I am going start off with a bold assertion that “we” (our nation and our industry) are facing a serious leadership crisis. I am also going to assert that this is the result of the unusual and extended season of prosperity and "good times" we have enjoyed from 1996 through 2006. It has been my observation that in times of great prosperity such as this period, we rarely see new leadership emerge. If anything, leadership development seems to go into remission. That is not to say that there are new potentially strong leaders walking among us, but the absence of a perceived or real crisis doesn’t seem to foster or allow an opportunity for those leaders to emerge … i.e., the need for their existence did not exist (or so we thought).
Regrettably, the catalysts for leaders to arise seems to be when we have the emergence of a new crisis. I will even assert that when we, as a society, have extended periods of great prosperity as we have become confused on what strong leadership looks like.
For those of you questioning this, consider this question: During your life, when have you experienced your greatest times of development and growth? Isn't it during those unpleasant seasons when you're going through some difficulty that feels like a crisis?
There is no question that we all enjoy the good times and want them to continue for as long as possible. But when you do a honest analysis of what actually happened during the decade between 1996 and 2006 where we all enjoyed such an extraordinary extended time prosperity, we witnessed our nation increasingly subscribe to the mistaken notion that “greed is good” and “he who dies with the most toys wins.” Overindulgence, greed and materialism cause us as a society to become lazier, more complacent and less disciplined … the characteristics opposite of true leadership. In fact, capitalism that gives way to excess is an enemy to leadership development.
Economists have said that we entered the current recession in December, 2007, and some would suggest that we have begun to emerge from that recession. Whether we are or not, having unemployment hovering around 10 percent and the most recent Case-Shiller report advising that some real estate markets are likely going to experience a double-dip in housing prices, there's no question that the good times are over. Most economists advise that we are no longer in a recession and have begun a recovery, albeit a modest recovery. Others are not so easily convinced, suggesting that things are going to get much worse before they get any better. If the latter is true, could this actually be a blessing in disguise?
Or maybe another way to look at it is the old expression "where is the pony in this pile” (My apologies if you haven't heard the story with that as the punch line). If it is true that we are heading into more troubled economic times, than the topic of “leadership” and “leadership development” is more critical now than ever. It is for this reason that I have chosen to write a new series of articles on leadership. It is my hope that you will enjoy and benefit from reading this column in the months ahead. Whether we have an economic downturn or an economic recovery, it is important either way to develop the leaders amongst us. Good leadership is key to our future and survival as an industry and as a country.
If I were to ask you to quickly start naming list of some of the greatest leaders in history, what names would come to mind? Would names like George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Winston Churchill, Gen. Douglas MacArthur, Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela, Golda Meir or Mahatma Gandhi come to mind? For those who are more sports-minded, names like Vince Lombardi or John Wooden might come to mind. In reality, it wouldn't be very difficult for most of you to quickly compile a list of individuals you consider to be leaders.
Now, if I were to ask you to give me a list of the qualities that make for a great leader, I dare say that most would find that exercise a bit more challenging. Why is that? Most of us immediately recognize leadership when it shows up. However, when you asked most of us to logically explain or identify what it is about someone that makes that person a leader, we struggle. Leadership is something that we intuitively or instinctively recognize when experienced. It is not something we arrive at logically.
Okay, now let’s take this discussion to the mortgage industry. If I were to ask you who is or has been a great leader in the mortgage industry, who comes to mind? With “tongue-in-cheek” I ask, “Does anyone come to mind?” If some names do come to mind, ask yourself: “Why do I consider these people leaders?” As I suggested at the opening of this article, many years of prosperity skews our definition of what makes for a strong leader. When I ask myself the question, “Who in the mortgage industry do I consider to be a leader” … I struggle for an answer. Several individuals surface in my thinking; however, recent revelations about some of these individuals’ lack of character cause me to say to myself, “You know, they may not have been the leader that I thought they were.” History has a tendency to qualify or disqualify genuine leadership.
Allow me if you will, to share a personal story about someone influential early in my career. When I started my career in mortgage lending, one of the very first bosses I had seemed like anything but a leader. To say that “we didn’t start off on the right foot” is an understatement. From my perspective, he seemed to enjoy making my life miserable. I was right out of college, and in hindsight, I now recognize that I was definitely “rough around the edges,” but I had an intense desire to succeed in mortgage lending. The harder I tried, the more difficult this new boss seemed to get. He was rough on me, and from my perspective, was harder on me than anyone else. I just assumed he didn't like me and there was nothing I could do about it. Nonetheless, he was extremely really good at what he did and I wanted to learn from one of the best, so in my mind, I was going to put up with him. With that attitude, there’s no telling what he was thinking about me at the time. However, it wasn’t long before I realized I was growing and getting better and better. It wasn’t too long that I started getting promoted and eventually started receiving job offers from the competition, some of which were really attractive offers. To my own amazement, every time I was offered a bigger salary or “better opportunity,” I chose to stay put. While we never grew close, I had grown to respect boss as a leader. I saw mortgage lending as my long-term profession and my desire to grow and be mentored by one of the best in the business exceeded anything else. As a result, I ended up staying with that company for a number of years despite numerous attractive offers from competitors.
For that company for whom we both worked, my boss’ good leadership paid great dividends for me and the company we worked for, as I stayed there and produced a good amount of revenue for that company. Leadership does matter. I had the privilege of reconnecting with that old boss many years later after he had retired and a short time before he passed away. I found myself getting somewhat choked up as I thanked him for all he had done in the early days of my career. I cannot tell you how many times I have looked back and appreciated his contributions to my career and my life. Leadership may not yield friendship, even though I wish it had in this case, but it did yield dividends well beyond this man’s time on this earth. Here’s the point of me telling you this story. History and time provides us with the best “optics” to clearly see/recognize the leaders in our lives.
Here are the questions I now have for you, “Do you want to be a leader?” “Do you see yourself as a leader or a potential leader?” To make the point more clearly, let me rephrase the question this way, “Do you want to be successful in this business?” If you do, you MUST learn how to become a GREAT leader. That is what this series of articles is going to be dedicated to accomplishing … developing great leaders. I believe we are entering a season where those who have developed strong leadership skills will not only prosper and do well, but will also have amazing opportunities for growing strong companies that will dominate the next market cycle.
While speaking at the Mortgage Bankers Association (MBA) Annual Expo in Atlanta late last fall, I made the following prediction and it bears repeating as I start this new series of articles on leadership:
“One of the most interesting things about 2011 will be which companies survive and thrive, and which ones will fail. The primary determining factor between success and failure in the days ahead will be ‘leadership’ or the lack thereof.”
Again, I look forward to writing on the topic of leadership each month in this publication in the year 2011. It is my hope and prayer that 2011 will be your best year ever. Again, happy new year!
David Lykken is president of mortgage strategies and managing partner with Mortgage Banking Solutions. He has more than 35 years of industry experience and has garnered a national reputation, and has become a frequent guest on FOX Business News with Neil Cavuto, Stuart Varney, Liz Claman and Dave Asman with additional guest appearances on the CBS Evening News, Bloomberg TV and radio. He may be reached by phone at (512) 977-9900, ext. 101 or e-mail email@example.com.