“Going down, all the Saints are helpful”

by Didier Marlier on Sunday June 13th, 2010

“Para descer, todo Santo ajuda” (to go down all the Saints are helpful) say the pragmatic people of the Brazilian state of Bahia (where my wonderful wife comes from).

A recent event brought this old saying back to the surface: the Fundação Dom Cabral (www.fdc.org.br) for whom I design and deliver tailored programs a week/month in Brazil, has just announced at the occasion of its yearly gathering of Brazilian C.E.O.’s that it had broken into the Financial Times 2010 ranking of the world’s top 10 best Executive Education institutions (ranking 6th, 8th and 9th in diverse sub-rankings). One may imagine the sense of achievement and pride which animated the CEO’s and people of the Foundation as it reached this appreciable level in just 4 years of presence into the top 100.

My mail of highly deserved praise and congratulations to the three “founding fathers”, who led us there, was nevertheless accompanied by a word of caveat:

Some years ago, I was supporting the large meeting of 200 executives in a famous global firm. For years, it had been trailing the market leader, being a solid number two. By the end of the day, the rumor spread like a virus: “We are number one!!!” All of the sudden the large room felt like being in Rio de Janeiro in 2014, should Brazil win the World Cup there: people laughed, broke into tears, hugged each other and champaign started to flow…

But in the middle of this “alegria”, the relative quiet and forced smile of one of the very senior leaders were a stark contrast with the general mood. Concerned he might have received a personal bad news, I sat with him.

“Didier, now the hardest bit starts. It is relatively difficult to get to the top and so easy to fall. Maintaining ourselves here will be the toughest part. Have you ever heard about fear of failure? This is what will soon take over. We got here through a very strong, emotional and shared sense of Purpose. Passion, experimentation, “Fail Fast”, seek forgiveness rather than permission, exploration and risk taking are the rule now. Tomorrow, I fear that very well intentioned people will start to want to freeze the image on this success. Procedures, rules, roles, prohibitions and obligations will start to creep-in. We will drift, little by little, from a fantastically energetic and organic firm into a stratified, pyramidal, silo driven, political and fear-driven organization”.

In other terms, success, far from “growing wings”, would open an era of immobilism, loss of purpose and cultural change, all driven unconsciously by a hidden but very active fear of failing, fear of loosing what had been so painfully conquered.

To my question of “So how should we avoid this?”, he replied “We must understand that the reason for our success was into this passionately entrepreneurial culture and continue to nurture it. As senior leaders, we must resist the temptation of becoming defensive. We must continue to move fast and in unpredictable ways for our competitors. We must keep them on the defense and not hand them the battlefield over. Our style of leadership needs to stay humble and connected”.

I felt reassured by his words. Sadly, a few months later, I heard he had left the company and his sad prediction soon materialized, illustrated since by the innumerous reorganizations which characterize enterprises having lost their sense of Purpose.

Romans had this wise quote: “The Capitol (where the nation’s heroes were acclaimed) is not far from the Tarpean Cliff” (where from the traitors were thrown to their deaths).

Seeing the open minded, feedback welcoming reaction of our three wise men, I am reassured about the future of the Fundação Dom Cabral. It will not betray its roots, values and Purpose and intends to continue to nurture what got it there.

Paris, Madrid and Toulouse will be my dropping points this week. Thank you all for continuing to share and spread the word about this blog. The most encouraging feedback I can get from someone acting at your level of responsibility is when you take the personal risk of recommending it to other executives. Have a great week!

Didier

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