What Can We Learn From Les Moonves?

Les Moonves was wired in a way that he understood public taste better than anyone. Why did his instinct desert him when he needed it most?


One year ago, I sat on stage with CBS honcho Les Moonves interviewing him about his iconic career. The rugged looking former actor told me he turned CBS into the number one network by following his instincts, like he did when he greenlighted Friends (during at his time as CEO of Warner Bros.) or Survivor (at CBS).

When the reruns of inappropriate behavior came to light over the past few weeks, Moonves’ formidable instinct deserted him at just the wrong moment. As of last night, he had no friends nor would he be a survivor.

Allegation Nation

Ronan Farrow of The New Yorker is the ombudsman of sexual misbehavior. He recently reported that six women claimed Moonves attempted “forcible touching or kissing during business meetings” during the 1980s to early 2000s. More alarmingly, they alleged that their careers were stunted when his advances were rejected. At the time, these were allegations, but the media has no qualms about publicizing dirt if it is sensational enough because journalism today is based on shares and followers rather than readers and fact checking. Many people thought, this is ridiculous, just another witch hunt.

Moonves responded with an apology: “I recognize that there were times decades ago when I may have made some women uncomfortable by making advances. Those were mistakes, and I regret them immensely.”

If I know Les Moonves, his regret was genuine, but as it turned out, so were the women’s allegations. The CBS board convened the next day to discuss Moonves’ termination.

Statute of Limitations

People are wondering why do these allegations crop up just when the guy is at his peak of power? Does it still matter? Times have changed? Would we be any less likely to judge someone for robbing a bank or abusing a child simply because it happened twenty years ago? Historical perspective is useful when studying the behavior of Portuguese slave traders, but anything within our lifetime has to measure up to modern values. If a chief executive has skeletons in the closet, either find a way to get them out into the public or retire to play golf or start a foundation.

Just don’t wait for Ronan Farrow’s knock at the door.

Worth It?

Moonves was handsomely rewarded for tempting people to spend 4–8 hours per day in front of their televisions instead of books, caring for children, or working in a soup kitchen. It made him the highest paid Hollywood television mogul, taking down nearly $70 million in 2017, after a decade in which he never earned less than $50 million.

“Was it worth it,” isn’t the best question to ask of someone who makes hundreds of millions and then commits sexual harassment, no less than it would be to ask John Gotti if extortion and racketeering were worth it. Although in Gotti’s case, in fairness, that was his livelihood. For Moonves, as well as the nearly 100 misbehaving honchos fired or who resigned over the past year, it was part of the benefits package.

According to The New York Times “After Weinstein,” through February of 2018, no fewer than 71 high profile executives, media tycoons, NFL players, humanitarian leaders, and a sports owner have two things in common. They are alleged to have been sexual harassers and they were the high and mighty.

Power Corrupts

Lord Acton, a famous British historian of the late 19th Century, said, “power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Acton was referring to Napoleon, who declared himself emperor, and then promptly invaded Russia with 600,000 soldiers of the Grande Armée before he was forced to retreat with only 22,000 survivors.

If Acton were writing today, he might add presidents and and chief executives to his list of those who should be careful about power. To be able to control someone’s entire career in the flash of an email ‘send’ button can be withering both to the victim, who may feel obliged to do things they ordinarily would not, and to our sense of moral restraint.

The cautionary note is that if you have this kind of power, your only protection is candid people around you who speak openly and watch your moves and can tell you when you are stepping over the boundary. The CBS board was not able to do this, apparently, and as a result, Les Moonves’ career ended like Napoleon.

  • Get the Corporate Board Member Newsletter

    Sign up today to get weekly access to exclusive analysis, insights and expert commentary from leading board practitioners.



    AI Unleashed: Oversight for a Changing Era




    20th Annual Boardroom Summit

    New York, NY