Thursday, January 11, 2007

84. Take risk, but have Plan B

Leadership programs often endorse "risk-taking" as an endearing leadership quality. Risk-taking is seemingly encouraged as a perquisite for greatness, an eminence nestled between character, passion and charisma. Robert F. Kennedy said, "Only those who dare to fail greatly can ever achieve greatly," or, if you prefer the poetic verse, Shakespeare wrote in The Tragedy of Julius Caesar, "There is a tide in the affairs of men, which taken at the flood, leads on to fortune. Omitted, all the voyage of their life is bound in shallows and in miseries. On such a full sea are we now afloat. And we must take the current when it serves, or lose our ventures."

There are numerous leadership qualities, but I find "risk-taking" nearly as interesting, though easier to define, as charisma. While on the surface its definition may seem obvious, the initiative is actually a multi-layered enigma which often leaves one conflicted. There are many considerations, including the corporate pressure to "think outside-the-box." However, despite its leadership and corporate endorsement, risk-taking is often an excruciating and tentative deliberation as one ponders though possible scenarios.

Most of us would define the current corporate atmosphere as tumultuous- that is, embattled in uncertainty at nearly every fork in the road. The status of our employment is a weary consideration, one that fluctuates with each quarterly earnings reports or legislative decision. This uncertainly often breeds caution and a conservative approach to taking chances with one's career.

Warren Buffet spoke about risk-taking, and noted that he really does not take much of a risk, considering his financial standing. Too often people are encouraged, by those that are fortunate enough to become successful, to take risks and live their dreams- that anything is possible if you want it bad enough. I think this is true enough, but I also believe in a backup plan. I think there should be alternatives planned in case things don't work out- which in the case of high-profile careers - rarely does. It was Buffet who also said that he hates the phrase, "a self-made man." As he puts it, no one is a self-made man, everyone got a break somewhere along the way.

In fact, a 2004 report entitled, "I Didn't Do It Alone: Society's Contribution to Individual Wealth and Success," spotlights successful entrepreneurs and concludes that the myth of self-made success is destructive to the social and economic infrastructure that fosters wealth creation. Some quotes from successful entrepreneurs include:

"I personally think that society is responsible for a very significant percentage of what I've earned." -Warren Buffett, CEO of Berkshire Hathaway

"Lots of people who are smart and work hard and play by the rules don't have a fraction of what I have. I realize I don't have my wealth because I'm so brilliant. Luck has a lot to do with it." -Eric Schmidt, CEO of Google, Inc.

"I know a lot of people who believe their success is only due to their hard work, their ingenuity... They say, 'I made it, it's mine and I'm going to hold onto it.'... My response it that a lot of factors go into building a successful business. For instance, did they go to a public high school or a tax-supported college? A lot of folks forget the help they got... We take it for granted." -David Lewis, founder of AirGas

I think people should take risks, but that they should be calculated risks- and perhaps early or late in one's career when there is less to lose. Early in one's career, a failure is much easier to overcome, and can even be chalked up to that valuable employment characteristic- experience. Houses will not be foreclosed, children will not go hungry. However, once these responsibilities become part of one's life, the stakes are raised. With plant closings, layoffs and downsizing, employment is risky enough, and there is less incentive to add additional stress to the situation.

Similarly, late in one's career, risk is leveraged against savings and achievements. Once someone is financially secure, he or she can afford to risk the balance.

I think risk-taking is a valuable characteristic to have, but that it should be measured with reality- consisting of hard work, research, consideration, and, perhaps, most importantly, the realization that luck and good fortunate may play a decisive role in whether or not an endeavor is successful. Luck and good fortune are not a very attractive leadership quality, and consequently its role is often undermined. Of course, the theory might just be that the more chances one takes, the better the odds that he or she will get lucky.

83. Let's talk about integrity

I had the pleasure of participating in Leadership Lorain County, a year-long leadership program dedicated to "fostering life-long leaders who are catalysts for positive change." It is a wonderful program, one that allowed me to meet a diverse group of community activists. The program offers a range of activities, including a breakfast series- which this year is based on the book Monday Morning Leadership. It sounds like an informative and rewarding initiative.

However, in reviewing the program brochure, one particular session grabbed my intention. It is entitled, "The Do Right Rule: Act with Integrity, Your Integrity is Your Livelihood," and I could not agree more. It reminds me of the Tom Peters quote, "There is no such thing as a minor lapse of integrity." But this issue has been a difficult one, as I cannot identify a single entity that lacks more integrity than corporate America.

While it is unfair to say that all companies lack integrity, the vast majority seem to engage in a considerable amount of dishonesty, whether it is lying to its employees, cheating its customers or deceiving its competitors. Beyond blatant dishonesty, corporations often display a lack of ethics and social responsibility. As corporations continue to pollute our air and water, outsource production at slave wages and downsize American workers, it is quite clear that integrity takes a back seat to shareholder wealth. It seems almost farcical that corporations would demand that employees have a given amount of integrity.

In fact, corporations often do better with employees that lack integrity, those willing to do "whatever it takes" to ensure the company's success. Corporations need people willing to layoff employees to meet quarterly earnings, people willing to dump waste into our lakes and oceans and people agreeable to manipulating the accounting books. Corporations also expect that your job will become your life, because it knows that it has a hundred other potential employees willing to pull "all-nighters" and work weekends if you decide that catching your son's ballgame is more important.

The corporate definition of integrity is more consistent with the company line than any level of personal responsibility. Corporations do not want dissent, that is, people willing to think for themselves; those that rise through the corporate ranks often do so by keeping their integrity to themselves and acquire a knack for looking the other way. Some people might feel like that is an unfair statement, but the success of "company men" is not just a jealous concoction.

On a national level, corporations like Enron relied on employees willing to partake in questionable accounting practices despite the knowledge that fellow employees might lose their entire savings. Others such as Wal-Mart are notorious for their stance on unions and their unwillingness to offer reasonable health issuance. The list of corporate atrocities is lengthy, diverse and well-recognized.

This lack of integrity extends to local corporations through acts such as making it clear during orientation that unions are not welcome, hiring and then releasing temporary workers just before the holidays and placing political and economic pressure on the community for not adhering to their self-centered definition of morality.

I have had several personal experiences in which corporations and other small companies did not act with integrity. Here are just a couple:

While working at a nursing home, an industry that is built upon caring for people, I was disgusted at the news that we could not rehire one of our most responsible nurses because her husband had some medical issues that affected the company's insurance rate. Apparently, the dedication was toward not hiring the best nurses, but the ones with the least baggage. Incidents like this make the holiday speech from ownership about how much we are all "family" a little hard to swallow.

Many years ago, I was threatened by my employer who said that he would come to my post and, "punch me in the face," if I insisted on leaving. I had already worked several hours beyond by scheduled time, and I had class to attend. The most important fact was that I was promised over and over that relief was on the way. Disturbingly, my employer was a former police officer.

Though I think that integrity is an essential characteristic, one that separates those we can trust and those which we cannot, I certainly do not think that corporations should be the ones asking for it. Rather than maintain a dedication to their employees, companies spend millions on advertisement, resisting unionization efforts, lobbyist activities and political donations and CEO salaries. And although integrity is an individual consideration, maintaining it on the corporate train steamrolling toward shareholder profits is often a futile effort detrimental to one's own career. Let us be honest, this is the conversation that needs to take place.