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Leadership, Entitlement and...Biscuits

Leadership, Entitlement and...Biscuits

In the words of the management guru W Edwards Deming, "The task of l

Leadership, Entitlement and...Biscuits

Leadership, Entitlement and...Biscuits

In the words of the management guru W Edwards Deming, "The task of l

Best-selling author Michael Lewis is famous for writing books that have shaped the business climate for a decade at a time. His 1989 debut account of the deception and obnoxious greed that was life on the trading floor of Salomon Brothers, Liars Poker, had the perverse effect of multiplying applicants to become bond traders by a considerable multiple.

In 2003 his sporting book Moneyball described how the low ranking Oakland Athletics outperformed their higher spending rivals by applying statistics to the selection of talented players. This was later made into a 2011 film starring Brad Pitt.

And his accounts of the credit default swap driven credit crunch, The Big Short, (2009) and the world of algorithmic high frequency trading Flash Boys (2014) have been cited by industry insiders as having helped them understand what was going on in their own businesses.
So when Lewis was invited to make a graduation speech at his alma mater, Princeton, in 2012 there was considerable interest in what he was going to say. His remarks were about leadership, about entitlement and about biscuits.
Biscuits? Well if you were there in Princeton you would have heard him say cookies, but no serious article about leadership can talk about cookies, can it?

Lewis described a psychological experiment conducted by Prof Deborah Gruenfeld, of Stanford University. In her experiment she recruited volunteers, split them into teams of three and assigned a chairperson in each trio. They then had thirty minutes to discuss a complex moral problem, under the observation of the psychologists. What the test subjects didn't realise is that the psychologists weren't even listing to the way they solved the problem. They were there to observe what happened next.

What happened next, in the participant's eyes, was a rest break. An Assistant came in with a plate of four biscuits. Those sneaky psychologists wanted to know how would the three people deal with the four biscuits?
Well the results were surprisingly consistent. Four biscuits for three people should have been a problem. Should have been an awkward situation. Should have even been a moral quandary, just like the ones the trios had been discussing for the past half an hour. But what happened? With incredible consistency the person who had been arbitrarily appointed leader just thirty minutes earlier grabbed the fourth biscuit and stuffed it in their face.

This leader had performed no special task. They possessed no special virtue. They had been chosen at random. Their status was no greater than sheer luck.

It's a fascinating experiment. It says a lot about human beings, It says a lot about the psychology of power and there are several important lessons for people who think about leadership in organisations.

Lewis' point, to the new graduate of Princeton, who through a mix of their own efforts and the sheer genetic fortune of being born to relatively affluent parents in the most prosperous economy in the world, was about not taking the privilege of leadership for granted – about not getting a sense of entitlement. He advised students to refuse the extra biscuit that life presented them with, even thought they would have plenty of opportunities in life to take it. Lewis suggested they would be happier and the world would be better if they did.

I think the challenge to leaders goes beyond the point Lewis was making. Leaders in organisations, in businesses and in societies are in a unique position of power that they can use, not only to refuse to take a personal advantage, but to change the whole system.

In the words of the management guru W Edwards Deming, the task of leadership is to work on the system, not just in the system. To make your organisation better at making biscuits and better at organising how to sharing out the proceeds of the enterprise. The task of the leader is not just to benefit themselves in the system, nor even to bring benefits to others. The task of the leader is to apply a higher level of awareness to the way the system operates, and to think of better ways of doing things. And that's a whole new ball game.

Perhaps there's another idea for a screenplay for a Brad Pit movie in that.

Simon Nash

Simon Nash LLB FCIPD is the HR director of the law firm Carey Olsen and a founder member of...

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