When the Wolf lost his Smile
In the world of job interviews, a strange but recurrent - and somewhat Google-esque - question is posed; if you could be any animal, what would it be? This elicits bizarre responses, like the potential recruit of a technology firm who responded that he would be an amoeba since this would enable him to create complex cell structures and ultimately any other creature that he aspired to be. He failed to get the job. But what on earth were his interviewers hoping for? Snakes and donkeys seem like a poor bet but what about a lion? Ostensibly brave but essentially a violent meat-eater with multiple wives and poor hygiene. A more illuminating question might be this: 'If you could be a wolf - and more specifically a Wolf of Wall Street - would you choose to be one?'
It's easy to give a moralizing answer (and I suggest you do so if asked this question by the HR manager of a Big 4 accounting firm) but if there weren't two sides to this balance sheet Scorsese's film wouldn't have enraptured audiences for three straight hours at a time. Consider Jordan Belfort's assets: houses, boats, helicopters....yes, but also - extraordinary selling skills, a brand of leadership that appealed to a hard-core followership, determination, ruthlessness, charm. In a new book by psychologist Kevin Dutton and special forces veteran Andy McNab, it is argued that psychopathy, which essentially describes those kinds of attributes coupled with carefully rationed human empathy, can be a useful instrument in the field of commerce. On the other side of the balance sheet we have 22 months incarceration in a soft-peddling federal penitentiary, divorce and a lot of enemies amongst ordinary folk who surrendered their savings to pay for Belfort's lifestyle. In hindsight, the man's own self-evaluation is that he would have made a lot more money if he had stuck to the path of righteousness.
Redemption doesn't come easily to the Wolf. Germany had its own canis lupus in the form of arch-hedgie Florian Homm, whose barely-apologetic autobiography is entitled 'Rogue Financier'. Nephew of an unrepentant Nazi, Homm acquired many treasures, including Borussia Dortmund Football Club, and he did so through the same sort of combination of ruthless intelligence, hard work and dystopian values that are the hallmark of such creatures. Like Belfort, Homm was briefly incarcerated (in an Italian goal) but he is now safely back on German soil and in the bosom of a people who are unlikely to surrender him to the US Justice system. If he is sad about the situation, he still publicly enjoys a good cigar. The closest he came to regret was when a would-be assassin pumped a bullet into his chest in a street in Caracas.
If all of this seems a million miles away from mainstream business life, I should point out that Homm would have been sitting next to you had you been in the MBA Class of '87 at Harvard (at least if he wasn't away dealing drugs or playing basketball). Business ethics feature in many of today's MBA courses, as do sections on corporate responsibility and environmentalism. In the modern world, shareholders demand evidence of a 'balanced scorecard' approach to management. But this is not the same as an examination of the very human values that shape how business folk live their lives and measure their success. Ruthlessness, for example, need not be so obviously dysfunctional. Warren Buffett once said; "Never be afraid to ask for too much or offer too little." His life plan was to accumulate wealth and for his wife to give it all away after his death. Sadly, she pre-deceased him and he was forced to take that additional responsibility upon himself. There are many ways to measure success in business; P&Ls, Balance Sheets, P/E multiples...but perhaps the most poignant moment in Homm's autobiography is when he realizes he has lost the ability to smile; the most telling KPI of all.