I am an unabashed Michigan State fan which makes me an unabashed Kirk Cousins fan. Their big win over Georgia on Monday was fun to watch, but every Spartan football fan is sad to see Cousins, their record setting quarterback finish his career.
Cousin is not only Michigan State’s all time passing leader and the three time captain of the school’s best team of all time over his four year career, he is the recipient of Lowe’s CLASS Award: “The award, chosen by a nationwide vote of FBS coaches, media and fans, is given annually to the most outstanding senior student-athlete in the FBS. To be eligible for the award, a student-athlete must have notable achievements in four areas of excellence: community, classroom, character and competition.” At the Big Ten preseason luncheon this remarkable young man was asked to represent the players of the conference and speak to the coaches and media on their behalf.
The speech he gave showed a level of humility and wisdom far beyond his years. It gets to the essence of leadership and carries a powerful message for everyone who sees him or herself as a success. Cousins does not see his success as validation of his superiority over lesser athletes, but a privilege. He says in part, “It’s here in this place of privilege where perhaps danger lies. I have been taught that human nature is such that the place of privilege most often and most naturally leads to a sense of entitlement – the notion that I deserve to be treated as special because I am privileged. The truth is, privelege should never lead to entitlement. I have been raised to believe that privilege should lead to responsibility – in fact, to greater responsibility. The Bible says in Luke 12:48, ‘From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded; and from everyone who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked.’ “
When I reflect on the companies I have come to know that have succeeded over the long haul, they have virtually all been led by people who embody Cousins’ message of privilege and the responsibility that comes with it. The less successful seem to be led by people who give themselves a disproportionate share of the credit – ‘I deserve to be the boss and I am entitled to more money and better perks because I worked harder, I am smarter, I made better decisions along the way, I, I, I …”
It seems to me that Cousins has hit the principle of Respect for People that is so fundamental to a true lean transformation squarely on the head. In looking at a company that strives to be lean, or claims to be lean, we have only to look at its leaders and ask whether they behave in a manner that reflects their position as a validation of their superiority leading to entitlement, or a privilege that leads to greater responsibility to all of the stakeholders.
When challenged to justify outrageous compensation levels, far too many executives offer up the entitlement argument. Far too many political leaders see their office as entitling them to special treatment. They would all do well – we would all do well – to listen and take to heart the powerful message Kirk Cousins sent.