Moral Intent: Leadership’s Critical Issue

Will Marré is known for his work in the field of leadership and corporate transformation. Cofounder and former president of the Covey Leadership Center, Marré went on to author several books and win an Emmy for writing the PBS documentary Reclaiming Your American Dream for the American Dream Project. This noteworthy educational piece challenged leaders of the future to consider sustainable relationships among the tools necessary for sustainable abundance. In this interview, Gina Stepp asks Marré about his book Save the World and Still Be Home for Dinner.


GS Do we need a new model for leadership in business today?

WM The problem with leadership training in the United States (And think of it this way: Leadership training is an industry in the United States. We have 1,200 business schools that have generated thousands and thousands and thousands of alumni who are leaders. And the fundamental premise of leadership since about 1950 is that it’s the acquisition and mastery of a set of skills or competencies. In fact, if you go to a major corporation, they do competency testing, and they try to train you in that competency.)—but the problem is when you go and you ask people today, people who have been to MBA school, What are the attributes of a great leader? they’ll say things like decisiveness and vision and even trustworthiness. It’s a list of attributes. And what happens is (and I’ll be doing this in my presentation) I show pictures of Hitler and Mao Zedong and Osama bin Laden, and I say, “Almost every trait that you’ve talked about is exhibited by these people.” The critical issue of leadership today is moral intent. And that’s something we never touch on in business schools or in leadership training in general. So if we get very effective people at being leaders who don’t have worthwhile moral intent, we get what we’ve got.

GS Does this start with the individual?

WM The whole change that’s taking place in society today is driven primarily by consumers or employees, not by institutions. Institutions have created ways of working with the status quo that keep them prosperous. It’s the change in attitudes of consumers and employees that have shifted that dramatically, so that the old ways of doing things are no longer prosperous. So you see that as a client of organizations even like a General Motors, or what I call dinosaur organizations who’ve been out of touch with what consumers really want. At the same time General Motors was making Hummers, Toyota was developing Priuses—and you compare the two companies. Now, what really drives that is the moral intent of the leaders. In other words, the chairman of Toyota in the early 1990s decided they wanted to make the cleanest car in the world; they also want to make cars that won’t crash. So they have these very lofty goals. But in the US way of thinking about business leadership, we want to make cars that have the biggest profit margin; so hence one develops a Hummer, one develops a Prius. What’s happening worldwide is that our worldwide preference for Prius-type solutions has spread everywhere, and so they’re demanding that business change.

GS And are we seeing this change in the corporate world?

WM Well, unbelievably changing—even the biggest and the baddest are changing. Next week I’m going to the Green Expo to talk about what it is to be green, and what is going on is that being green is no longer a distinctive quality. You can hardly name a major global corporation that doesn’t have green efforts, and what I mean by that is both saving on waste and the creation of waste. So think about Walmart: They’ve just issued guidelines for all their suppliers about how their product is made in terms of a green supply chain—minimal waste, minimal pollution, maximum use of the resources, and then ethical sourcing of the raw materials and ethical manufacturing, with human rights for labor. So when a company like Walmart, which has been a poster child for misbehavior, is creating that kind of change in the marketplace, its ripple effect through companies like Procter & Gamble and Unilever and all the big suppliers is massive.

In the last five years this has just taken off. [You see change in] companies like Xerox (91 percent of the parts of a Xerox machine can be reused to make another Xerox machine), almost all the chemical companies (DuPont has taken out about 90 percent of the noxious chemicals in most of their industrial solvents and chemicals over the last 10 years). So the greening of commerce has happened at an accelerating rate. There’s always people who will say, “Ah, it’s just green-washing,” or “The massive destruction they’re doing is greater than any of the good they’re doing.” We’re just at phase one. What’s happening is a new consciousness of up-and-coming employees, so if you talk to leaders who are 30 or 40 years old, their worldview is completely different than boomer-age people, and they are going to make this transition permanent.

GS Does the business model companies use need to change?

WM Basically what’s come out of leadership development in business schools is a model of enterprise that is “Gain first, then you grow, and then you do good with what’s left over”—corporate philanthropy, and so forth. Now, what we’ve discovered is that self-interest is not a sufficient motive to create valued innovation—in other words, big innovation. So when you see large companies (companies like Microsoft) which just have a terrible time really innovating something that anybody wants (and virtually all large companies say the biggest problem is innovation), that’s because they’ve become self-protective around their financial well-being and they start to look at everything in terms of financial risk, and so it thwarts true innovation. Almost all innovation comes from small companies, which large companies like to buy to get that innovation; then they strip it out and get rid of the carcass and move on. So the new growth area is people who think good first—and in a concept I call “greatest total value.”

So what if the purpose of enterprise is to improve the quality of life of everyone you touch, and in so doing you make a sustainable profit—maybe even a great profit, so you can reinvest to trump yourself. Now, when I’ve led groups inside major corporations and say, “Today we’re going to do an innovation exercise, and the innovation is called How Much Good Can We Do?” the energy in that room gets electric, because someone’s giving them permission to do what they really want to do in their heart, and it’s what we all want. Now, when those people get turned on—because they have so much competence, so much experience, so much discipline, and they know what to do with that energy—they begin to create services and products that we’ve never thought of before.

General Electric is an example. They’re manufacturing sheet-fed LED lights which are 800 times more efficient than a fluorescent light, last far longer, use far less energy and are going to be very inexpensive because it’s almost like printing on paper.

GS And they’re not hard to dispose of?

WM Well, they’re organic so they actually break down in landfills. I joke; I say you can order them in chocolate and strawberry and eat them after they burn out. But let’s take that idea—let’s go to the Grameen Bank, the famous microcredit. They’ve got a new program called Ending Energy Poverty, and one of the things they’re doing is financing local entrepreneurs in a village to buy a solar panel—very inexpensive, high-technology solar panel—that will power these kinds of lights so that in a village without electricity, off the grid, people can have electric lights. Why that’s important is because the burning of kerosene causes emphysema, causes all kinds of illness. And it’s also so expensive that it retards reading at night, so literacy rates when you don’t have local electricity are lower than when you do. So you can begin to see, when people start connecting these dots, we’re in a revolution—and I would say people who aren’t participating are really missing out.

GS Does care for others have to be the foundation in business?

WM The title of the book is Save the World and Still Be Home for Dinner, and the premise is that if you do what you’re passionate about, with your highest gifts, you’re going to be more effective. You’ll be able to accomplish a lot more than if you’re just sort of a drone and you’re putting your competence to general or generic use. The first thing is you’ve got to work at the very top of your competence pyramid so you’re maximizing your impact. Then the second thing is that if you really want to be home for dinner—and I mean that in a social-spiritual sense—if you really want to have a feeling of contentment and not a feeling of agitation (“I always have too much to do”), all the research that I’ve done with the American Dream Project (asking 20,000 Americans about what the dream life is about) has said it all comes down to the quality of the intimacy in our relationships. In other words, there’s no success that compensates for a lack of that high-quality, intimate relationship with at least one other, if not several other human beings.

Now, we don’t get that without making an effort. We don’t get that by being stupid about relationships or by being uneducated about relationships. Love is not a mystical concept. We maximize the loving relationship with another human being first of all when we affirm them, because we’re actually on the lookout for things that are great about them; and in the affirming process, we get in a better mood. I mean, it makes us happy to affirm another person; it’s the way our brain works. The second is that to understand and to be understood is the greatest source of intimacy that there really can be. But to go beyond understanding and to be involved in another person’s life, another person’s well-being—that’s what we long for. That’s what Elisabeth Kübler-Ross said: At the end of people’s lives, if they had a regret, it was a lack of investment in intimate relationships.

So the whole concept of Save the World and Still Be Home for Dinner is that your best life is doing the very best thing you can imagine doing, becoming an expert in that field so you can do it really well, and then to be home for dinner—and that is to live at a rhythm in your life that is soul-satisfying. We’re not designed to work much more than 40 hours a week. In fact, some people would say we’re really designed to work about 25 to 30 hours a week, and there’s a lot of studies that say when people work more than 30 hours a week they become less effective. That is so far removed from where we are with our 24-hour digital leashes and so forth. But one thing we do know—that without strategic relaxation and without strategic connection with another human being, we get mentally dull. We get worse and worse and worse at whatever we’re trying to do, whether it’s accounting or entrepreneuring or you name it—so saving the world and still being home for dinner is really the only way to live—the only way to pursue life.

GS What should motivate us in our relationships?

WM You know, the only thing that got me up the mountain— When I got to Zermatt I looked up, and my breath literally was stolen out of my body. I just said, “There is not a chance that I can do that.” And my 15-year-old son was so enthusiastic about the possibility, that I would say his affirmation about doing that with me—it just made it impossible to say no. And what got me up the mountain was shifting from the thought “I can’t do this” to “What can I do?” And I ended up getting to the summit with him and having that epiphany that it isn’t about the summit—it’s not about whatever goal I have in life—it’s about why I climb and who I climb with. That literally did change my life.

I use that story to tell people what I was referring to earlier: If you imagine the very best thing you can do (my belief is—the fact that you can even think that may be a clue to what you should be doing)—if you believe in destiny, let’s say—and you can conceive of doing something that is really good (and what might be really good is being the best mother you can be this afternoon, or the best father you can be tonight; sometimes the best way to change the world is to change a diaper)—in other words, there are moments of truth every day, many times—and if we step into doing the best thing that we can imagine doing in those moments of truth, then we will set up a chain of life that is self-reinforcing, self-motivating, self-fulfilling. It’s just like the Matterhorn: I had no idea I could get to the top, but I would have never gotten there without starting.

So I always tell people, whether you have a grand idea about whether to end poverty or in some other way save the world, just start. Just start.

GS And what stops us, you said, is what is the opposite of love.

WM Fear. Fear. I often say to people: “You know, it’s already determined we’re not going to make it out alive, so what’s there to be afraid of?”