Several years ago I was part of a turnaround team at Cincinnati Microwave – the people that invented radar detectors. I worked with some great people, learned a lot, and faced some real challenges. As rewarding as all of that was, however, I soon started to have a gnawing feeling that devoting my time and energy to enabling people to break the law was not quite right. I am ashamed to say that I worked in that business. Don't get me wrong. I am no saint – far from it – but I think that most of us want our obituary to say something other than "he made a lot of money". We would like to contribute something along the way that is positive for someone else. We believe that there are some things bigger than ourselves.
I was reminded of this when I read an article about some prominent folks sitting on the board of QuinStreet, which is reputed to be a big time spamming company that hides behind a maze of company names to disguise its illegal activities. In particular, there is a Stanford finance prof named John McDonald, who refused to comment, saying that his students are his first priority. I wonder if he donates his paycheck for advising the spammers to his students? When he was not engaged in his top priority students and assuring the continued profitability of the spam business, Mr. McDonald was one of the architects of rules to expand the sorts of stock transactions that can be conducted outside of SEC oversight – transactions like Bernie Madoff's, for example. Thanks for that one, professor.
What the Standford professor does or does not do is of little consequence to most of us, but he makes for an important contrast to the characteristics of a leader. The lean community talks a lot about leadership and culture, and a common trait I have found among the real lean successes is leadership that cares about other people and their communities. That is also true of just about everyone who supports or pushes lean. I don't think a person will ever "get it" when it comes to lean if they operate by a code that drives them to put money in their own pocket by any legal means, regardless of who gets hurt along the way.
Not too long ago, I heard the CEO of Wahl tell the management team that was proposing a change to the employee compensation scheme that 700 families depended on their weekly paychecks from the company and that he would not support any change to the pay system until he was assured that not a single family would suffer – no matter how the change would support lean or benefit the company. Guys who take a paycheck to sit on the board of a spammer, make a living by sharp practices on Wall Street, or work for companies to make unethical devices like I did, would call him a fool. I call him a leader.