It is a matter of choice. If you allow yourself to be totally present-focused, and just do things that are expedient for producing immediate results, there is a consequence to pay. That’s not an Ivory Towerism. We have our share of people in the academic world that do the same kinds of things that got people in the business world in trouble.
You have talked in the past about the seven deadly leadership sins.
That title was put on some research we carried out in late 2008 and early 2009, studying the financial meltdown from the perspective of what went wrong with leadership. We held what might be called focus groups with anywhere from 10 to 30 CEOs and C-suite level executives, discussing why some companies like Lehman and Merrill-Lynch ran into troubles and others like TD Bank, while affected by the meltdown, weren’t involved in a whole lot of the troublesome practices.
In these discussions, the executives started to talk about leadership in terms of the seven deadly sins. They were saying, “Pride, envy, greed, sloth in terms of not doing your homework – all of those enormous, timeless problems with people have occurred in leadership during the financial crisis.”
There aren’t many new principles or fundamentals of leadership that have emerged since the Old Testament, New Testament, and maybe Lao Tzu. But the context continually challenges us around the fundamentals of leadership, and the context changes dramatically.
The huge and immediate reaction to the financial meltdown was to single out the role that greed played. The headlines were about greed, and the cartoons about greedy bankers. And sure, greed and enlightened self-interest was a factor. But you know many of these people. I know many of them. They don’t walk around with green horns and tails – they have 2.3 kids, they support charities, they do good works, and they happen to be bankers as well.
So it’s complicated. We found that greed was probably not the driving factor, whereas there was certainly overconfidence, and a heightened competitiveness among senior business people that at times got out of hand.
But there were also a lot of people who simply didn’t do their homework, who relied on ratings agencies even though they knew problems existed with ratings agencies – people who were pushed to do things not because they wanted the wealth but because they were envious of those who had more and needed to be the biggest swinging dick in the room. That attitude infected whole parts of some businesses, yet other organizations kept things in perspective and weren’t seduced by it.
I come back to personal character, and the need for organizations to take time for character development. In some organizations, when they see bad behaviour, they stop it.
The CEO of one organization I work with continually warns his staff, “Let’s not do things we don’t understand. Let’s not get ourselves convinced we are totally better than everybody else all of the time. Let’s retain some humility.” That’s the way he leads his organization, and he surrounds himself with people who have the same core beliefs and values.
Who do you read and turn to for management ideas – who excites you?
I read less and less about management of traditional businesses. I go through an enormous amount of biography in areas beyond business such as political and military biographies. The last biography I read was of Yasser Arafat, intrigued by how he led the PLO. It’s not something I admire or envy, but I read it.
I read a fair amount of history. In business, I have read a lot of Niall Ferguson recently. I read the [Lawrence]Bossidys and Jack Welchs, but I don’t get an enormous amount of inspiration from them. That’s a function of age. After a certain number of years, there is a paucity of ideas, and you tend to see the same things recycled. I also don’t get excited about reading how somebody built a company that has only existed for five years.
When I was conducting the research on the seven sins, I went back to read The Nicomachean Ethics. I read Socrates. What struck me is how contemporary that was. It’s incredibly valuable to go back and read some of the old stuff, since it sheds light on today.
This interview has been condensed and edited.