“For an ethic is not an ethic, and value not a value, without some sacrifice to it. Something given up, something not taken, something not gained. We do it in exchange for the greater good, for something worth more than just money and power and position. The great paradox of this philosophy is that in the end it brings one greater gain than any other philosophy.”
This quote comes from Jerry Kohlberg‘s speech at his retirement in 1987 from the firm he co-founded, Kohlberg Kravis Roberts and Co. It’s odd to think the firm that pioneered and revolutionized leveraged buyouts would be so altruistic. It was not. The firm benefited from asset stripping, layoffs and bankruptcies.
Point by point
Nonetheless, Kohlberg’s points are well-taken and worthy of exploration. Let’s take them one at a time.
“For an ethic is not an ethic, and value not a value, without some sacrifice to it. Something given up, something not taken, something not gained.” Sacrifice makes intentions real. That is, you can talk about it doing with less, but when you do it and integrate it into your operational outlook, sacrifice demonstrates seriousness.
“We do it in exchange for the greater good, for something worth more than just money and power and position.” It’s easy to talk about making things better. The challenge is how, and how it will always require a degree of investment — time, money and, yes, even sacrifice.
“The great paradox of this philosophy is that in the end, it brings one greater gain than any other philosophy.” This statement reminds me of something that James Stockdale, one of the longest-serving prisoners of war at the Hanoi Hilton, wrote about power. Adm. Stockdale, who studied and wrote about stoic philosophy, stated that leaders gain authority by giving it away. Instead, Kohlberg speaks of the greater good and shows that sacrifice is necessary for achieving.
Some might be skeptical of Kohlberg’s lofty words. After all, he was at heart a corporate raider, though he was at odds with many of his firm’s practices and left 11 years later. Kohlberg personally was very generous with his wealth, funding many philanthropical ventures. His message is sound. It is a clarion call for a limitation on having everything your way. It is a demonstration that giving up something can lead to something better. This tenet is fundamental to every religion but must be spoken more institutionally.
Acting for others
The four tenets of Stoicism, according to mega-selling author Ryan Holiday, are courage, temperance, justice and wisdom.
Acting with courage means making a positive difference when the odds are against you. Promoting temperance means, in an organizational sense, creating win-win solutions or, at a minimum, leaving something on the table for the next person. Justice becomes the lodestar, because it points us in the proper direction. Wisdom will be the outcome of acting on these three virtues.
Girding each is the notion of grace. You may take less for yourself when you act for others, but you are working for the greater good.
NOTE: I am indebted to William Magnuson, author of “For Profit: A History of Corporations,” which includes a case study of KKR and cites Kohlberg’s retirement speech.
John Baldoni is a member of 100 coaches and a leadership keynote presenter. He has been recognized as a top 20 leadership expert by Global Gurus, a list he has been on since 2007. He is also ranked as a Global 100 Leader and Top 50 Leadership Expert by Inc.com. John is the author of 15 books. His leadership resource website is www.JohnBaldoni.com
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