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Too Big to Fail: The Need for Leaders to Remember

February 21, 2012 Keith Coats Boomers, Case Studies and Stories, Ethics, Global business, Leadership No Comments

Imagine a workforce that takes initiative, accepts responsibility for their work, their learning and their company. Imagine an environment where there is energy, goodwill and a shared camaraderie. Image!

Anybody who thinks that this isn’t desirable, who thinks this impossible, let me make a recommendation: go see a movie. Not just any movie but one in particular. One I have just watched whilst flying to London on business. It was one that was someone fortuitously picked out of an impressive in-flight entertainment menu, one that somehow simply had to be viewed and is now one that I am suggesting every CEO watch. The movie in question? ‘Too Big to Fail‘ – the story of the 2008 Wall Street meltdown that came within a dollar of bringing down the entire American dream and with it, much of the global economy.

It is a gripping account of what happened as the investment banks in the US were bailed out by Government during the turmoil of that time. It is a roller-coaster ride that reveals the drama, the characters and the bargaining that went on unabated as egos, policy and principle collided as the markets bled out. Only a select few will know for certain to what extent Hollywood has coloured the picture within the lines of what actually happened, but regardless of any artistic license taken, it unfurls events in a manner that make comprehension for the layman possible. Certainly the few books I have read on the crisis reveal a complexity that makes any telling of the tale a challenge.

So why do leaders need to watch this movie? There would be many leadership lessons embedded in the economic ruins that this period represents but ‘Too Big to Fail’ highlights one in particular that should challenge every leader every day. It is the lesson of remembering: the remembering of the greater good that underpins why it is that you are in business. Losing this perspective is to open the door to greed, ego and selfishness; it is the invitation to a self-serving motive that ultimately undermines everything in ever expanding concentric circles – much like the ripples made by a stone thrown into a pond.

It is a remembering that whilst profit is important, it is not ‘all important’. Naive? Yes, perhaps. This ‘remembering’ is more accustomed to mere lip-service than having any real substance in the corridors of power and in the plush boardrooms where matters of profitability and shareholder value hold sway. Perhaps, in the system we have, it always will be somewhat naive until someone stands up and has the courage to say, “enough”.

‘Too Big to Fail’ is the story of runaway greed and leadership egos blindsided by their own distorted image. It is the story of a systems failure that if anything is to be learnt, demands that we have to think and behave differently. I’m not an economist but when you strip away the economic complexity of this story, it reveals some fundamental human attitudes and behaviours that need changing. Ultimately it is not an economic story; rather it is a story about leadership. Leaders need to be the ones to stand-up and say “enough”. It is the role and responsibility of the Leader to act in what is the best interests of the whole – the whole person, the whole company, the whole community, the whole society. If the Leader fails in this responsibility the system will eventually collapse. This is true of economic, political, social and biological systems. It places a massive responsibility on leadership to stay in touch with what really matters; to see the bigger picture; to be selfless, bold, authentic and humble. You lead out of who you are and ultimately there is no escaping this reality. In short, ‘To Big to Fail’ is a stark reminder to all leaders that, what goes around, comes around!

It can be easy for leaders to ‘lose their way’ once the trappings of power become familiar. So often the accountability structures in which leaders lead are prone to distortion and manipulation allowing for the type of personal and corporate failure we so often see happen. The cords of executive accountability need to be strengthened. It may be argued that this has been one of the outcomes from this particular crisis but there will still be the need for vigilance. Leadership development programmes and processes should pay as much attention to the development of character as they do to the functional requirements of leadership. Current leaders will need to get to grip with a world of engagement, collaboration and importantly, transparency. The social agenda that is made up of ‘social media’ (an external focus) and ‘social business’ (an internal focus) demands a mind-shift for many leaders. This is the terrain that makes up the new world of work and this new reality means that leaders need to understand that everything has now shifted.

Go and see the movie. Take a notepad with you and then and block off some time after you are done in order to reflect and think about why you are in leadership. You won’t be sorry you did.

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The main contributors to this blog are:

Dr Graeme Codrington, co-founder of TomorrowToday, author, speaker and expert on the changing world of work
Dean van Leeuwen, co-founder and CEO of TomorrowToday UK & Europe, speaker, consultant and Chief Intellectual Adventurer
Keith Coats, co-founder of TomorrowToday South Africa, leadership development guru, speaker and author
Professor Nick Barker, director of the Asia Pacific Leadership Program at the East-West Center in Hawaii, leadership development expert
Markus Kramer, marketing director for Aston Martin and brand building expert
Keith Holdt, Visionary Enabler of business growth and change, currently works for LDC as an investment executive.
Dil Sidhu, Chief External Officer, Manchester Business School; Executive education specialist.
Dawna MacLean, expert on fostering meaningful change and creating authentic experiences through transparent and trusted partnerships.

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