Recently I was invited back by economist and professor Mark Skousen to teach his business school class at Chapman University – the topic: John Allison’s excellent book, The Leadership Crisis and the Free Market Cure.
The class was part of Skousen’s course on “Libertarian CEOs.” These include not just Allison, but also John Mackey of Whole Foods and Bill Bonner of Agora. All three of whom shared the stage with me in a panel moderated by Skousen a couple years ago at FreedomFest, the largest gathering of libertarians in the world.
Mackey and Bonner are not Ayn Rand fans, but hey, nobody’s perfect. John Allison and I are not just Ayn Rand fans, we subscribe to Rand’s philosophy, Objectivism, and have practiced its principles throughout our lives and careers.
John Allison was CEO of Branch Banking & Trust from 1986 to 2008 and during that time built the company’s assets from $4.5 billion to $152 billion, making it the tenth largest financial holding company in America. No wonder Harvard Business Review named Allison one of the world’s top 100 CEOs. He was also named BB&T’s “Employee of the Month” 217 times.
But what makes John’s leadership lessons and philosophy uniquely relevant to our times is the fact that his bank survived the crash of 2008 when other institutions such as Lehman Brothers collapsed.
Why? What did BB&T have that Merrill Lynch, Lehman, Freddie Mac and others didn’t?
In a word: Leadership.
Think of some of the most dramatic artistic depictions of leadership in action. Leaders must set the direction. Leaders are in front. They are on the edge of dynamic situations in which they are moving an organization into the future, away from danger, toward success.
That takes some of the virtues Allison covers in chapters of his book – most obviously “Vision,” “Mission,” and “Goals.”
But it also requires another one of the leadership virtues he discusses in his chapter, “Independent Thinking.”
Says Allison: “Independent thinking means making decisions and judgments for yourself using your personal ability to reason from the facts of reality.”
It means you must do your own thinking. You must be open to gathering information from the widest possible context, in part by talking to people, including – or especially – those who don’t share your beliefs.
Independent thinking is key for at least three reasons. One, it’s key to surviving and thriving in turbulent times. Two, it’s key to creativity and innovation. And three, it’s essential to integrity and self-esteem, without which leadership is impossible.
Independent thinking is essential for surviving in a crisis – because it’s in crisis where we fall back on primal instincts.
Crises, emergencies, panics – these are times when many people look to what others are doing, they look for someone to tell them what to do, they rely on faith or wishful thinking. And the results can be disastrous.
Remember the movie Sully? Captain Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger is piloting US Airways Flight 1549 from LaGuardia Airport to Charlotte Douglas International Airport.
Three minutes into the flight the plane strikes a flock of birds, disabling both engines. Air traffic control is telling him to return to the nearest airport, his computers are telling him to go back, but instead he uses his independent thinking to land the Airbus A320 into the Hudson. All 155 passengers and crew survived.
The second aspect of Independent Thinking is Creativity.
Says Allison, “Creativity/innovation is by definition the source of all human progress. Unless someone creates something better there cannot be any progress. Anything that is better, is different. Creativity/innovation is only possible to an independent thinker. Someone who thinks like the crowd cannot be creative and cannot be innovative. Although that person can be quite productive in a maintenance sense, he or she cannot genuinely contribute to human progress.”
I have had the privilege of being mentored by and working with quintessential change-agent leaders. Ted Forstmann. Jude Wanniski. Arianna Huffington. David Murdock. And now, the philosopher and founder of The Atlas Society, David Kelley.
Ted Forstmann helped to pioneer the private equity industry, though he was an early critic of “junk” bonds. For this he was caricatured in the movie Barbarians at the Gate. When junk bonds later fell into disrepute, Forstmann was hailed as a prophet.
He also incidentally predicted the worsening of the credit crisis at a time when most pundits believed the crisis had reached its peak. Forstmann argued that the excess of money pumped into the economy after the September 11 attacks in 2001 distorted the decision-making abilities of nearly everyone in finance.
Critics sometimes ignored him, sometimes laughed at him. But in the end Forstmann laughed all the way to the bank.
I’d been his speechwriter, and philanthropic advisor, and so as a result had the job perk of listening to him discourse about his views on politics, philosophy and economics.
One of his favorite sayings was: “In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king.”
That aphorism captures the entrepreneur, looking for the unmet market need that no one else sees. It captures the inventor, thinking of the innovation that no one else has conceived. It captures the writer, the poet, the advocate, speaking the unspeakable, the unthinkable, the unaccepted.
And it reminds me of Ayn Rand’s line from The Fountainhead: “The hardest thing to explain is the glaringly evident which everybody has decided not to see.”
Seeing differently – not thinking like the crowd, as Allison says – can be quite unpopular. It can be quite threatening. It certainly was for Ayn Rand. It certainly was for Ted Forstmann. And it certainly is for anyone who questions an orthodox approach to Objectivism, the philosophy to which John Allison and I subscribe.
The essence of what is needed to grow the ranks of people reading, benefiting and promoting the ideas of Ayn Rand is all there in John Allison's Leadership Crisis – not just in his chapter on Independent thinking, but also those on Honesty, Integrity, and Self-Esteem.
In the chapter on Integrity he writes, “There are many temptations in life. However if you have developed your principles logically and consistently, those apparent temptations are not really temptations. They are just ways to fail. Integrity...as a principle, guides us to act consistently with our beliefs.”
Ultimately, integrity requires not just avoiding the temptations that lead to failure, but embracing the challenges that lead to success – and the lessons in this incisive book, consistently and courageously applied, will certainly improve the reader’s chance at reaping integrity’s rewards in both regards.
Jennifer Anju Grossman is the CEO of the Atlas Society.