Principled Leadership

August 29, 2009

I thoroughly enjoyed John Allison‘s visit to our Executive MBA class at Wake Forest University this morning. Mr. Allison is the Chairman and former CEO of BB&T, and has recently joined the faculty at WFU.

August 28, 2009

John Allison at WFU, August 28, 2009

Mr Allison’s discussion was focused on the values that he help ingrain into the culture at the bank:

Reality (Fact-Based)
Reason (Objectivity)
Independent Thinking
Justice (Fairness)
Self-Esteem (Self-Motivation)
Teamwork/Mutual (Supportiveness)

We had the opportunity to discuss the sub-prime mortgage crisis and how BB&T really got screwed by being forced to take TARP money. The real takeaways from the discussion, though, were the perspectives of a principled leader. The values described today seem on the surface like any other set of values you might see on any corporate bulletin board. When you study them in detail (and hear Mr. Allison describe them), it’s clear that these are the virtues of humanity, and not just a set of characteristics that might assist in business goals. The most poignant set of the values are the ones centered around objectivity and fact-based management. The most memorable quote from today’s session is that the number one reason a small business will fail is because the leader evades reality. You have to know your place in the real world around you.

BB&T has put a focus and premium on individualism, which could be a real risk. However, because the vision and goals are clearly defined and permeated through the organization, the individualism should ultimately lead to creativity and innovation, rather than anarchy. As Mr. Allison transitions to academia, I think he knows and can have confidence that his company is as well-poised to weather any shocks and disruptions as a company can be in these times. This is another example to me how the people in business are more important than any product or technology for ensuring long term value.