Holocaust and the 2008 Financial Crisis – Leadership Lessons in Resistance

Leader writing 'NO!' on the BoardThe Holocaust and the financial crisis of 2008 had something in common: they both lacked sufficient good leaders, willing to resist the status quo.

“All that is necessary for evil to win is for good men to do nothing.” -Edmund Burke (paraphrase)

This thought occurred to me after watching two documentaries this past weekend, one on each event. In each example, there were men and women standing up for what was right. Ultimately though, each occurred, at least in part, because too many people accepted popular belief and failed to resist what they knew was wrong. Undoubtedly, there were thousands more people, with the potential to influence better outcomes, that did not listen to that still small voice and risk resistance.

The Holocaust

Hitler certainly had his opponents, long before the Allies. However, there was not enough within the German government to adequately influence the country. Hitler and the Nazi’s were allowed to come to power, in part because they did not face sufficient opposition from good leaders early in the developments of the Holocaust. If more servant leaders like Dietrich Boenhoffer and other martyrs, stepped up sooner, perhaps atrocities could have been avoided.

The 2008 Financial Crisis

The financial collapse of 2008 came from a series of events that could have been prevented. If the few whistle-blowers were supported by more good leaders, the meltdown may have been avoided. Unfortunately, within Enron, Lehman Brothers, Countrywide Financial, Merrill Lynch, Moody’s, Standard & Poor’s and other financial industry organizations there was insufficient servant leadership to resist the trend. Too many people were making too much money – everyone wanted in for their individual benefit. The few good leaders that did try to blow their whistle were ignored, perceived as paranoid and in some cases, even fired. Risk taking became easier and easier. Trade-offs were made for short-term wins at the cost of greater long-term risks. As a result, fewer leaders, aware of the issue, spoke against the imbalance.

Don’t get me wrong. I am not suggesting these events were equal. The 2008 financial sector executives were no Adolf Hitler. However, it has been argued that those executives repeatedly ignored warnings out of their own self-interest. There simply were not enough good leaders resisting the status quo to avoid either Nazi atrocities or the financial crisis. The ego, greed and self interest of leaders were sufficient for them to not resist popular belief.

The Lesson for Servant Leaders

The lesson for leaders is simple: just because everyone else is doing it, does not make it okay. Yes, that sounds like something your mother taught you. This does not negate its importance. In business it is too easy to go with the flow – especially when business is good. Question everything. Is your model sound? Is the success sustainable? Are there naysayers or other warning signs? If something seems wrong, you must be willing to stand up for what is right – regardless of the implications to you and your career. Listen to that small voice of doubt. Serving your stakeholders often means self-sacrifice, even especially when times are good.

…unless we stand for something, we shall fall for anything. -Peter Marshall

Question: What status quo do you need to challenge today?

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About the Author:

Ben Lichtenwalner is the founder ModernServantLeader.com - the leading blog on servant leadership and top 35 site for any leadership topic, globally. Ben also speaks and consults on IT and management topics for a large variety of clients. Find out more about him at https://ModernServantLeader.com.

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