Being good is annoying to others, but it can prove to be your superpower.
Nearly twenty years ago, when I couldn’t break into Wall Street or Bay Street after graduating from finance school, I embarked on my career in media. I then wrote a screenplay about a highly idealistic young outsider whose constant positivity in the face of multiple setbacks, challenges and obstacles served as his beacon onto his course to success – which all predicated on a simple, white lie. When I shared it with a Montreal-based director who experienced some success in Hollywood, he actually found it entertaining but made two observations:
– while the document may have been in screenplay format, its content was clearly more a manuscript.
– more pertinently for this article, he found the exuberant naïveté of the lead character a tad – how do we say it… – annoying.
He felt a protagonist needed way more flaws, a more sinister streak and so on. Indeed, he was onto something in the near term, as Tinseltown turned in one flawed protagonist after another: Tony Soprano, Dexter, Walter White. And given the success of those franchises, Hollywood wasn’t exactly hurting creatively, so I didn’t take my talents to Los Angeles, instead focusing on building a media company first, which went on to be WatchMojo.
A reluctant entrepreneur, I launched WatchMojo as a means to that end, based on Herb Kelleher’s stakeholder mindset which encouraged business leaders to focus not just on shareholders but actually prioritize employees, clients, the community we serve, and so on. Then, when I would write about servant leadership & such stakeholder mindset, many would effectively roll their eyes, finding the ebullient optimism and idealism a tad… annoying.
Today, times have changed. Ray Dalio, Mark Cuban, Jamie Dimon – be it for PR or Purpose, the billionaire capitalists are sensing fear and have embraced a more dovish stance on using capitalism to address socio-economic inequality, if not to ease any unrest amongst the masses. This was the subject of my documentary, Fox in the Henhouse.
The spectre that put the fear into these men of wealth and their descendants may have stemmed from socio-economic roots and stoked by right-wing populism, but the pandemic unleashed another revolution, one around work. This revolution starts with work from home and remote work, but it actually touches on the overall relationship between employer and employees, namely independence and the dynamic between time and labor (the billionaire capitalists are breathing a sigh of relief, as the conversation has since shifted away from labor and capital a far pricklier topic for the modern day bourgeoisie).
Indeed, over the past few decades, the concept of loyalty between these two constituents has all but eroded. Corporations have done as much as possible to remove workers from their balance sheets, while employees have reacted by showing little loyalty back. As we have not yet overcome this pandemic (in fact, we seem to be at the halfway mark only!)
The forces that have been unleashed will usher in dramatic change. It’s almost, ironically, biblical, when you think about it.
I’ve discussed WFH openly and transparently, from the early days, to keeping my team informed and continue to muse on where we’re headed. The pandemic will untether employment from health coverage, it has to. But speaking of health, as I have said all along, by the same token, it’s as if nothing has changed, at all. We continue to under-appreciate health professionals (and educators), treat front line retail, hospitality and restaurant employees like second-class citizens.
In the seemingly simple choice between good and evil, we seem to constantly witness craven acts, in particular by those at the higher end of the organizational echelon, be it in business or politics. This isn’t limited to those fields, of course:
Sports is the ultimate paradox: success is about sacrifice, sacrifice personally and for the greater good, being unselfish, even though to succeed and make a living in sports requires the occasional self-centered act. The corporate career path eventually leads to burnout, but throughout, it does ultimately reward the sadists whose cold-hearted actions and words make even the biggest sociopath feel squeamish. GE’s Jack Welch was the “Manager of the 20th Century,” and his nickname was Neutron Jack for being able to “blow up” organizations by nuking the personnel while leaving the buildings intact.
However, after a decade of the media idolizing and investors rewarding tech leaders whose greatness was never measured in any metric of virtue and absolved of any true responsibility to most stakeholders – suddenly, there’s a desire for empathy, caring, and virtues that were almost seen as traits of weaknesses when I entered the workforce and launched a business.
It would seem like a ray of light appears before us. Fittingly, Hollywood seems to have turned the page on the Tony Sopranos and spotlighting messengers of positivity and ambassadors of good.
Are we seeing a tectonic shift in the mood? Or is that light at the end of the tunnel merely an incoming train that will shatter our hope and make us rue the day we let our guard down against the usual forces of evil that surround us.
Of course, saying you care about people is easy.
It would appear that society has so gone sideways with a lack of ethics and principles, that we’re conflating things, wondering if WFH allows for culture. A physical shared space definitely fosters a different type of communications and thus develops unique relationships. But culture is an output of relationships, which is a function of communications and one’s guiding principles. To be truly empathetic and caring, and this creating a better culture, you have to master the 3 Cs (not to be mistaken for the World Wide Web’s 3 Cs: content, commerce and community). Those would be:
Truthfulness, honestly, transparency are all pillars of strong cultures. People ultimately want honesty and not being lied to. What they say about reputation – it takes years to build but a moment to destroy – is equally true about trust: one lie, and your integrity is shot. People may forgive, but they will not forget.
Why? Why is the single most important question for leaders to articulate, not just entrepreneurs and executives, but military planners and heads of state. People often times ask me the secret of retaining the same four co-founders I started the business with (and overall having a high retention and loyalty rate), the truth is half of it is taking the time to explain to people why we do things, especially as it affects them. Why?
The other half is understanding that people have feelings and emotions. Sure, some may be more sensitive and emotional, and everyone communicates their sentiments differently, but unless you truly care about people and try to put yourself in the other’s person shoes, your culture will not be as strong as you’d like it to be.
Every day, I get a high from the doing the “right” thing. To some extent, there’s an element of subjectivity, but whether it’s showing a contract worker more flexibility than they’re entitled, or making an exception for an employee whose proven themselves even when you don’t have to (and this is a key test, doing the right thing because you want to and can, and not because you have to, or were forced to after doing the wrong thing). This is why I believe in giving and being “long-term greedy.”
You don’t need to be like Madame Movie Producer who develops a project you told her about, or the Media Baron who throws you under the bus the first chance he has, or the phonies you extend a courtesy to who then renege on their word and fail to display any intellectual honesty or good faith. This is the path for you to choose: not just doing good, but also seeing the good in situations, and not turning bad and evil (while also not taking shit from anyone).
I used to say I treat the janitor as well I treat the CEO, but the truth is, over time as I grew more successful myself, I began to treat the janitor better. Some people find my idealism annoying, but that is because I expect the CEO to hold themselves to a higher standard. If that makes me annoying, so be it.
It’s ok to get upset and disappointed by others. I write partly for therapeutic reasons, but it’s also to show the leaders of tomorrow that you can do the right thing… While staying good and seeing the silver lining may prove annoying to others, I assure you it is a superpower that will steer you towards your course to success.