The current crisis on Wall Street is being characterized in technical terms that few Americans understand: subprime mortgages, credit default swaps, mortgage-backed securities, and CDOs.
But this is not a crisis caused by the failure of complex financial instruments. This is a crisis caused by the failure of leaders on Wall Street.
The heads of firms like Bear Stearns, Lehman Brothers, AIG, Countrywide Financial, and Washington Mutual all too often sacrificed their firms´ futures in order to maximize short-term gains. This meant under-pricing of risk in exchange for immediate fees and taking on inordinate levels of debt to invest in complex, highly uncertain instruments.
Compounding their errors, these leaders were unwilling to face reality when the value of their holdings tanked, as many declined to mark these instruments to market. Instead, they argued that their complex financial models yielded a superior valuation for their holdings. In some cases, this “mark-to-model” approach, or what Berkshire Hathaway (BRK.A) Chairman Warren Buffet calls “mark to myth,” led to their undoing as people inside or outside the firms had difficulty figuring out what their assets were really worth. Had they followed the long-term investing philosophies of Buffet, these firms would be still be around.
A financial failure? No, this is a leadership failure.
The first job of any leader is to preserve the viability of the enterprise. These leaders focused on short-term gains and large bonuses for themselves, instead of ensuring the survivability of their companies and building them for the long-term. In this sense, their behavior mimicked failed leaders from earlier in the decade like Jeff Skilling of Enron and Bernie Ebbers of WorldCom, except there is no indication here of any illegal actions.
In contrast, five leaders of financial firms stand out for their prudent leadership as they prepared for this crisis by anticipating the impact of systemic risks and emphasizing the long-term health of their firms: Dick Kovacevich of Wells Fargo (WFC), Jamie Dimon of JP Morgan Chase (JPM), Ken Lewis of Bank of America (BAC), Lloyd Blankfein of Goldman Sachs(GS), and John Mack of Morgan Stanley(MS).
- Wells Fargo´s Kovacevich built the nation´s leading mortgage banking portfolio by emphasizing sound lending practices and avoiding the unqualified mortgages that led to the demise of mortgage bankers like Countrywide Financial.
- JP Morgan´s Dimon and Bank of America´s Lewis kept their balance sheets clean and healthy so that they were prepared to purchase distressed firms like Bear Stearns, Washington Mutual, Countrywide, and Merrill Lynch (MER) at bargain basement prices.
- Goldman´s Blankfein and Morgan Stanley´s Mack built liquidity and carefully managed risks as their firms shifted to the bank holding company model.
When it comes to authentic leadership in this crisis, no one stands out more than Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson. As a member of the Goldman Sachs board since 2002, I had the opportunity to observe him at close range. Were it not for Paulson – and his adaptability, tenacity, and ability to get other leaders to face reality – the U.S. financial condition would be in far worse shape than it is.
When he took the Treasury post, Paulson never dreamed of bailing out Wall Street financial firms, because his primary focus was on restoring relationships between the U.S. and finance ministers around the world. As the crisis unfolded, he immediately stepped up to leading the country through it. Using skills honed for decades as an investment banker, Paulson was able to bring the administration and warring political parties to agreement on the $700 billion bailout package approved by the House on Friday.
Paulson is a fervent believer in the free market system, but he recognized that without U.S. government intervention, this crisis could topple our entire financial system. We can only hope these latest moves, coupled with government takeovers of failed institutions, are sufficiently strong to restore confidence in the market and rid the economy of excessive bad debt.
This is just the latest–and largest–in the once-a-decade crises that Wall Street goes through. We shouldn´t forget the savings and loan debacle of the 1980s, the collapse of Long-Term Capital Management in the 1990s, and the bursting of the technology bubble in 2002. Yet creative financial people continue to invent new models and new instruments that create short-term gains, often without understanding the pitfalls they represent.
Many pundits blame these problems on greed, but greed is nothing new. The underlying characteristic of all these fiascos is the same: brilliant managers who thought they could out-smart the market, instead of leaders with the wisdom to build sound firms for the long-term.
The boards of directors of the failed firms bear a heavy responsibility for their failure to select the right leaders and to monitor their actions. All too often they permitted high-profile, ego-driven leaders put their image and drive for power ahead of their responsibilities as leaders.
We will never avoid these problems until boards of directors start selecting authentic leaders to run their firms known for character, substance, and integrity. These attributes are essential if we want to restore the strength and primacy of the U.S. financial system and build our economy for the long-term.
We reviewed 1,132 responses to the following question and chose the best response, the most authentic leader, and the most authentic company. See our results below:
“Which CEO and/or company represents authentic leadership to you and why?”
Best Response comes in from Kurt Hoffmann of Sacramento, CA:
“Bill, my choice would be Warren Buffett. Warren displays authentic leadership in showing a real commitment (both in words and deeds) to improving “stakeholder value” over time. By stakeholders, I mean shareholders, employees, customers, the community, etc. Warren is both a great leader and a great teacher. He is an independent thinker who challenges the conventionally accepted way of looking at things, and explains his reasoning in a sound and uncomplicated way. He sometimes adds humor just to make his perspective a little more interesting and fun. When he became acting CEO of Solomon after its trading scandal in the 90’s, he told employees that if they lost money he would be understanding, but if they were unethical he would be ruthless. He sets a vision and a tone for his subsidiary chiefs, allocates an appropriate amount of capital to them in order for them to perform, let’s them operate with autonomy (although sometimes providing guidance if needed), and holds them accountable for achieving the expected results. His intense focus on increasing the book value (shareholder equity) of Berkshire Hathaway over time has changed the lives of countless families. His selfless gift of his fortune to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation (rather than having spent it during his lifetime, or setting up a foundation in his own name) speaks volumes about his character, his humility, and his integrity. I’ve learned a tremendous amount about business and life from his writings, and have benefited significantly from having had the privilege of attending a few of his annual shareholder meetings. As Ben Graham was his mentor, in many ways he has been a mentor to me, although we’ve never met and he’ll never know it. He definitely has my vote!” – Kurt Hoffmann
Most Authentic Leader is Ratan Tata of Tata Group:
“Chairman Ratan Tata of the Tata Group is definitely the epitome of authentic leadership in my opinion because: He has the ability to bring the Globe to India and take India to the Globe, he successfully maintains a fine balance between revenue-driven goals and CSR goals, he lives the Tata life and is a model of inspiration for young managers wthin the Tata Group. It takes only the best leadership aptitude and intuition to hold a Group consisting of 98+ companies together successfully in a unique network and Chairman Tata achieves this on a daily basis.” – Bryan D’Souza
“Mr. Ratan Tata of the Tata Group. He keeps his promises and engages positive change.” – Wendy C. Frye
“A visionary and a true leader who heads the tata conglomerate comprising of 100 group companies… Under his leadership the Tata group — once dubbed as a sleeping elephant woke up in the last decade… He has been able to lead and motivate its CEO/MD of the group companies to be ambitious and “Think Big,Think Ahead.” This resulted in the merger and aqcuisitions of Corus with Tata steel and buying in Jaguar for Tata Motors… Sir Ratan Tata is not only a true leader for his group companies but a visionary who also advises the Governmentt of India” – Rajat Khawas
“TATA has never resorted in taking the easy way and has made the group respected and profitable while inculcating the same culture across organizations…Mr. Ratan Tata is a source of inspiration to other leaders and organizations who believes in the right values” – Sudhir Chaturvedi
“I would nominate Ratan Tata of the Tata Group from India for continuous display of business leadership without compromising on ethics, values, and principles…recently, the Tatas have been embroiled, for no fault of theirs, in a political quagmire called West Bengal in India. The dignity with which they did not step into political discussions on focused on Business and CSR is noteworthy. As I write this, the Tatas have decided to walk out of Bengal citing personnel security as a strong enough deterrent against pursuing projects in the state. What struck me was this – until it involved his company directly, Mr. Ratan Tata never created hype in the newspapers nor added fuel to the fire; he watched and he acted when it was necessary.” – Sudarshan Avadhany
“In India, being a developing country, buying a 4 wheeler is everyone’s dream and the hardest for millions of families. Ratan Tata is the only person who has realised the people’s dream and promised to grant it. Now he is making the $2500 world’s cheapest car called “NANO.” Shortly, it will be available in the market.” – Susanta Roy
“He got ridiculed by the world’s automotive manufacturers when he mentioned the idea of bringing a compact car to the market for $2000. Today, that is a reality, and it will immensely change the automotive landscape of countries like India and China where growth has just reached the middle class…” – Gautam Ganguly
“Mr. Ratan Tata could easily have been amongst the top 10 richest persons in the world, but choose to create an empire that will make his ancestors proud…” – Rohit Shrivastava
“Ratan Tata has consistently refused to break the law or encourage corruption. When we see Ratan Tata refusing to pay bribes, refusing to lick politicians’ boots and refusing to bend the rules and still taking the TATAS from strength to strength, still buying the world’s best companies (Corus, Jaguar), and still reinventing the rules of the car industry — Nano Car priced at Rs 1.0 lac [$2,200 USD]… Ratan Tata is a ‘living legend’ with steely determination proving that its possible to be honest and principled…” – Anjali Jain
Most Authentic Company is Google:
“Google always comes to my mind when I think about leadership and I will tell you why. They are in a tough market (imagine media and advertising companies fighting with search engines for pennies, or even fractions of a penny, per click) but they still grow and innovate – the Android platform for mobiles – a multi-billion dollar market – and their new browser, good examples in my opinion, are something probably making a lot of executives out there lose their sleep. Beyond that one would think that given their relaxed environment the chance of success is marginal to nothing. However, what we see is a company striving at creating new products and inventing new ways to make money where others seem to struggle. That’s darn pretty good leadership to me!” – Robson Felix
“The best company is Google. Why: (1) Their quench to help and better humanity. (2) Consistent innovation. (3) Information and education accessible to ALL. (4) They are great to employees. (5) Equally rewarding to share holders.” – Jason Prescott
“For me, the example to follow is Google. A company that takes care of their customers, external and internal (employees), and keeps bringing constant innovations that it shares with the masses. Thank you Google one more time and Happy 10th Birthday.” – Alex Casteleiro
“…I am prompted to say that Google appears to be a company that exhibits authentic leadership. This occurred to me after reviewing their presentation on the launch of Chrome their new internet browser. While they are proud of the work they have done they have chosen to create a product that is malleable by others. They encourage their users to come have play with them, if you will and improve upon what they have developed. As a company that maintains a close relationship with it’s users it is clear that Google values is stakeholders the end user and takes their input seriously. More importantly Google challenges us, if not inspires us to see the way we interact with the world in ‘cyberspace’ differently. It is an ever ch
anging entity and they are at the forefront every step of the way.” – Sabrina Whiteman
“I would say Google. Starting a company with only $100,000 and building it to what it is today, and in such a short period of time (10 yrs this month) takes not only exceptional business know how, but requires genuine/authentic leadership and deep understanding of people. It is most evident in their employees´ enthusiasm for the company – all you have to do is speak to someone at Google and you will see what I mean.” – Ben J. Darling