Sean McLain (A03) on His New Book, Boundless: The Rise, Fall, and Escape of Carlos Ghosn
August 31, 2022 | By Eve Tolpa
Wall Street Journal reporter Sean McLain (A03) co-authored the book Boundless: The Rise, Fall, and Escape of Carlos Ghosn, released on August 9 by HarperCollins. Here he discusses the surprising connections between the St. John’s Program and a stranger-than-fiction chronicle of corporate malfeasance. This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Many people know a little bit about Carlos Ghosn, the chief/head of Renault and Nissan who was arrested in Japan for alleged financial misconduct in late 2018 and escaped to Lebanon a year later in a guitar case. How did you and your Europe-based colleague Nick Kostov decide to write his story?
Sean McLain: I’ve been the automotive reporter in Japan for the past six years, so I was already covering Toyota, Honda, Nissan, Mazda, Subaru, and all the others when the story broke. It started out as a joint reporting project, because the story was based in France and Japan.
It became clear fairly soon [that] we weren’t ever going to tell the whole tale in 800- to 2000-word stories. [We] needed to really step back and see the whole picture in order to understand how one of the world’s most successful and celebrated business executives threw it all away for a couple of million dollars, and none of that makes sense unless you understand the whole sweep of his life.
A lot of people compare it to a Greek tragedy, but I would say it’s more like a Shakespearean tragedy, of a highly talented man with everything going for him, ending with a highly visible, slow-motion train wreck that everybody can see coming but still feels bad when it happens.
What were the charges against Ghosn?
He decided to take $50 million from a business associate and use that money for a private side enterprise; the criminal allegation is that this was a kickback. A lot of focus was on the Japanese justice system and guilt or innocence, but to me the more important question—and the more interesting question—is to examine why Carlos Ghosn thought it was a good idea to take the money in the first place.
The subject of ethics—was that something that resonated with you as a Johnnie?
For any St. John’s student, [it’s] one of the defining areas of study over four years. It starts and freshman year with the question of ‘what is good?’—whether it’s studying the Platonic dialogues or studying Shakespeare or Augustine. For me, it has carried on throughout my life. St. John’s [has] shaped a lot of the ways that I think about the stories I do and the issues I cover. It was a sort of revelation, to me at least, that there was an interesting ethical examination to be done here. It doesn’t seem at first glance that the operating profit of a multinational car company has anything to do with The Nicomachean Ethics, but at the end of the day, it’s about doing right.
You liken Ghosn’s story to a Shakespeare tragedy. What was your relationship to those texts as a student?
I really got into the historical dramas, all the Henrys and Richard II. I enjoyed viewing historic figures’ lives through the lens of dramatization, and a story like Carlos Ghosn’s is stranger than fiction in a lot of ways. How many people in the world come from a small town in the Amazonian jungle and end up at the top of the corporate world and then escape in a box at the end of it? I mean, you wouldn’t write that and sell that in Hollywood. I see a lot of Hamlet in the story. The only difference is that Carlos Ghosn leaves a wake of collateral destruction throughout the end of his career [and then] walks off into the sunset.
Having researched his life so extensively, do you feel sympathy for Ghosn?
It is very hard to see a reason to want to relate to Carlos. He was a rich man who thought he should be richer, who when he got caught with his hand in the cookie jar decided to run away, as opposed to fighting it in court. But when you dig into it, you do see a man who is incredibly, almost unbelievably, talented in a lot of ways and whose heart was in the right place on most things in his life.
It was easy to caricature Ghosn [as] your typical Davos man who thought he was above the law and above the rules that everybody else has to follow. But I’ve always firmly believed—and this story confirmed—that there are very few evil people in this world. There’s a lot of arrogant and dumb ones, though.
Did you always want to write professionally?
When I was in my early 20s, just leaving college, I didn’t know what I wanted to do with myself, and I looked with a certain amount of envy at siblings or friends who went to, for lack of a better word, traditional universities with majors that sort of provided a clear path to a career. Over time, as I was able to figure out what I was meant to do, that sort of envy is evaporating.
I never thought I would be a journalist. I left the U.S. in 2008. I went to Abu Dhabi to study Arabic [and worked] at a journalism startup. I hated Abu Dhabi, and ultimately the job turned out to be not what I thought. Then I moved to India and joined The Wall Street Journal. I was covering all corporations in India: pharmaceuticals, startups, [and] I did maybe one or two car stories.
So you continued to work for The Wall Street Journal after moving to Japan?
The job [in Japan] was covering some of the largest car makers in the world—Toyota, Honda, Nissan—and I had to learn about cars and the car industry. I’m not a car guy; my ideal car is like a minivan or a Toyota Camry. My new job when I move to LA [this fall] is covering the cutting edge of car companies. It’s less about the subject matter and more about the purpose of the reporting, which is to hold some of the world’s biggest employers—some of the most important companies, who are promising to reshape the world and how we live in it—to account, holding up a lens to what they say they’re doing and seeing if that’s true or not.
What skills that you gained at St. John’s have you found most useful in your career?
You come out of St. John’s being a exceptionally clear-minded thinker. You are forced to refine your thoughts [and] how you express them, on a daily basis for four years, about some of the most challenging questions we’ve ever faced. What that clarity of thought and expression really does is provide you the essential core of what it takes to be a good writer, which is the ability to distill thoughts and communicate them effectively in an understandable fashion.
There’s an aspect of journalism that fits well for almost all Johnnies, which is that we are paid to be nosy and questioning. Becoming a good thinker, reader, and writer—and the ability to teach yourself things—has been absolutely essential as a journalist who hops from subject to subject [and has] to quickly digest and learn about new subject matter very, very quickly. That is just an invaluable skill that I completely credit to St. John’s.