The Dangers of Ego & The Value of Good Stewards

You can still move the big rocks without breaking everything.

I’m fascinated by the strange tale of WeWork.

The seemingly innovative co-working company with the brilliant branding and patina of cool has imploded before our very eyes.

First, the company abandoned its long anticipated IPO, then it fired its high-flying CEO Adam Neumann, then it cost its largest investor Softbank billions of dollars and now comes the human fall-out with one-third of its employees—about 4,000 people—being laid off just in time for the holidays.

Merry Christmas.

Bah humbug.

It was only a short time ago that those people were working for the most publicized start-up in the world, a company once valued in the tens of billions for a boss who flew around the world in a $60 million jet and summoned the heads of stock exchanges to his home so they could audition for his business.

Now he’s gone– albeit with a platinum $1.7 billion parachute— a huge reward for an egomaniac who hurt a whole lot of people on his team by serving his ego and ambition over the bottom line.

It’s quite a tale, but sadly not an unfamiliar one.

We all know examples of people who crash into our lives, businesses and organizations armed with bravado, ego, bold ideas and often a whole lot of charisma.

Some actually have the goods and deliver. But many crash and burn and sadly take a slew of people with them.

A few years back, I was asked to talk to a wonderful group called Creative Mornings. The topic I was assigned was genius, a challenging topic to distill.

Since giving that talk, my feelings have evolved somewhat on the topic of genius.

While I still admire those who are blessed with genius, I have become more acutely aware of its darker side.

Mr. Neumann of WeWork is clearly a genius— on some level at least. He took an idea—co-working—and made it so cool that cities that were able to attract a WeWork saw it as validation that they were an “it” place.

Softbank poured billions into Neumann’s vision which went beyond co-working to a fully fleshed out lifestyle brand. And then it crashed, under a tsunami of hubris.

A similar fate happened to the founder of Uber, whose ride-sharing idea, swept the world but whose arrogance and over the top “bro” culture ultimately forced his dismissal.

Another good example of a supreme talent who wore out his welcome is Antonio Brown, who recently gave a pep talk to the Atlantic High School football team. I’ve been told the talk was great, but Mr. Brown went from being a top wide receiver making millions to unemployed after a series of bizarre incidents which ultimately led him to being bounced from the NFL. The descent was really fast.

When egomaniacs fail, they fail fast.

There are other examples too.

Mark Zuckerberg is undoubtedly a genius, but his creation Facebook, has suffered from issues as a result of privacy lapses, data breaches and the spread of misinformation.

His formidable technical genius is often undermined by a personality that is often unwilling to own issues of his own creation. Or maybe it’s the realization that even he is not smart enough to fix what’s dangerous about his own platform.

Regardless, while I remain a fan of genuine genius and appreciate its presence in art, song, design, business etc., I’ve come to appreciate the concept of stewardship and the importance of good stewards.

Sure there is a place for the game changers and disruptive mavericks. There is also a time when the dishes need to be shattered, but there is also a real need for people who are responsible and talented stewards.

A good steward knows they are in their position for a set period of time. They know that many have come before them and that many will follow them. They have respect for the past, seek to understand it and do their best to shape a brighter future knowing someday they will hand off to another leader.

They may not get the attention of the maverick change agent or genius, but they understand their job is to protect, enhance and position their organization for future success.

Sometimes I wonder whether that concept is lost on politicians.

So when a Senator blocks a Supreme Court pick or a President ignores Congress or attacks institutions are they unaware that they have now normalized those behaviors and therefore those “favors” will be returned? When we act as if we are the last people who will steer the ship, we risk sliding into a cycle of bad behaviors and reprisals. What gets lost in the cycle of rewarding friends and punishing enemies is the actual job of governing—or any sense of stewardship. Yes, someday you will pass the baton so please don’t break it in pieces.

I’ve seen this dynamic play out locally when newly elected leaders question past decisions without the benefit hindsight and context. What might have made sense in 1991 may not make sense in 2001 or in 2019. Or it just may— if you take the time to understand and look at the big picture.

None of this is to say we shouldn’t try and do big things. We need to move the big rocks, as we used to say in Delray.

But just make sure that when you move them you don’t crush what’s underneath. And always strive to keep your humility. Because, even if you are a genius, you don’t have all the answers.

Adam Neumann built a great brand at WeWork. But it crashed and burned and cost thousands of families and investors dearly. It crashed because the genius whiz kid thought he could do no wrong.

That’s a sure recipe for disaster whether you are a CEO or run the corner store.

A better mindset is to wake up a little scared and try and anticipate what can go wrong. A better way to lead is to try and protect the future.








Paying It Forward: Our Responsibility To The Future

Exponential results occur when you pay it forward.

Exponential results occur when you pay it forward.

I came across a magnificent story a few weeks back in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
It was a story about a “one man redevelopment machine”, an older gentleman who fell in love with the beat up town of Foxburg in Clarion County, Pennsylvania.
Where others saw blight, Dr. Arthur Steffee saw beauty. So he put his money and his convictions where his heart was, buying up old buildings and opening businesses such as a winery, a pizza shop and other retail stores.
At age 83, chances are Dr. Steffee won’t be around to enjoy a return on his investment. At least in the conventional sense. But in the more important measures–heart, soul, satisfaction and love–he most surely will.
Dr. Steffee embodies the mindset of a steward–the type of leader who understands that his or her role is to leave a place better off than when you find it. It’s a simple concept really. But it requires selflessness, vision, fortitude, patience and a long term view of leadership too often lacking in our society.
“We will never get out of it what we put into it,” he said. “The point is to leave something behind.”
Yes it is. That’s the whole point.
Over the holiday break we went to see the movie “Brooklyn” which chronicles the experience of a young Irish immigrant who leaves her home and her family for a new life in America.
The film is achingly beautiful. You literally find yourself tearing up for most of its two hour running time. Not because the film is especially sad, but because it rings so true and it captures the homesickness, sacrifice and strength of our immigrant relatives who risked it all so that we–future generations –could enjoy the opportunities of America.
I thought of my own grandparents who came from Russia, Poland and Latvia not speaking English or having any marketable skills other than a tremendous work ethic, unfathomable strength and a desire for their children and grandchildren to be here in the land of opportunity.
My wife’s mother came from a tiny village in Italy as a teenager leaving behind all that she knew for a taste of America.
In my family, within one generation, we experienced a fair amount of success. My father, a first generation American went to an Ivy League college and enjoyed a long and successful career as a pharmacist and businessman.
My wife’s mom became a widow at a young age and raised five children all of whom have experienced success in this country.
Stewards and our immigrant parents and grandparents believe our lives should be about about creating opportunity–to leave something behind as the good doctor in Foxburg, PA., says.
It’s not all about us, our pet peeves, personal drive times, annoyances and tastes. Sure, we can’t ignore the present but we need to focus our present on creating opportunities for others in the future.
That’s our jobs. If we do so, history will treat us kindly and reward those who will benefit from our vision, sacrifices and hard work.
If we ignore the future, it will surely bite us and our children.
“We will never get out of it what we put into it”, said the doctor. Maybe, but in many ways we will. The point is to leave something behind.