Ayn Rand can make you a better leader
The 7 virtues proposed by the controversial author of Atlas Shrugged are traits leaders should cultivate. No argument.
Ayn Rand is one of the most polarizing figures in American culture — and she’s been dead for 35 years. People either love or hate the author of Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead. But what gets lost in the firefight between them is that many of Rand’s ideas can make us better leaders, enhance our ability to innovate, and intensify our focus on building a successful business.
When my wife and I wrote a book about how Rand’s philosophy of Objectivism applies to business, we got caught in the crossfire. The Rand haters didn’t like the book because they’re convinced Rand is a heartless monster. Rand lovers didn’t like the book because it didn’t preach the infallibility of Rand or her philsophy. The firefight went on and both sides ignored the thesis of the book — that Rand’s Objectivism is a useful business philosophy.
Rand’s seven Objectivist virtues are a case in point. These virtues are behaviors that Rand said we all need to cultivate to succeed in life. When you apply them to business, they provide a guide for getting the most value out of your work. Here they are:
Rand’s primary virtue is the deceptively simple act of thinking. The more you think, the more you can accomplish. And what if you refuse to think? Well, if the idea of refusing to think sounds silly, ask yourself whether the leaders of Wells Fargo were being rational when they set the impossible sales goals that resulted in thousands of employees opening more than 3 million fake accounts to meet them.
Rand’s second virtue ensures freedom from the undue influence and control of others. Being independent means that you are self-reliant and not willing to accept the status quo or the opinions of others, until you have judged them to be rational. Rand admitted that imitators could be successful in the short term, but she argued that only truly independent thinkers, like Steve Jobs and Walt Disney, could succeed over the long term.
Rand’s virtue of integrity requires that you act in accordance with your rational conclusions. This is not always easy, especially now that the court of public opinion is louder and has greater reach than ever before. Even superstar investor Warren Buffet has been condemned for maintaining his integrity and refusing to follow the herd when making investment decisions. Yet, if you had invested $1,000 with Buffett in 1964, it would have grown to almost $10 million by January 2016.
Rand said that the “most ruthless” honesty is the only way to avoid the dangers of self-deception. The 1986 Challenger disaster was a lethal example of this: The space shuttle exploded and its seven-member crew died because leaders at NASA and at Morton Thiokol wouldn’t acknowledge a fatal defect in its rubber O-ring seals. Interestingly, Rand called out one exception to the virtue of honesty — she said you have no obligation to behave honestly toward dishonest people.
The virtue of justice requires that you judge others for their actions and that you be prepared to be judged in return. Justice demands that you determine the facts, judge them based on rational, independent thought, and then, act on that judgment. What’s the opposite of justice? You can see it in today’s headlines: Cronyism, nepotism, and other forms of unearned reward, like huge CEO paychecks in failing companies.
Rand said that productive work is the central purpose of life. It transforms rationality (your thinking) into tangible goods and services. Productiveness creates material value, which is why Rand famously argued in Atlas Shrugged that money was “the root of all good,” not evil. Edwin Land, the inventor and founder of Polaroid, is a great example of the virtue of productiveness. When he died in 1991, he had 535 patents in his name.
Rand said that the virtue of pride was necessary to become the best version of ourselves that we can be. It results in self-esteem, which supports you in good times and bad. But pride must be earned — and it is earned by practicing and living up to all of the other Objectivist virtues.
Rationality, independence, integrity, honesty, justice, productiveness, and pride. If you put these seven virtues into action in your work life, you’re going to succeed…whether or not you like Ayn Rand.
[First publication in Inc.com.]