrong, being humble and sincere — those are the traits of successful people that matter in organizations and in everyday life.

5. Be an Example

We’ve established that the ethical champion is the trusted colleague and advisor in business. He or she is someone to look at as a mentor and a leader. Your actions and the way you conduct yourself follow you wherever you go. So, while you may not end up being the loudest, or most naturally magnetic person in the office, you will find that people are drawn to you. They are drawn to you because you’ve set the example of someone who can be trusted, someone that does the right thing, and someone who exemplifies good character. And no, it doesn’t take looking into the Abyss, just common sense and faith in yourself to do the right thing.

Originally published at

About the Author: Brian Costello is an entrepreneur, investor, and advisor for start-ups, VC’s, private equity firms and agencies in the digital space. He’s currently Chief Digital Officer for GYK Antler, a full-service marketing agency. Brian was also co-founder of The Barbarian Group, and has done, well, a lot of other things. He writes about mid and late career issues and whatever else pops into his mind (and speaks of himself in the 3rd person, for some bizarre reason).