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Guido Stein, IESE Professor and President, EUNSA, University of Navarra

Knowing how to leave

Tue, 07 Dec 2010 09:48:04 +0000 Published in Expansion

Experienced mountaineers have no doubt that, when they take risks, what they really have in their hands is their own life; hence, before starting a new ascent, they should also consider how they are going to descend, once they have reached cima.

They know that accidents multiply on the way down. The reasons are varied: accumulated fatigue, overconfidence that results in believing that one's strength is superior to the challenges one faces, or the rush to return by taking shortcuts can play tricks.

It never ceases to amaze me that in the world of business or politics this social law is so easily forgotten: everyone who goes up ends up going down, and when they least expect it.

I have carried out an anecdotal survey - real, but not statistically valid - among the participants in my development Management Programs, who are about to be promoted to cima. To the question of why we do not know how to leave top positions, they have answered: "because we are often more committed to the chair than to the business (the reader should note what this would mean in the case of political, union and business leaders at the most rabidly current moment)"; "because we have no better alternatives"; "for fear of new risks"; "for convenience"; "because we do not realize that it is time to take over"; or "because we think we are immortal" ....

One of my students thinks that those who know how to be know how to leave. "Knowing how to be is the distance average between serving in a responsibility and being served by it.

We are each our own worst enemies, and this happens in part because we cling to a positive self-image, to a high self-esteem that makes us deny our mistakes or downplay their importance. Since failures do not go away, we have to look for scapegoats and sacrifice them. However, the issue of scapegoats is not unlimited.

It is said that during the banking crisis in Spain thirty years ago, the president of one of the most affected banks went to meet with the governor of the Bank of Spain and presented him with a turnaround plan for his troubled institution. When he was about to explain the contents, the governor asked him to leave it on a side table and dismissed him with a "thank you very much, we will discuss it with your successor".

It is obvious that he who makes it, pays it, because it would be unfair if only someone else (e.g. shareholders, employees or taxpayers) paid it. However, something unique happens to the obvious, which is not always easy to notice, hence the myopic perseverance of the person causing the damage. There are people who, even when they crash, try to deny the obvious reality. The governor had to be forceful.

At the same historical moment, the president of one of the most profitable Spanish banks in the world at that time said that since the banks that were doing well would have to save those that were doing badly through instruments such as the Deposit Guarantee Fund or the bank uvi, they should be the ones to choose the successors of the presidents of the failed banks, and not their shareholders. Can the reader imagine Angela Merkel or, failing that, the European Commission making such a claim: "Since we are putting up the money, we will say who governs Ireland". By the way, the President of Ireland seems not to want to leave, according to him, because of responsibility (sic). It seems manager, but of the irresponsibility of how he has governed to date.

One of my students thinks that those who know how to be know how to leave. "Knowing how to be" is the distance that average between serving in a responsibility or being served by it.