All leaders, regardless of geography, sector, and the type of organization they lead, share a common mandate. They are expected to act and lead their organizations to better and more prosperous futures. In the pursuit of “more,” leaders frequently chase business goals and outcomes with immense passion and zeal, often at a significant cost to themselves and others. Generally, leaders are able to temper these pursuits of future goals and outcomes with perspective: how much time, effort, and cost they should spend to attain their desired goals and outcomes. Sometimes, though, this pursuit becomes all-consuming and wrecks perspective. Instantly, leaders migrate from attaining these goals and outcomes “at a cost” to having them “at any cost.”
At first glance, the difference between at a cost and at any cost may seem trivial. But closer examination reveals that the human cost of this shift is anything but trivial; the stories of lives and careers brazenly sacrificed to fulfill the leader’s obsession are often gut-wrenching. Unfortunately, monetary and economic achievements hog the spotlight, and costs incurred, especially people costs, rarely get the scrutiny deserved.
Two companies, one from the 1960s and one from current times, provide an invaluable education on the dangers of blinding, white heat, at-any-cost passion.
The first example involves Ray Croc and the McDonald’s empire. Since art mimics life, let’s call on a telling scene from the movie “The Founder.” The scene occurs towards the end of the movie, after the McDonald brothers have been sacrificed by Kroc’s lust for complete domination. The brothers have lost everything: the fast food phenomenon they had started, the hamburger operation they had nurtured and grown, and, most importantly, even the right to use their own name. A despondent and defeated Dick McDonald (played by Nick Offerman) asks Ray Kroc (played by Michael Keaton), “Why did you do it?” Kroc’s response: “From the first day I saw your operation, I knew I had to have it. Had to.”
Kroc had to have it. The obsessive lust that this goal bred, “ownership of the McDonald’s name, the franchise, and the golden arches” made him sacrifice everybody who didn’t fit part of his future plan; the saddest sacrifices being the two brothers whose creation he had usurped, his friends, and the woman – his best friend – who had stood by him, propped him up and kept him going through all his previous failed ventures. In the presence of his blinding obsession, these people ceased to be people. Instead, they became mere objects and impediments standing in the way of his “have-to-have-it” dream, who he now could sacrifice because they had outlived their utility.
The second example that’s still playing itself out on the world’s stage involves former Uber CEO Travis Kalanick. The desire to have what he wants at any cost, a trait born from Kalanick’s blinding obsession with winning and making Uber the world’s dominant ride-hailing entity, has plunged Uber into its most sustained set of crises since its founding in 2009. The fallout – “a machismo-fueled workplace where managers routinely overstepped boundaries verbally, physically and sometimes sexually,” according to The New York Times — sacrificed the wellbeing of employees and their careers. Even Uber drivers. Kalanick engaged in an argument with one driver in February 2017. It was recorded by the driver and later leaked online.
Yes, it’s true that both McDonald’s and Uber are brilliant examples of economic and business achievement. The sheer longevity of the former and the dizzying rise of the latter are awe-inspiring. Countless customers and investors have profited and benefited, and continue to profit and benefit from the offerings and operations of the two companies. Many even genuflect before Kroc and Kalanick, calling them visionaries (interesting coincidence that both their names begin with K). But that shouldn’t detract from the fact that in both cases, the obsession with winning and having it at any cost, comes at a significant human cost.