“Cocaine is God’s way of saying that you have too much money.”
- Robin Williams
It’s party time. The Super Bowl is tonight. Mardi Gras is on Tuesday. And my neighbors, certain fraternities at University of Virginia, will use just about any occasion to celebrate. Let it all hang out. In the midst of all this partying will be some lessons for leaders.
Pundits, books, articles, and schools encourage leaders-in-training to build such qualities as audacity, passion, initiative, thinking “outside the box,” redefining the rules of the game, aggressive questioning, and so on. Unfortunately, some managers take this to justify creating an edgy corporate culture: frank language, intemperate relations, rude and abusive treatment of colleagues, management-by-fear, and rising transactionalism (see my earlier posting on this.)
And it can spill over into life outside the workplace: work hard, play hard. Alcohol abuse is always present in professional life—perhaps managers learn it at universities, where students confront a rich array of liquid and other amusements. (On this point, you must read Melinda Beck’s recent article in The Wall Street Journal, “Are you an alcoholic?”—it is, shall we say, sobering.) I’m glad to note that Darden students are fairly mature, though I have observed that an expectation of an affluent future can breed a sense of invulnerability about playing hard. As Robin Williams implies, rising affluence permits a widening range of experimentation. The irony is that if you are letting your bank balance determine your behavior, you’ll let anything run your life.
We should acknowledge that self-control is one of the prime attributes of leaders. Andrea Larson and I wrote a case about Chuck Griffith, a General Manager who led a dramatic turnaround of the worst-performing division at Allied-Signal Corporation. As an aside, he uttered, “If you’re not in control of yourself, you’re not doing your job.” That’s big: self-control is part of the leader’s job.
We think of the job of the leader as including the recognition of problems and opportunities, framing of a vision and strategy, enlisting and aligning people, reading the constituencies, communicating well, and sparking action. Self-control helps the leader do all of these things. It sustains intellectual rigor and critical thinking; it can convey confidence with which to reach and motivate others; it promotes trust and integrity in the work group; it is the basis for turning frenzy into organized purposeful action. Self-control is not the total absence of emotion, play, or impulse; rather, it promotes balanced judgment about when to do what, and how hard. For instance, anger may be necessary to move an organization but should be served sparingly as a condiment rather than as a staple in the daily diet. (The research on emotional intelligence, and Daniel Goleman’s book by the same name, illuminate this kind of balance.) Self-control is not a sometime thing. Leaders tend to be authentic and consistent people. It is very difficult to binge in private life and not have it affect your leadership at work.
Self-control is difficult to teach in the B-school curriculum, but it is a quality that B-schools should aim to develop in their students. It is certainly part of the canon of great ideas: “Everything in moderation,” is a standard of ancient Western Civilization (often attributed to Aristotle). Eastern civilizations offered similar maxims. We should emphasize wellness in personal life (in respect to good diet, exercise, rest, and other practices consistent with self-control.) Classroom discussions should strive for temperate and respectful exchange, even in the midst of sharp intellectual disagreement. And we should not be afraid to speak up for balance (“Did you need to lose your temper to make that point in class?” “Will sending that flaming email give the leadership you want?” “Is that extra drink/all-nighter/deep-fried Twinkie really good for you?”)—finding the right words and place for speaking up is crucial to sustaining the liberal environment of the university. But if self-control is part of the job of the leader, and if leadership development is part of the B-school’s mission, then it should become part of our discourse as a community.
Posted by Robert Bruner at 02/03/2008 01:54:58 PM