Eccentrics at the top
August 8, 2014
Are you one of the many who enjoy The Wolf of Wall Street? 2014 presents itself as a grand cru year in the film-loving landscape. American Hustle, 12 years a slave, Nebraska... What an exciting start of a film year that was. The Wolf in particular sticks in my memory. Admittedly, I have never seen an audience leave the theater as quietly as it did after having seen 12 years - even more subdued than after Schindler's List. It is mainly because of the line of business that I find The Wolf of Wall Street to be such an impressing film.
Image: © Nationale Beeldbank
The film does not glorify the greed of a corrupt mind, as some serious souls claim. Kamagurka once remarked: "Everyone is wondering whether we crossed a line with the humor. No one is wondering whether we crossed a line with the seriousness. I find political correctness to be a poor characteristic. And so I am always very suspicious whenever I enter a room full of American students.
Back to The Wolf. Martin Scorsese does what he does so often: fantastic screenplay, a top cast, meticulous editing, and an ingenious sound effects. It is killing fun. I can easily select five film moments that will liven up my marketing lectures (my favorite: 'Sell me this pen!'). But the biting humor mainly exposes the disturbed side of top managers and other big earners.
This specimen is not a concoction of the film industry. We have seen a number of these characters parade past in the Netherlands and Belgium: Didier Bellens, Joep van den Nieuwenhuyzen, Jo Lernout, Dirk Scheringa, et cetera. Let us examine the dark side.
To that end, I have recently viewed The Social Network for a second time. This film is mandatory stuff in the marketing curriculum of business schools in my opinion. It ingeniously demonstrates how the most powerful ideas capitalize on latent needs (is someone single or not?) and how truly new products cannot be adapted to fit conventional market definitions (for example, Zuckerberg frequently indicates that he does not know what Facebook has to offer exactly). The film once again proves the major role of coincidence (the meeting between Zuckerberg with the founder of Napster, for example).
The director, David Fincher, has the ability to make intelligent thrillers. The final scene in Se7en is legendary. But how do you go about making a thriller about the coming about of Facebook? Nothing bites the dust here?
Actually, something does. The Social Network dismantles the romantic image of the entrepreneur. The slogan of the film was an omen: ‘You cannot make 500 million friends without making a few enemies’. What struck me the most in The Social Network was the total absence of warmth. The only person who displays genuine friendship, Eduardo Saverin, is used as an instrument and is shunted off by his 'friend' Mark Zuckerberg. It is an oppressing moment in the film, when Saverin learns that his share in Facebook has dropped from 30% to 0.03%.
I often ask the question during my lectures with executives whether or not you can change the world without operating in the dark side. Many suggest that this is not possible. The observation is, in any event, a disillusion.
You can become a leader without integrity - it may even speed things up in present society, as a colleague of mine once cynically suggested. Scientific research proves him right: "It is clear that five personality disorders most probably 'help' a person to become a leader in the short term. These are, most probably in the right order: the psychopathic, the narcissistic, the paranoid, the histrionic and the schizo-typical personality disorder"(1).
Now then, I do not mean to say that the top of the companies is dominated by the unpleasantly eccentric alone. But there are significant signs that this race is overrepresented on the highest level. Robert Hare has developed the standard instrument with which to identify psychopaths. Together with his co-author, he made the following observation: "It is a fact that many organizations offer a fantastic medium for psychopaths with an enterprising attitude and who possess the individual characteristics and the social skills required to fool a lot of people" (2).
Just have a look at the job vacancies in the weekend editions of your newspaper. You will see that the profiles offer an appealing context in which social, unpleasantly eccentric people feel right at home. A Belgian affair concerning inside information was recently settled amicably. The lawyer later stated: "Nine million Euro is not the end of the world to us". How cynical can you be to declaim the triumph in such a way?
The dark side
Mark Zuckerberg was the proverbial The question is whether or not you can remain a leader without a lack of integrity. Jordan Belfort is the worse for that in The Wolf of Wall Street. And Mark Zuckerberg also offers an interesting test. The film does not provoke any sympathy for the person who defined the Telephone Book of the 21st century. Zuckerberg is a headstrong, brilliant eccentric who operates in the dark zone. Mark Zuckerberg started off by misleading the Winklevoss-twins and stealing the concept, and he used the money of his friend Eduardo Saverin to start things up, only to dump him later when making a new start.
Mark Zuckerberg was the proverbial man on a mission. He is the personification of the entrepreneur who wants to achieve that one goal in his life, at the expense of everything else. As a lawyer remarks at the end of the film: "You're not an asshole Mark, you're just trying too hard to be one."
I lack the boundless admiration that some of my academic colleagues have for extremely successful CEOs. You can appreciate their realizations, but you should not romanticize them. Self-interest always plays a role. Not that there is anything wrong with that, as long as the interests of others are not disproportionately prejudiced.
Genuine leaders stick their necks out. They have vision, they have passion. But, as I previously argued in the book De pijn van het ondernemen, the characteristics that bring success to entrepreneurs are, to an extreme, the same characteristics that will ultimately lead to their decline. Emotion dominates reason, not only in the choices, but in the focus as well.(3)
Vision and passion are aspects that distinguish leaders from managers. But what happens when vision becomes a fundamentalism, and passion an obsession? The inevitable implosion is often dangerous to the company itself. Leadership thrives best in a critical environment, both internally as well as externally. (4) Strong leaders require strong managers, and visa versa.