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When leaders lose their way: Where brands meet Buddhism

Posted by: Lindsay Beltzer on June 28, 2011

In a recent Harvard Business Review blog post, professor Bill George brings to light the foibles and unethical doings of several high-level leaders of the last year. Among them:

  • Dominque Strauss-Kahn – a leading French politician and former head of the International Monetary Fund, charged with sexual assault.
  • David Sokol, rumored to be Warren Buffett successor, was forced to resign after violating Berkshire Hathaway’s insider-trading rules and purchasing roughly US $10 million in Lubrizol stock prior to recommending that Berkshire Hathaway purchase the company. 
  • Mark Hurd, former Hewlett-Packard CEO resigned post sexual harassment – expenses scandal.

As George points out, what these three leaders have in common is that at the pinnacle of their careers, they jeopardized their position and prestige by abusing their status for seemingly ephemeral gains – money, sex, and power. And at the heart each controversy lies an unexamined self – not bad people, but individuals that have lost their footing and succumbed to the seductions in their path.
He suggests that when leaders rely on external gratification for fulfillment versus internal fulfillment and the satisfaction that comes with building a team and doing something greater than oneself, a vicious impetus is produced: a deep desire for more, whether it is more rewards, press, perks, bonuses, stock appreciation, or the like. In turn, this leads them farther from reality. This disconnect means they are likely to act irresponsibly if a problem comes to the surface and put their organization at risk. (For example, Lehman CEO Richard Fuld’s denial that Lehman Brothers was undercapitalized, and his persistent rejection of advice to seek added capital.)

So, how does this relate to Buddhism and branding? At the heart of Buddhist thought is that chaos and suffering emanate from our desires. But if our desires are rooted in compassion, with the ability to see and speak the truth, we’ll be planting seeds of improvement, not chaos.

Similarly, as we tell leaders time and again, they play a pivotal role in shaping and defining the values that drive their brand, and more importantly, a brand is nothing without its employees. Any brand leader who loses sight of this is putting their organization and bottom line at risk.

And as George advises, “This requires reframing their leadership from being heroes to being servants of the people they lead. This process requires thought and introspection because many people get into leadership roles in response their ego needs.”

So the next time, a CEO or CMO is tempted to turn left on scandal lane, they should remember what they and their brand stands for, and that an “eye for an eye makes the whole world blind."

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