Alex Malley, ASIC, Australian Cricket team, Australian Securities and Investment Commission, ball tampering, banking Royal Commission, Callum Hawkins, CEO, Chair, Commonwealth Games, Commonwealth Games 2018, Directors, entitlement, Executive, Michael Shelley, win at all costs, win without conscinces, winners are sinners
It strikes me that a couple of the by-products of our self-obsession are this overwhelming sense of entitlement I’m noticing lately and this ‘win at all costs’ culture. We can’t necessarily call it an aberration because there are a number of factors that individually may not give rise to it, but collectively may just be significant causation. I can almost track it back to the selfie stick! Social media, and particularly LinkedIn, in the business context, has had a significant role to play. Everywhere nowadays we are told that we have to have a ‘narrative’ and be conscious of ‘brand self’. LinkedIn is, by its very nature, a form of selling yourself and with this comes the danger of self-absorption. I’m sure I’m not the only one who was desperate to get to the 500+ connections to prove that I’m no slouch in the networking game. How many do I actually know well, trust and cherish as colleagues or business partners…I’d be stretching it at 50.
You might argue that this is all a bit trivial and doesn’t really harm us in business or society. However I think it has potential to do great harm and here’s why. With self-absorption comes entitlement and arrogance. A comfortable bed fellow with this is the ‘win at all costs’ culture. Nothing wrong with winning you might argue. We need winners. No-one wants to be backing a losing horse. No-one wants to be backing a CEO and Board whose company isn’t winning on the stock market. But there is a line we must draw in business and life where the pursuit of a win has to come secondary to other issues. The delivery of shareholder value at the cost of say allowing or turning a blind eye to modern slavery is but one example.
You don’t have to look far to see the unfettered pursuit of winning at all costs in our everyday lives and the world of commerce. Three significant events related to Australia have happened recently and while distinct and seemingly not linked, do, I think share a common thread of ‘win without conscience’. Firstly there was the ball tampering incident by the Australian men’s cricket team in South Africa. I’ve held off blogging about this until the heat has died down. There was too much emotion flying around in the direct aftermath for reasoned analysis. Of all the commentary I read I found that very little focussed on the ‘win at all costs’ culture as a causative factor. In short an absolutely mindless act was undertaken on the field of play using sandpaper to alter the texture of the ball to try and win a test game. Sure it was to get one up in the series but there are few clearer cases of a fixation on the target of winning, with all other considerations out the window, than this. All rational thought appears to have been missing, especially by the leadership team. What in itself would have been foolish in the days of radio, was clearly a complete brain explosion when the game is telecast in 4K definition live! When considering why they did this, you have to think in terms of risk and reward. Why would they risk so much? The answer lies I believe in the notion of both entitlement and ‘win regardless of how’.
Our players clearly have been told they are the best and they have a firm belief that the ‘crown’ is theirs by rights. At its mildest it manifests itself in the over the top celebration when a wicket falls or a century scored. At its worst players doctor the ball to gain an advantage. Underpinning this is an on-field tirade of abuse against the opposition called ‘sledging’. In junior sport if you caught your child doing this you would chastise them. We don’t tolerate it in the business workplace so it’s hard to see why we even encourage it in the business of sport. John Buchanan, the ex-Australian cricket team manager and now leadership coach, was early to hit the media decrying what happened and the parlous leadership that allowed the situation to arise. What was missing in his critique was the fact that the toxic culture that gave birth to this was very much in evidence when he was the coach.
The second event happened at the Commonwealth Games. It was important to our nation’s pride that we won the most medals and ‘bossed’ it over everyone. So much so that at times I felt a little bit like we were living in a post war Germany – where the GDR used to dope up their athletes because winning meant so much. I’m not suggesting for a minute we did this but the fervour and ‘we’re better, stronger, faster than you’ zeal which is a disguised xenophobia was certainly tainting the air. But let’s not get too hung up on the Games. They are the friendly games after all where sportspersonship and comradery are the most important aspects. And yet I’m not sure that this was so. The marathon was a case in point. It was painful to watch the exhausted leader of the marathon, the Scotsman Callum Hawkins collapse just 2 kilometres short of the finish line. What was even more painful for me – at the friendly Games remember – was the sight of our Australian runner, Michael Shelley, powering past him prostrate on the ground as he stormed off to win the much vaunted Gold Medal.
My contention is that if we weren’t so self-absorbed with winning then he would have done the reasonable thing and at least stopped to check his fellow marathoner was OK. Not a hanging offence for sure and not worthy of the trolling he got some time after on social media, but still there is something there that got in the way of basic humanity and compassion. I can’t help think it was the same mindset that brought the sandpaper into play in the Third Test in South Africa.
So what’s all this got to do with business, aside from sport being big business by any measure? Well my final example of entitlement and ‘win at all costs’ is now on display in the Royal Commission into Banking. CEOs, Chairs and Directors from the finance industry are being paraded in an almost gladiatorial fashion (at last many might add) before the Commissioner and what is being revealed is jaw dropping to say the least. Think of it as another sandpaper incident…every single day! We all suspected that things weren’t good in the sector and the remuneration structures incentivised bad behaviour, but to see the depths that have been plumbed by our elite strata of Directors and Executives is beyond comprehension. If you shook your head at the sandpaper on the cricket ball, your head must be spinning Exorcist style now.
What we have witnessed and heard is layers of hubris, entitlement, arrogance and there is no finer example of a win at all costs attitude than this. In such situations it’s best to ‘fess up’. Strangely though, the cricketers didn’t straight away. In fact they concocted a half-baked story that didn’t hold water for even 24 hours. For Executives and Directors they too have been less than forthcoming, lying even to the regulator ASIC. They have deliberately misled us for years showing one face to staff and shareholders, and a different face to customers; yes even their dead ones! Every night we are blasted with TV advertising showing just how friendly the Banks are, how they help small business, or rescue us from the waves in what is confusingly presented as their helicopter. Their values statements on their websites are exemplars of how true values-based organisations should act…and yet it is a huge deceit.
The exhortations to be winners and promoters of ‘brand me’; quite often perpetuated by the obsession we have today with entrepreneurship have made us morbidly self-absorbed. We need to get away from winning without conscience. We need to become less ‘me, me’ and more community and customer focused. We need humility. We need less ‘super star’ Directors and CEOs who seem to be lionised in some media as though they are the new David Beckham. No exaggeration if you recall Alex Malley! Get over yourselves fellas and shielas – you ain’t that special or interesting. We can only hope that our sporting heroes and our business leaders learn the subtle art of winning and losing. Come at one through humility and the other through wisdom. Choosing which is which is the key. We should all work hard on doing the right thing. No-one really wants the stain of sinning on their consciences, surely, even if a gold watch, parachute or medal are on offer!