By Israel Rojas-Moreno ‘16
If you want to be a good CEO, you better get used to getting dirt kicked in your face. This was my biggest takeaway from a recent “Three Myths of Morality” conversation between former Exelon CEO John Rowe and Professor Nick Epley in the Life After Booth series held last week.
The talk was a refreshing contrast to the sanitized and glorified versions of leadership we’ve been led to believe await us in the future. Particularly at a time when many of us are rapturously watching Frank Underwood enjoy the spoils of his ruthless pursuit of power, I couldn’t help but wonder: why are we in a such a rush to inherit these roles?
There were many excellent arguments made throughout the evening, but in addition to the myths debunked by Professor Epley, there were two points worth highlighting.
The first was that, particularly in industries heavily regulated by government, the job of CEO could be a tremendously miserable experience. Mr. Rowe’s stories were not to condemn government as inherently bad, but to provide a glimpse into the political system as it can be: unscrupulous, degenerate, and profligate. And yet, the unspoken truth was that we only have ourselves to blame, because of our errant aspirations or simply because of our passive civic disengagement. This problem isn’t new. Over 2,000 years ago Plato was talking about the penalty for refusing to participate in politics and neglecting our civic responsibilities (i.e. a worse government).
The second argument to highlight was about the importance of diversity. Mr. Rowe recalled a meeting he attended that was full of university presidents and all the “smartest people” you could imagine. He recalled that despite the group’s advanced education, they were unable to recognize that their policy recommendations were self-serving; they adamantly believed that what was good for them was good for everyone. In LEAD parlance, their group self-awareness was so low as to be nonexistent. For Mr. Rowe, the experience seemed to crystallize the value of having diverse backgrounds, experiences, and perspectives.
In addition, Mr. Rowe highlighted a couple of best practices that we would be wise to heed as we set out to build responsible and upstanding organizations. One – a focus on the short term will yield a culture of perverted incentives. Two – we must have the courage to stand resolute against market pressures; that we don’t have to dance just because the music is playing.
Throughout our careers, we will be asked to make decisions about how to balance our duty to shareholders and our duty to society. Our CEO aspirations might demand the former, but our compassion must demand the latter. There is a beauty in believing in the infallible market, but we must remember: the market is nothing more than a collection of people and people are imperfect. It may not be fun to sit out the music, but that is the burden of leadership. Business school is an excellent time to start practicing.
The author is inheriting the the burden of being the incoming Perspectives Editor for ChiBus.