Monday, March 13, 2006

The Smartest Guys In The Room

On a strong recommendation from a former colleague, I added "The Smartest Guys In The Room", a documentary about Lay, Skilling, Fastow, et. al. and the hubris that led to the collapse of Enron, to my Netflix queue and had the opportunity to watch it last night. I am now watching the trials of Lay and Skilling with greater interest (and understanding) than before, and more convinced than ever that the "soft skills" now part of many business programs are critical to operational and individual success.

Enron's culture was driven by hubris, arrogance, and ego - the filmakers try to equate this with greed, but I see only Fastow (who skimmed gains on the questionable off-book partnerships and depositied them in personal accounts) as greedy - the rest saw money - as represented by Enron's market cap - as the scoreboard, evidence of their 'genius' and individual superiority. Being the smartest guys in the room - and being widely recognized for it - was not only their own motivation, but became a driving force for employees at all levels, from Lay to the energy traders working the phones.

An individual that insists on being the smartest guy in the room - especially to the extent that dissention is met with threats and dismissals - is a parasite that eventually devours the host. True leadership not only accepts but encourages individual thought, action, and opinion from all levels.

Illustrating this point, BBDO ad agency creative chief David Lubars was quoted in the September 2005 issue of Fast Company: "I want people to challenge me. I want them to feel they can step up and bring ideas. I insist on not being the smartest guy in the room. But if I hear everything, then I can help craft the smartest idea in the room. Here's the thing: Phil (Phil Dusenberry, Lubar's predecessor) was a genius. I'm not a genius, so I need other people to help me do genius things."

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