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Make the Buck, Then Pass It

We attend the opening arguments in the cases of Frank Quattrone and Dennis Kozlowski, and learn that, hey, these kingpins were merely powerless cogs (just like us).

In this issue's Performance Review, Fast Company analyzes the opening defense arguments for L. Dennis Kozlowski and Frank Quattrone, the besieged chiefs of Tyco International and Credit Suisse First Boston's technology group, respectively. While the outcome of their trials still may be up in the air, the court cases raise important questions. Should CEOs and other chief executives be held accountable for the sins and ills of their organizations? Is top-level ignorance of breaches of the law ever a defense? Join Fast Company readers as members of the jury and make your voice heard.

Frank Quattrone strode into the federal court building in New York with his customary confidence. Dapper in gray tweed and a neatly cropped moustache, he waved and posed for the hurtling phalanx of photographers. Just another deal, man. As boss of Credit Suisse First Boston's technology group, Quattrone was one of the most powerful men on Wall Street. He launched public offerings for and Cisco. He practically minted money. People—important people—did as he said.

A block up Centre Street, by coincidence, former Tyco International chief L. Dennis Kozlowski was beginning his run at the New York State Supreme Court. A bald, imposing linebacker of a man bearing a weird resemblance to Mr. Clean, Kozlowski was to CEOs what Quattrone was to bankers: an alpha leader, a big swinging you-know-what. Through hundreds of acquisitions, Kozlowski took Tyco from inconsequential mishmash to $36 billion in sales.

Which is why we were all there, scrambling for gallery seats. These guys were kingpins, as rich and as powerful as they come—and then, according to the United States of America and the state of New York, respectively, they done wrong. Quattrone was charged with obstruction of justice for allegedly instructing coworkers to destroy documents that might have furthered an SEC investigation. As for Kozlowski, well, what wasn't he charged with? Essentially, Manhattan assistant district attorney Kenneth Chalifoux accused Tyco's former CEO (with former CFO Mark Swartz) of dipping into Tyco's corporate honey jar to the tune of $600 million. "The concepts are simple," Chalifoux said. "Lying, cheating, and stealing."

To which Quattrone and Kozlowski responded, through their attorneys—allow us to translate from the original legalese—It wasn't our fault. Other people called the shots. They knew the deal. Their defenses were less about innocence than about power. Suddenly, these big shots were desperate to show how little power they really had.

Their lawyers' opening statements made for telling codas to two years of alleged corruption, malfeasance, and all-around bad behavior. With these trials, America begins to formally reckon with its Era of Excess. And an awkward reckoning it is. Corporations paid execs big money because these people were, ostensibly, responsible. Yet here were lawyers telling us that responsibility was someone else's problem.

Quattrone, argued his lawyer John Keker, was just a cog in the vast machine that was Credit Suisse First Boston. "You are going to learn that what the lawyers told Quattrone this was about was a different part of the bank than the one that the email was addressed to," Keker said, then launching into a convoluted discussion of CSFB's structure that boiled down to this: It is a very big place. Keker's argument lacked both passion and clarity, relying intentionally or not on corporate speak. (Judge Richard Owen made clear his displeasure, rebuking or stopping Keker three times, which is a lot for an opening statement.)

Stephen Kaufman referred mistakenly (and tellingly?) to his client as Mr. Tyco rather than Mr. Kozlowski. But he also described Koz's appreciation for, shall we say, a broad-brush management style. Notify Tyco's directors of relocation bonuses? Doesn't some intern take care of that? Kozlowski "wasn't a detail person," Kaufman said, "but a concept individual."

Responding to the state's attack on his client and Swartz as skilled deceivers who secretly approved special bonuses for themselves, Kaufman went for emotion. The payments, he said, were common knowledge among other employees, Tyco's outside auditors, and others. Moreover, "the board was a cheerleading squad for Dennis," he argued. "If [Kozlowski and Swartz] wanted to cheat and steal," he implored, voice cracking, "would they do it openly and visibly?"

Dunno. But after a decade in which top executives happily took credit for anything and everything, this defense—that others said it was okay and that the boss's say-so didn't mean much—rang hollow. So did the attempt to paint the trials as witch-hunts. "You are sitting in judgment of a man, not a symbol," cautioned Keker. "This case is not WorldCom or Enron," said Kaufman.

By the time you read this, Quattrone's trial will likely be done; Kozlowski's is expected to drag on through the winter. Regardless of the outcomes, though, we've already witnessed the most-telling details. As the lawyers argued valiantly that their clients were not the titans they appeared to be, both defendants undermined their own cases by flexing their power in the courtroom. They couldn't help themselves: Quattrone smiled widely while putting a protective arm around Keker; Kozlowski, beet red and neck muscles tensed, glowered at the prosecution. Here is the truth: These guys were always masters of their domain. Any attempt to prove otherwise is a sad joke on the rest of us.

Sidebar: The One-Minute Chatter

If this is Tuesday, it must be time for another Ken Blanchard book. Blanchard, who birthed The One Minute Manager in 1982, has churned out—oops, carefully crafted—four tomes in 2003. Here's what readers have been saying.

The Leadership Pill: The Missing Ingredient in Motivating People Today (with Mark Muchnick, Free Press, September)

Publishers Weekly:

"It's a solid, though obvious, message that should resonate with fans of Blanchard's . . . advice."

Reader rating: 5 Stars

"This book was fantastic! It is a short . . . and moving story that helps define a message that is essential in today's workforce."

Full Steam Ahead! Unleash the Power of Vision in Your Company and Your Life (with Jesse Stoner, Berrett-Koehler, March)

Publishers Weekly:

". . . The authors' simple writing style makes their advice obvious."

Reader rating: 5 Stars

" . . . One the best books I've read. I got copies for everyone in our [office]."

Servant Leader (J Countryman Books, March)

Publisher's description:

"Readers seeking to grow as leaders . . . will find Servant Leader nothing short of life-changing."

Reader rating: 5 Stars

"[It] called me to the carpet. The concepts were basic but touch the heart of what it means to serve."

The One Minute Apology: A Powerful Way to Make Things Better (with Margret McBride, William Morrow, January)

Publishers Weekly:

"This breezy book can be read quickly and its point is almost too obvious."

Reader rating: 5 Stars

"If everyone read [this], meaningless apologies would be a thing of the past."

A version of this article appeared in the December 2003 issue of Fast Company magazine.