The stories that keep us grounded
Recently, I read an interesting article by Bill George, former CEO of Medtronic and now a professor at Harvard Business School, entitled “Why leaders lose their way”. You can read the article here
Professor George discusses the recent spate of revelations and resignations (among them Dominique Strauss-Kahn, Mark Hurd of H-P and several US public officials) where leaders at the height of their success seem to lose their way, risking career and reputation for personal financial gain or ephemeral pleasures.
Reading the article made me think that there does in fact seem to be an ongoing stream of revelations and arrests of the famous and powerful in recent months, and it led me to wonder why.
In these cases, George says, the leaders are not bad people but rather people who lose their bearings and yield to the seductions that accompany their rise to prominence. The author states that in similar situations all of us may have the capacity for actions we will deeply regret later, unless we stay grounded and learn to listen continuously to our moral compass.
In my view, staying grounded is a question of not losing our humility, and not forgetting to reflect periodically on our authentic stories of identity. If we keep our sense of perspective, of our own place in the world, and if we are able to remember who we are, where we come from, what we stand for, and what truly matters to us, we will not lose our grounding.
The problem among the powerful and famous is that they often begin to believe the stories of others, instead of keeping true to their own. Rather than remain rooted in their own beliefs and values, they start believing the “press, p.r. and hype” that surrounds them.
The ancient Greek concept of hubris applies well to these fallen leaders. When followers tell these individuals that they have become great, treating them as “gods” rather than mortals, they can come to believe that the rules of men and women no longer apply to them. Of course, the danger of all of this noise and hype is that it can “escort” these leaders to a place far removed from their authentic stories, or from their true origins. Their rise and fall are truly the stuff of a Greek tragedy!
As the years go by, I find myself increasingly drawn to effective leaders who manage to retain their humility and perspective in the face of their own great achievements. One of the memories that has stayed with me from my MBA education of many years ago is a morning when legendary investor Warren Buffet, the “Oracle of Omaha”, came to speak to our class.
Afterward, Mr. Buffet entertained a group of us informally with stories from his career. We were all left with the impression that this remarkable man, arguably the most successful of all time in his field, was just an old Nebraska farm boy who owed his great good fortune to some old-fashioned common sense and intuition, along with a healthy dose of hard work and attention to detail. Downplaying his celebrated “genius”, he stated offhandedly that any of us were certainly capable of successes similar to his. In the end, his humility and accessibility left quite an impression on all of us.