Sacrifice in the Boardroom: A Story

Like the villains in Atlas Shrugged, the rhetoric in the public square exalts sacrifice and denounces selfishness. Despite exhortation, we see the opposite: a lot more selfishness than sacrifice. Especially in the financial and corporate world, of which I have been a part. Sure, there’s talk about “giving back”, but it’s just lip service. Ayn Rand’s perspective is different. The notion of “giving back” is utterly irrational. Thinking again of Rand’s villains, I mentioned to a friend that there don’t seem to be relatable examples of sacrifice in everyday life. In response, he told me this story.

When I think of Bill, I think of “sacrifice.” When I When I first met him, I was in my thirties, working at a large pharmaceutical company. I was climbing the executive ladder, and I found myself presenting to senior leadership about a new venture. Bill was there.

While I was outwardly detached, self-occupied—some would say “arrogant”—I was intimidated long before I sat down at the boardroom table, surrounded by several of the most ambitious men I’d ever met. I thought to myself, “Every one of these guys wants my position in the company.” Part of it was that I reported directly to the CEO, so I wielded a lot of influence. The rest was that the CEO was an entrepreneurial type himself, so he took a keen interest in every new venture I brought to the table.
But the last two ventures I headed up for the company were less than successful, so the room was skeptical about this one. The cards were stacked against me from the outset. The latest new product was highly technical, outside my core competency, and loaded with potential landmines.
About halfway through my presentation, the content became a lot more technical. I lost my way. I fumbled some basics and the flow of the presentation started to go against me. Everyone in the room could see what was happening. My peers were making me look bad and, of course, I was helping them! They were vying for my position, and it was easy pickin’s. Things went from bad to worse in a matter of seconds, and then there was an awkward silence.
One man broke that silence. It was Bill. He could have stepped in to save the day himself, but he didn’t. It was his area of expertise, his core competency. He could have owned my position. Furthermore, he knew, long before that moment, that the venture’s success depended on communicating one key point. I had glossed over it earlier in the presentation. All he had to do was arrest the attention of the room and wrest control of the project. He looked directly at me and quietly asked me, “Would you mind clarifying the idea you talked about just two slides back?”
I froze. I flipped back and carefully restated the point from the earlier slide. That one question totally refocused my thoughts—as Bill knew it would—and clarified what the room needed to hear. The whole atmosphere changed. I sailed through the rest of the presentation. It was a pivotal meeting for this new venture, and for my career.

My friend shared these words at Bill’s funeral, the man who saved the meeting, and my friend’s career. Bill exemplified my friend’s definition of “sacrifice.”

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4 thoughts on “Sacrifice in the Boardroom: A Story

  1. The financial and corporate worlds have their share of selfishness but what about our own government where politicians always subjugate the long-term well being of their constituents in favor of winning the next election. And what about the voters themselves who demand of the government that it confiscate their neighbor’s (and descendent’s) wealth to fund their own desires right now. Why is Bernie Madoff the subject of such scorn? His only mistake was still being alive when his Ponzi scheme was exposed. Those politicos who gave birth to and fed our Social Security system were true visionaries compared to Bernie.

  2. Good question. I guess it’s not an investment in the traditional sense, because he was not expecting a return from my friend. Perhaps it’s a “heavenly” investment, if that’s what you mean.

  3. Not really. When you’re in that situation, you have two choices….

    1. Take the stage and take control. Make yourself look good.

    There are a few bad things that might happen because of this…
    Your boss might see this and decide he doesn’t like your attitude, that you’re not a ‘team’ player; or may decide that you’re a threat, that you may do this to him some day. You probably just made an enemy of the person you just upstaged. He’ll probably learn from his error and make his way back up the ladder, and won’t forget this.

    2. Give the person a nudge back on the right track.
    The person you helped probably won’t forget that you helped them
    and will consider helping you in the future. Your boss may see this
    and consider it a sign of good management skills. That you’ve acted as something of a mentor to this person. You saw someone who was deserving of your help and gave them a boost.

    Making allies/friends is a good thing. Making enemies is bad.

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