As I See It: The Contrarian
October 11, 2010 Victor Rozek
He could have easily become one of the disposable people. Born in Compton, he grew up in the shadowlands of the urban nightmare, in an area highjacked by gangs, drugs, and despair. He lost his best friend to street violence, and his family home to a predatory lender. His parents divorced. He started numerous failed businesses and, for a time he was homeless, living out of his car. Yet he went on to advise presidents, participate in global economic forums, and become the founder, chief executive officer, and chairman of America’s first nonprofit social investment banking organization, Operation HOPE. His name is John Bryant, and he has some contrarian ideas about how business should be run.
As a youth, Bryant saw life dominated by predation. Young black men preyed on each other, while white-collar businessmen preyed on the financial ignorance of the community. Payday lenders were never far from liquor stores, which were in close proximity to check-cashers, rent-to-own stores, and pawn shops. It was the perfect storm of hopelessness and exploitation, and the young man watched his neighbors “go to the check-cashing service to forfeit their today, then go to the payday lender to forfeit their tomorrow.” And because tomorrow looked no brighter than the day before, “they would go to the liquor store to forget about their yesterday.”
Those were models of what he calls “bad capitalism.” And they weren’t limited to the inner city. The same business model was evident in the dot-com crash, the Enrons and Worldcoms, as well as the banks and brokerage houses that crippled the global economy. The one thing these failed businesses had in common, Bryant came to believe, was that they were fear-based, run by people with poor self-image who substitute power and greed for ethics and self-esteem. Such businesses could be profitable in the short term–indeed, short term profitability was always their focus–but they inevitably failed, leaving widespread suffering in their wake.
Fear, Bryant notes, originates in the reptilian brain and is therefore immune to logic. And it feeds on itself. Fear of failure, fear of loss, fear of not being good enough, fear of being exposed, fear that there is not enough for me. Companies immersed in this caldron of simmering fears experience business as war; a dog-eat-dog arena where only the fittest survive. But “war” is the highest expression of un-resourcefulness, and fear dissolves moral and ethical boundaries. Ultimately, the victims of fear-based management are cheated customers, mistreated employees, and swindled shareholders. Over time, fear paralyzes creativity, dulls innovation, overrides the inclination to take reasonable risk, and elevates covering-your-ass to the prime directive. In the end, the cover-ups fail, excesses are exposed, and the corporation dies. “There are only two primal forces in the human psyche,” Bryant concludes, “love and fear. What you don’t love, you fear.”
Certainly the characteristics of fear-based management are all too familiar: coercion, threat, exclusion, criticism, shaming, refusal to take responsibility, blaming subordinates, making unreasonable demands, spreading rumors, stealing credit, hoarding information, applying rules capriciously, and caring less for people than the output they produce.
While fear may force compliance, Bryant wanted more: he wanted employees who worked with passionate commitment, in service to a vision greater than profit alone. So he created an alternate leadership model which, perhaps unfortunately, he calls Love Leadership. He even wrote a book with the same ill-chosen title–a volume, I suspect, few people have actually read. But not because his ideas aren’t worthy. It’s that discomforting use of the “L” word. In a fearful world, employing the word “love” in a business context automatically impugns a speaker’s credibility. It invites rolling of the eyes, condescension, and accusations of naiveté. If business is war, love is for losers. And it would be easy to dismiss Bryant as just another sun-baked idealist, except that he managed to raise over $500 million for his organization using this model, and he is taking his vision of social investment banking globally.
Love Leadership has five cornerstones. The first is the belief that Loss Creates Leaders. Bryant argues that wisdom is the byproduct of dealing with adversity. It teaches you how to manage fear, and find empathy and compassion for the losses of others. Loss forges character. Leaders who have endured and transcended losses are more likely to successfully navigate future challenges. As Bryant says: “There can be no inner growth without the pain of legitimate suffering.” Were it not for the early losses in his life, Bryant predicts he would have turned out to be “obnoxious, self absorbed, and very wealthy. But lonely.” A depiction that I suspect accurately describes a great many business leaders.
The second cornerstone is the premise that Fear Fails. The rubble of failed corporations, and the damaged lives of people swamped in the wake of their failures, are fresh in our memories. But fear as a motivator has a long legacy. Machiavelli famously believed people were inherently bad, lazy, and would betray others for personal gain, so it was therefore safer to be feared than loved. Bryant would argue that the poor and middle class are treated with the same disdain. Predatory lenders were certainly too lazy to do proper financial background checks; and too greedy to tell borrowers the truth about the terms of their loans. But that, says Bryant, is the nature of fear: it contributes to short-term thinking. Me. Now. With no thought to the future.
The corollary to Fear Fails, and the third cornerstone, is Love Makes Money. And here Bryant clarifies his use of the word “love.” The expression of love in business, he says, “is creating long-term relationships with your customers, employees, and community based on caring for others and doing good.” That, says Bryant, makes you wealthy. It’s caring about people not as transactions, but as human beings; believing as Martin Luther King did that we are “bound up together in a mutual destiny.” Love Leadership allays the fears of others by first seeking to answer the dominant reptilian question of our time: “What do I get?” In Bryant’s model, money is the confirmation that you’re doing good work. “It’s a byproduct,” says Bryant. “It’s never the product.” Wall Street would be traumatized.
In the workplace, explains Bryant, Love Leadership transforms the qualities and impacts of fear-based management, moving from me to we, coercion to inspiration, exclusion to inclusion, irresponsibility to accountability, expediency to idealism, cynicism to ethical questioning, and taking a bigger share to creating a bigger world.
The fourth cornerstone is counterintuitive and dismissed as unmanly by those lacking courage: Vulnerability Is Power. Bryant’s argument is simple: In order to influence and persuade people, they have to know and trust you. Loyalty is the result of connection; connection is the result of disclosure; and disclosure–whether personal or company-related–is an act of vulnerability.
Martial arts practitioners have long understood the value of absolute vulnerability. A person open to everything, fears nothing, and the personal power of a vulnerable leader is compelling. Erle Montaigue describes it in The Way of the Warrior. “The martial artist is a person who knows things that go far deeper than just self defense. He is someone who walks into a room full of people and an immediate calm falls upon that room. He is a person who can touch a person’s head, or arm, or hand and cause an inner stillness and peace to fall upon that person.”
Leadership that originates from presence rather than position, has privileges. Bryant once introduced Alan Greenspan to an audience of inner city black youth by insisting that the Chairman of the Fed was actually “cool” and they should make him “an honorary black man.” The audience howled and the chairman, who is about as stiff as one can be before rigor sets in, managed to avoid stroking out. But the moment allowed him to connect with an audience as removed from Greenspan’s world as Andromeda is from Albany.
The last cornerstone of Love Leadership is that Giving Is Getting, a blasphemous inversion of the dominant corporate model. “Leaders give and followers take,” writes Bryant. Sharing power, extending opportunity, treating employees with respect and dignity, caring about your impact on the community and the environment, “raises all boats not just the yachts.” Bryant has a firm belief that you can do well by doing good. Giving is “enlightened self interest,” he says, and tends to be reciprocal. Help people and they will want to help you; use them and they will celebrate your fall.
Bryant quotes John Mellott, former publisher of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, who observed that we are living through “a crisis of virtues.” To which Bryant responds that “You’ll never go bad doing good, and you’ll never be wrong doing right.”
Yes, it’s optimistic, idealistic, and perhaps even naive. But it’s the essence of John Bryant, whose actual middle name, like that of the organization he heads, is Hope.