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Bill George

Harvard Business School Professor, former Medtronic CEO

Restoring Trust in Wall Street Leadership

The devastating financial crisis of 2008 has claimed another casualty: trust in leaders of America´s most important financial institutions.

Gaining the trust of the people is essential for every leader.  Leaders cannot be effective without full confidence of the constituencies that grant their institution its legitimacy, nor can capitalism function without trust. Trust is “the coin of the realm.”

According to the just-released 2008 survey taken by the Center for Public Leadership at Harvard Kennedy School, an astounding 80% of the American people believe we have a leadership crisis in the country today.  Unless we get better leaders, 79% feel that the United States will decline as a nation.

Business leaders rank near the bottom of the list, with only 45% reporting confidence in them, down from 59% last year.  Only Congress and the President fare worse.  In contrast, military leaders have the confidence of 71% of the people surveyed, making it the highest group in the survey.

This decline in confidence in business leaders is extremely worrisome.  Not surprisingly, given the current fiscal crisis, the trust issue is most acute among leaders of financial institutions. If we can´t trust in the people who invest our life savings, who can we trust?

For many leaders, the criticisms are well deserved.  The heads of failed institutions like Lehman, AIG, Bear Stearns, Countrywide Financial, Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, Wachovia, and Washington Mutual have done a great disservice to their clients, employees, shareholders, and the nation. It is a disgrace that the U.S. government has had to bail out so many firms to keep the financial system from unraveling. 

To their discredit, many of these leaders opposed to mark-to-market accounting rules, regulation of credit default swaps, greater transparency for hedge funds, or insisting that mortgage bankers obtain financial statements before granting mortgages.

These failures were not caused by complex financial instruments.  They result from failures in leadership. Heads of the failed firms forgot two basic principles of business: to sustain success, firms must serve their customers well for the long-term and contribute to ensuring healthy markets. 

These principles have been central to successful Wall Street leaders for generations. Former CEOs Walter Wriston of Citigroup and John Whitehead of Goldman Sachs always believed clients´ interests and sound capital markets were essential to their firms´ success. So did Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson in his investment banking days. Warren Buffett has consistently spoken out about the problems financial firms were getting into, but few were listening to him, in spite of the enormous success of his firm, Berkshire Hathaway.  

In recent years, financial firms engaged in a mad rush to justify high fees for managing clients´ money by producing outsized short-term returns.  This caused many leaders to lose sight of the importance of protecting their clients´ long-term investments and their financial security. In the scramble to make money for themselves, the failed firms underpriced risk and relied upon excessive leverage – in excess of thirty-five times as much debt as equity. Gambling with their firms´ futures, these failed leaders created massive short-term gains, followed even greater losses, and wound up putting their firms out of business.
No wonder the public has lost confidence in business leaders.

The wisdom of President-elect Barack Obama applies here when he said about the war in Iraq, “I don´t just want to get our troops out of Iraq.  I want to change the mindset that got us there in the first place.”  In Wall Street´s case, it´s not sufficient to get out of the mess we´re in.  We need to change the mindset that led to these problems, so we don´t repeat them in the future.

Correcting the system´s immediate shortcomings, as hard as that will be, is insufficient. We need leaders who can envision the way 21st century global financial markets must function to maintain stability and serve all participants fairly.  Wall Street leaders must work with their government counterparts to put in place institutional rules and oversight to guarantee that markets function smoothly in the future, even under the most extreme circumstances.

We cannot solve problems of this magnitude simply by replacing today´s leaders with people who think and act just like them.  We need new leadership and a new mindset for leaders of America´s great financial institutions. Their new leaders should have five characteristics in common:

  1. They should be authentic leaders, focused on serving their clients and all the institution´s constituents, rather than charismatic leaders seeking money, fame, and power for themselves.
  2. They should place the interests of their institutions and society as a whole above their own interests. 
  3. They should have the integrity to tell the whole truth, admit their mistakes, and acknowledge their shortcomings.  Authentic leadership is not about being perfect.  It is having the courage to admit when you´re wrong and to get on with solving problems, rather than covering them up.
  4. They need to adapt quickly to new realities, changing themselves as well as their institutions, rather than going into denial when things don´t go as intended. 
  5. They need the resilience to bounce back after devastating losses. Resilience enables leaders to restore trust by empowering people to create new solutions that build great institutions for the future.

Some of these leaders have already emerged on Wall Street. The short list includes J. P. Morgan´s Jamie Dimon, Wells Fargo´s Dick Kovacevich, Goldman´s Lloyd Blankfein, and Morgan Stanley´s John Mack. Their firms participated in the same markets as did the failed firms, and used similar financial instruments. 

What´s the difference? They kept their clients´ interests paramount, took a more prudent approach to risk and leverage, kept their accounting conservative and transparent, and focused on long-term sustainability.

This short list is insufficient.  What´s required is a new generation of authentic leaders to step up to leading America´s financial institutions.  These new leaders must be committed to shifting away from short-termism to focus to long-term results for their clients and their firms and to ensure sound, enduring capital markets for our country. 

Only then can the financial community regain vitally needed trust and confidence of the American people. And only then can we be assured that we won´t be back in a similar mess in a few years.