Tuesday, January 27, 2009

What is wrong with this picture?

Many of us are still basking in the glow of the recent Presidential election, while also now trying to step back now, and to be"objective" to see whether or not President Obama can back up his words with actions. We are all giving President Obama "the benefit of the doubt" but now want to see if he can actually perform the miracles we need for him to achieve in order to save us all from the disaster which looms over us. What is wrong with this picture? 

The answer is that the picture is distorted and we are setting up our new President to fail, unless we all make fundamental and profound changes in the way we think and act. The reality, as explained by South African thinker, philosopher and management consultant Etsko Schuitema, is that "what we are looking at now is the result of a turn we took 10 millenia ago, when we moved away from hunter-gatherer societies, which are fundamentally co-operative in nature to one of agriculture and with it the capacity to produce surplus. He says, “As a species we have pursued increasingly complex strategies for the pursuit of self interest since we started cultivating crops and producing surpluses that the select could control. It is as if the anthem of homo sapiens over the last 9000 years has been one of an increasingly complex and entrenched song called ‘I am here to get’. This fundamental intent rule has delivered us, as a species, to a place of globally catastrophic proportions; those who control the surplus control other people and the world, and as Etsko explains, "the burgeoning of greed and unbridled self-interest has produced a world on the brink of complete failure."

Etsko is not just theorizing or hypothesizing but has studied the issues of Leadership and Intent for more than 25 years, in a wide variety of cultures and sectors, as part of a larger quest to find out what causes the kind of commitment and unconditional loyalty necessary to create a profitable company, a winning team, a thriving country. He became astonished and then over time, convinced of his findings when he got the same answers to the questions he was posing no matter where or in what context he was doing the research. In fact it turned out that there was no company, no country, no team that could command the kind of loyalty needed to get a surplus or a winning score. Surplus or profit by definition means that the workers or team members are giving more than they receive. But paradoxically, Etsko found, people are not loyal to institutions; instead people commit to other people, more specifically, to those who lead them but with a Benevolent Intent, meaning that the leader is concerned with their well-being and development. Etsko refers to this as The Care and Growth model of Leadership.

It does not take a rocket scientist to look at our situation here in the United States to see then why our banks are broken and our entire system is bankrupt. John Thain, the former head of Merrill Lynch, spent over $1.2 million to decorate his office, and yesterday he tried to excuse himself by saying that the renovations were done "more than a year ago, in a different economic environment." Thain's complete lack of introspection should not be too much of a surprise, but if we don't change this way of thinking we are in fact doomed. What kind of a leader spends his resources in such a selfish way and how can he then ask those he leads to make the sacrifices necessary in any organization to create a profit? The economic environment in which Thain thrived last year was directly responsible for the mess he and the rest of us find ourselves now.

John Thain also made outrageous statements yesterday to defend the infamous $4 billion in bonuses that were paid out to Merrill Lynch employees right after they had lost $15 billion in 3 months and were going to the Government for a bailout. He said "if you don't pay your best people, you will destroy your franchise. Those best people can get jobs other places, they will leave. “One can argue that Thain's definition of "best people" is way off, given the fact that these are the same people who drove their bank to ruin. One could also point out that right now, jobs are hard to come by in any sector even for the so-called “best”, making those bonuses excessive at this time. But in fact, there is a deeper truth that we need to hear and to understand if we are to get out of this hole and not ever fall back in.
The truth, as discovered by Etsko, is that "whether or not you pay your workers the top rate for an industry or the bottom rate is immaterial and will have no bearing on the extent to which they trust you." Yes, loyalty is driven by things other than money and this makes sense if one just stops to think about it: Once you get paid a huge bonus from a bank for work already done, what is to keep you from moving to the bank that promises you a higher bonus the next year?  Especially when the culture you are in encourages self-interest and greed. Only one example illustrates the veracity of Etsko's finding: Google is a company often cited as a best place to work and they are famous for having pay below industry standards.

President Obama is in fact the kind of leader which can command the commitment and loyalty of his followers to give more than they receive and do the work necessary to solve these huge problems we are facing. However, that means we need to listen to him, to follow his lead, and to make the hard choices,putting the greater good ahead of our individual interests. Paradoxically, this is the only thing that will save each of us from the abyss. Instead of chanting “yes we can!” it is time to answer the question “Yes, we can what?”

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