Louis was a nice guy – funny, intelligent, highly motivated. Loved his kids, volunteered in his local community, supported his wife, Kate, in her chosen career as an ‘alternative caterer’. He was also CEO of a fast-growing, highly successful, company in France, which afforded them a fabulous life-style. Things couldn’t have been going better.
Then Louis lost touch with his foundations. How did this happen? Louis wasn’t a religious person. He believed in the goodness of people, in family and in generosity and compassion – it’s what he taught his children. There was also a part of him which loved to compete and to win, enjoyed the thrill of the chase. This part became mesmerised by mounting profits and bonuses which flooded in as the company pursued an ever more efficient money-making strategy. Somewhere along the line, the balance between his values and the adrenalin of success was lost. He stopped volunteering at the scouts, he missed school plays and sports days, he shouted at Kate and told her to ‘give up that silly business and take care of the kids, and he rarely came home before the children went to bed. More and more hours were devoted to the thrill of the chase. He had lost touch.
Within a year, Louis’ company was in court for fraudulent deals. Within another year, Louis and Kate were back in the UK with no assets to their name. The court case had cost them everything: gone their house, the Jaguar and the high society lifestyle. Louis was lucky to avoid jail. Amazingly, what he most valued had not deserted him – but it took him months to realise it. One day he woke up and thought “Kate stood by me through all the humiliation. Why?” Because she hadn’t lost touch.
Louis had always said that success would never change him. He was sure of it. And yet success had got to him. With the force of an addiction it had increasingly drawn him away from his touchstone – his highest values and deepest motivations. Perhaps, he thought, the old saying is true “All power corrupts… But does it really have to be that way?”
When Louis shared his story with me, I wanted to shake my finger at him, but I shook my head. What I wanted to judge in him, on deeper reflection, were human weaknesses which I could see in myself. And these weaknesses are like dormant seeds which the environment in so many business and organisations can easily water and cause to flourish into morally questionable, even criminal, practices. Louis he saw the error of his earlier path. He wanted to do it better right this time. It would be very hard: he went cap in hand to his father-in-law for investment funds, and accepted the older man’s oversight of everything he did with the new company, which he and Kate ran from the front room of their rented terraced house in Stoke.
The one thing that gave me real hope was what he chose to put on his desk: a photograph of Kate and the kids, his old scout badges in a frame and a single word in another frame:
“Compassion”. You see, when his old company had gone under, 60 people had lost their jobs – mostly parents with young children like himself, mostly people of immigrant background who tended to experience discrimination in the labour market. All of them had thought their future was secure. He had informed them by text, so immersed was he in his own shame. “Every day,” he said, “I take five minutes to look at these three things on my desk. The faces of those men and women float in front of me. I say an inner “Sorry” to them, and I make a promise never to forget what my success is for, and never to treat people like that again”. I don’t know if Louis will succeed. But I hope he does. And I hope he does in a way he, and his family, can live with, and be proud of.
Based on a real story, names and some facts have been changed to protect Louis’ true identity.