Published in the San Diego Union-Tribune, November 30, 2020
Thanksgiving is over. The election is over. The year is almost over. COVID is not over. If you have not been personally impacted by the last nine months, then you must have been quarantining on Mars. How does one make sense of the world at this time?
Prior to Thanksgiving, I usually write a column about being grateful. I list many blessings, and I am humbled. But this year, I am going to assume that all my readers are beyond grateful that they are still standing (with a shoutout to Elton John). Do not forget that more than 250,000 Americans missed their turkey dinner this year. Enough said for now on that subject.
So where is the nexus between leadership and entrepreneurship, at all levels from startup CEO to commander-in-chief? For guidance I turned to an interview with Warren Buffett, presented by Amardeep Parmar. The Financial Times calls Buffett a “grounded billionaire and capitalism’s kindly grandpa.” Do not be deceived. My suspicion is that he is no pushover at the negotiation table.
The Sage of Omaha recently opined about the key to successful management. He says that the single most important feature is integrity. “You look for three qualities, integrity, intelligence and energy. And if you don’t have the first, the other two will kill you.” Alright, easy to say, but integrity is hard to measure or quantify.
But Buffett has a test he applies. He calls it the “Eros question.” At his famous once-a-year lunch (the cost is $650,000 donated to the Glide Foundation to help the homeless, but it does come with curly fries), here is the question Buffett posed to his guests, “Would you rather be considered the best lover in the world, and know privately you are the worst, or would you prefer to know privately that you’re the best lover in the world, but considered the worst?”
Instinctively, we all know the “right answer,” but that answer plays against the way the world really works. Given social media and the current environment, leaders are susceptible to getting caught up in the “outer scorecard.” We all want praise, even if we don’t deserve it. It is human nature. We check on how many “followers” we have and are outraged if we are “unfriended.”
The second question Buffett asks in his search for integrity is the “newspaper question.” He asks someone how they would feel “about any given action if they knew it was to be written up the next day in the newspaper.” Now, I love the Buff, but let’s get real here. First, no one reads a newspaper anymore (present company excluded). Advertising revenue for newspapers has declined 62 percent, from $37 billion in 2008 to $14 billion in 2019.
Buffett used to own more than 30 daily newspapers and 49 paid weeklies. But no one can take the pain forever; he sold the majority of his holdings in January 2020. But his question is still powerful. Do people care if they are held out publicly as a fraud or dishonest? In other words, does bad behavior carry a price to be paid?
I suggest it does not. Your mailbox or your inbox over the last six months has been stuffed with “negative advertising” regardless of which political party you prefer. And studies show it works. Buffett’s search for integrity runs smack into the current reality that truth is fluid and malleable. Tell a lie long enough …
And frankly, outrageous behavior is commented on daily and then just gets subsumed by the next “news” cycle. As for being embarrassed, that emotion doesn’t really exist any longer. Financial scams and schemes are routine news. Online or in print, we just wave them off. Warren, the newspaper you loved is a chimera; they wrap fish in it the next day.
Ironically, as a society, we say we want transparency in our leadership, but perhaps that is a false cry. Is integrity really rewarded or is it merely a small checked box that gets marked in disappearing ink? When the leader is deceptive and is caught “red-handed,” the public phrase he trots out is, “I take full responsibility for the ….” That’s a lie, and I don’t believe a word you’re saying. And the vaccine that is coming won’t cure that.
Rule No. 377
Look in the mirror.