Not to name names, but does it strike you as it does me that we’re in the midst of a global surfeit of senior leaders behaving badly?

Almost every domain of human endeavor seems tarnished, or worse, by malfeasance, broken trust, power abused, or even quasi-psychotic behavior.  #MeToo certainly has been among the most high-profile arenas–and fertile, if that can be taken in a sheerly descriptive and not complimentary sense: Senior politicians (state governors, presidential candidates, US senators, Cabinet officials), prominent journalists, Fortune 500 executives, celebrity pop stars, world-renowned conductors and actors, the list goes on and on.

And for my money the most ominous development is the as-yet-unknowable damage being done by populist leaders insisting on their own set of “alternative facts,” chipping away at the very bedrock of truth and falsity, and declaring themselves above the Rule of Law.

But this is not a column about #MeToo or the depravities of public officials.

It’s about what it means to be a leader as a lawyer and in life.

Quaintly, I have very high expectations for what constitutes an appropriate standard of behavior by a lawyer.  You might find that context helpful to keep that in mind as you read on.

McKinsey provides some timely context with their publication last month of “Answering society’s call: A new leadership imperative“.  While its focus is on retail and B2C markets, and apparel in particular, its themes are broad and here to stay:  “Two-thirds of consumers around the world say they would switch, avoid, or boycott brands for their stances on controversial issues.”  But there’s more to it than avoiding being conspicuously on the wrong side of hot-button issues.  There’s also, among clients and your own internal colleagues at the firm, a conscious and articulated demand for leaders being “driven by a strong sense of moral responsibility,” and “purpose-driven empathy”–roughly, being able to motivate others to share your vision of the future through deep understanding of their emotional fears and desires.

A powerful starting point is programmatic self-examination: Once a year (for example), assemble your key teams around whatever initiatives the firm has pursued that year and have a candid conversation on the topic, “Knowing what we know today, what would we have done differently a  year ago?”  Twelve months later, repeat; twelve months later,….  This will not only instill humility in you, but put you empathetically in the shoes of your team members.  And keep this always top of mind:  “it’s not profit ahead of purpose and it’s not purpose ahead of profit—the way you make profit is by living out your purpose.”

Then there’s the flip side.

Again, I’m not going to name any recent massive flameouts, but in your own mind run down the list of a few most spectacular overachievers on your personal Hall of Imploders list.  I predict with confidence that each one self-destructed in their own way, but I also bet one reaction of yours was common across all their cases:  “What were they thinking?

This is the question strategy+business takes on in its “How powerful people slip:”

The descent from being a darling of Wall Street to being reviled by shareholders can be swift and unforgiving. Stories abound of overreach and missteps by top leaders, often with grievous legal or financial consequences. When a company crashes because of a scandal or ethical error, onlookers naturally wonder: “How could the leaders let themselves get into a situation like that? They had all the advantages that go with their position, and so much to lose. Shouldn’t they know better?” But in fact, it’s their brain’s reaction to being well-regarded and powerful that often takes executives and other people in authority over the cliff.

Stories of senior leaders making poor decisions are rampant at every scale: from minor transgressions that create quiet frustrations inside HR departments, to global scandals that thrust leaders into the public eye. Each case is different, but they all have one common element: In the brain, a set of responses to temptation gradually shifts the attention of powerful people away from the disciplined behaviors associated with enlightened management. If you want to be the kind of leader who resists these missteps, you have to develop a clearer understanding of the dynamics of power — and their effect on your own thinking and that of others around you.

The problem shows its truly complex essence because some of the very strengths most critical in a leader can turn destructive when unchecked.

Such as?

  • Focusing on a vision and goals, combined with a strong sense of optimism, can distract you from potential unintended consequences or “mere”  operational issues.  You may also (subconsciously, one hopes, but it’s no less dangerous for that) tend to ignore people with less rosy views or discount the validity of their reservations.
  • The unavoidable (and, let’s face it, mostly welcome) perks that come with senior leadership can be isolating: All arrangements made for you “magically;” restaurants, flights, and hotels all of high caliber (and “free”); larger/quieter offices; efficient, cultivated, polished, and deferential assistants.
  • The similarly unavoidable and mostly desirable reality that the higher you rise in an organization, the more your perspective shifts to the macro and the general and away from the day to day of “the coalface” and such granular and highly personalized criteria such as the quality of individual client experiences.

Make no mistake: These are all natural byproducts of high status within an organization.  That’s why it can be a devilish problem, and if you become blind to it people will pick up on it with uncanny alacrity.

Does this sound familiar?:

It can feel productive and satisfying to narrow your focus to goals, which are easier to manage than people; however, your peers and subordinates will feel intimately this lack of meaningful inclusion and perspective taking. People are extremely sensitive to certain social needs and whether they are being met. The SCARF model, developed by David Rock at the NeuroLeadership Institute, outlines five such social needs: status (the need for ranking in a hierarchy), certainty (the need for control over one’s environment), autonomy (the need for agency and independence), relatedness (the need for belonging and inclusion), and fairness (the need for equity and justice). Leaders who fail to take others’ perspectives into account risk threatening their sense of relatedness, fairness, and status. People may feel that they don’t have a voice, that their opinions don’t matter.

The more senior you are, it’s safe the say, the more highly you will rank on:

  • Status
  • Certainty
  • Autonomy, and
  • Relatedness

and the lower you will score on Fairness.

So be prepared to consciously downplay Status, Certainty, Autonomy, and Relatedness and devote much more time to Fairness.  Think “inclusive,” “questioning,” “curious,” and always welcome (Scout’s honor) new developments that might change your mind.

Some of the world’s leading think tanks and academic research institutes and labs have embraced a maxim that encapsulates this attitude and that you would do well to emulate:  “Strong opinions, weakly held.”

Fortunately, we need not keep this at an abstract level.

This past week, yours truly for quite some time and, one can hope, much of the world for at least a moment, turned attention to the passing of Paul Volcker, 92, at his home in New York.  The estimable Martin Wolf devoted his FT column on Wednesday to Volcker, and I could almost end this column of mine with the opening and closing lines of that column:

Paul Volcker was the greatest man I have ever known.  He was endowed to the highest degree with what the Romans called virtus (virtue): moral courage, integrity, sagacity, prudence, devotion to the service of country. [.,.]

In tackling today’s challenges, the details of what Volcker did are irrelevant. But his lessons are not: Do the right thing even if the right choice is rather less obvious today; do not put your trust in unbridled [conventional wisdom]; and have courage.  The world is a complex and surprising place.  But these truths abide forever.

And this from the always reliable Neil Irwin at the NYT:

Always rumpled, always mumbling, his 6-foot-7-inch frame often slumping, he was not trying to be a globe-trotting master of industry or political mover and shaker. He was often dismissive of the views of powerful bankers and politicians. And he lived modestly, wearing ill-fitting suits and smoking cheap cigars and living in a small, not-at-all-posh apartment in Washington with his family back in New York. He didn’t focus much on his own status, which made him especially suited to resist the inevitable political pressure that arose when his course of action caused mass unemployment in the early 1980s. […]

His life is a testament to what dedicated public servants can do when they put their heads down, and are guided not by how things worked in the past, or how they might wish them to be, but by the world as it is. And the right answer isn’t always the most popular.

My favorite story of Volcker as the anti-master-of-the-universe is that of the Nash Rambler he owned in the 1960’s, not exactly your awe-inspiring testosterone-dripping Italo-German supercar, whose driver’s seat collapsed with age (Volcker was a big guy at 6’7″ and not slight of build).  Volcker propped it up by wedging a dining chair behind it and continued to drive the car.

Are you surprised Volcker titled his 2018 memoir Keeping At It?




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