The courage to be a useful leader

09 September 2021

Corrado Passera's editorial

CEO illimity

Our CEO Corrado Passera, guest at the welcome event for new graduate students at Bocconi University, invited the students to reflect on the characteristics of a contemporary leadership that is truly helpful to society.

Today, we are here to mark the start of a new journey, the journey you are all about to embark on.

You all know how your journey begins, but you don’t know how it will end.

Of course, this can be scary, but it can also be exciting at the same time. This, after all, is what makes life special and unique.

In your case, the journey includes, among its destinations, your mission to become leaders. What you have chosen to study, and the prestigious university you have chosen to study in, gives you the right to aspire towards that goal.

The ruling class worldwide have inherited a bad reputation when it comes to not being able to measure up to the tasks that history assigned them. This is certainly the case in our country from the time that Italy was first formed, all the way through to the last decades, leading up to today.

If being here today therefore guarantees you the right to aspire to become part of the ruling class, it - at the same time - also obliges you to take and earn responsibility for this goal. You must distinguish yourself from the leaders that came before you. You must find different principles to lead with, and take different actions.

You will have to navigate through the complexities of our time, which will face a rapid acceleration. You will have to equip yourself with the appropriate cultural tools and untraditional experiences.

Your journey is beginning during uncertain times that are unprecedented and further exasperated by the serious healthcare crisis. The profound uncertainty that has worn down the community has deep roots and its effects are both rational and irrational. The well-being and lifestyle that we enjoy is at risk; work is at risk, or at least many traditional jobs are. Social Welfare, as a well-established principle, is at risk. Global peace is at risk; the planet is at risk. Many political and social aggravations have been triggered by these fears, which are not counterbalanced by a set of leaders capable of creating hope and trust, and what’s more, of providing solutions and long-term vision

The ever increasing uncertainties - that continue to grow also due to digitisation - call on us to build completely new mindframes, where technology and humanistic sensibilities must integrate themselves: we need a new “noosphere” as Theillard de Chardin would call it.

New leaders are being called upon to build a new role for their country. But in order to design a sustainable future for your country, you need to have the overall vision of it and to know its past by studying history, especially its recent history, something we are not very good at doing.

Our future will inevitably be located in a globalized world, with international powers competing against each other: a sort of GZero world. Hopefully, the competition will be limited to culture and economics and not deteriorate into the military. It should be clear to all Europeans that, only by building a European Union capable of operating as a global power - which is not the case today - will we have a future of freedom and well-being.

What are, then, the main characteristics that make leaders and ruling classes really useful?

I don’t think it’s necessary to stress here the importance of competence and respect for meritocracy. Always remember the value of merit; be its testimonial and advocate for it both in the big and small choices that you make every day. Above all, when you select your team members, be mindful of their motivation and how they fit into your goals, because it will be the people around you, together with the environment that you will build with them, that will determine your results more than your skills.

You cannot call yourself a leader until you start helping to grow other leaders around you. The best definition of a leader I can give you is this: a leader is someone who creates other leaders.

This obviously does not mean that the technical skills you’ve acquired and will acquire at university are not important. They are, and always will be fundamental and you will have a greater advantage over many others thanks to the academic institution you chose to study at. However, new skills will have to be developed while in the field, which I would define as emotional skills: the most important is the ability to navigate and manage change. Today’s leaders face the great challenge of taking their teams across stormy waters towards unchartered and unknown realities that are often surprising and unexpected not only for the teams, but also for the leaders themselves.

Managing change is far from being a purely rational process: it means appealing to the head, heart, and gut of the people. As a prerequisite of any major change, we need to imagine and demonstrate to our people a future for which it is worthwhile to “break your back”. Leaders need to understand that change provokes anxieties in those affected by the change, and they must carefully manage such anxieties. Courage is necessary, as those who often undermine change are many and they are often very influential.

Leaders that want to be useful unite; they do not divide and continually put up a fight about everything. They know how to understand diversity and how it combines with other types of diversity. Not only are they tolerant, but they also seek a difference of opinions and dissent because they bring value and innovation. They do not demand a complete alignment of ideas, but instead value what unites people. They always look for new synergies even between conflicting values.

Look at what’s happening to our society. It’s becoming increasingly divided and polarized because it is not able to find a balance between opposing values: freedom and equality, meritocracy and solidarity, identity and openness, faith and secularism. Indeed, it is only an apparent incompatibility since freedom cannot exist without equality, merit cannot hold value without taking care of fragility, and there can be no cohabitation among civilizations without strong personal identities and respect for our origins. We are the Others, we are made of many things, we are an inner parliament as Freud would say.

All of this not only in words, but by example. The greatest ingredient in building trust - in families, companies, and society - is being and living as an example. Each of us is responsible for what we choose to do and not do. We are responsible not so much for what we say, but for what we do.

It is only by making this commitment that today’s leaders will rediscover a positive idea of ambition, which has nothing to do with arrogance. Remember that there is nothing wrong with being ambitious, quite the opposite.

We have to be more ambitious also at the national level: here I’m referring in particular to my country.

Enough with the Calimero complex!

Way too often we underestimate our country’s potential and our role in achieving its potential. Too many times, we indulge in making a mockery of Italy, an action that has become a national sport, typical of our people – even people with top positions -, something that does not occur in other great nations. Too often, we pass down the belief to new generations, that “in Italy it is not possible” and so we look for excuses and alibis to justify our failures: bureaucracy, unions, infrastructures, ..

We must proudly reject this self-indulgent and victimized narrative above all because it is a false one. In Italy it is possible to accomplish great things. You can even do it in a short period of time! Not only is it possible in Italy, but we often do things better than many other countries that enjoy a much more positive reputation in the media. I have the pleasure of meeting people everyday who prove me right and I have learned through personal experience.

Here are three examples of events that I’ve witnessed and that convince me that “we can do this also in Italy” and encourage me to think outside the box: Poste Italiane, Intesa SanPaolo and illimity.

When we started to reimagine our national postal service, almost everyone said that it wasn’t possible to turn that huge bureaucratic machine into a modern and effective company capable of mutating its secular DNA. Instead, the people at Poste Italiane brought about change in a few years, and today the company is seen as a positive example worldwide.

Intesa SanPaolo has become one of the best European banks both in terms of its results and social responsibility, but when we started the consolidation process, it was just a medium-sized local bank. Not many would have bet that an Italian bank would find itself in one of the top positions in Europe in a few years.

Three years ago, illimity was just a PowerPoint presentation of a new startup. Today, it’s one of the leading banks of the new paradigm model and has attracted nearly 700 talented people from over 200 different organizations. We grow, we are profitable. We are proud to also be useful because we deal with the kinds of credit that are underserved by most other banks: growth credit, restructuring credit, and distressed credit for SME’s

In all three cases, the keys to success have always been the same: people and the ability to innovate.

To be a good leader, you must love success. My point to you is that you must not only love your own success, but also that of others. This brings up another bad habit that we must correct. Enough with the Tall Poppy Syndrome! The poppy that grows the highest should not be cut down; instead, it should be admired, emulated, and supported, because it represents a positive example. The typical establishment approach, not only in Italy, of stopping innovators, those who run faster and those who are successful, is a dangerous virus that you should not let infect you.

A fairly detailed profile of leaders who serve both themselves and the entire society emerges from all of this.

You will be called upon to steer our capitalistic system towards a more responsible form of capitalism. There are three main directions to take and both the public and private sectors are deeply responsible for and interconnected with them:

- A Capitalism that is more socially responsible: the excesses of a system which by its very nature tends to deepen inequalities and permits levels of extreme hardship, must be corrected. However, we have the tools to make this happen, from education to social security to real meritocracy in all its forms.
- A Capitalism that is more ecologically responsible: an economic system’s legitimacy also comes from its ability to leave a more sustainable planet to the future generations than the one it inherited. We have proof that we are presently not going in this direction.
- A Capitalism that is more financially responsible: finance as an end in itself, the explosion of debt, and the concentration of financial power must be mitigated through both legal and social rules and sanctions. The philosophy of sustainability, although widely accepted as a concept, has not yet been fully grasped and taken on board consistently.

Leadership that wants to be useful must feel responsible for the creation of common good. Should it fail to face these challenges, putting its own interest ahead of the common good, the new leadership will have failed its mission.

A final further word regarding the common good is necessary. The common good is one shared responsibility that cannot be fully delegated to others, not even to the State. Don’t listen to those who say that the common good automatically comes from the quest of individual interests and the satisfaction of what they call “animal spirits.” This is not true, especially in light of the damages and aberrations that have come from this type of ideology. It is a completely superficial interpretation of the “invisible hand” of the market that Adam Smith certainly did not have in mind, and surely this interpretation would make him turn over in his own grave if he heard it. Pursuing exclusively individual interests not only halts the creation of the common good, it prevents it.

Today, we cannot deny that we are part of one global community. As Edgar Morin would say, we are all human beings united by a single world destiny that requires a new idea of salvation and fulfillment.

Of course, each one of us needs to care about ourselves, our family, and our business, but being part of the ruling class means giving back a part of yourself - your action, your time, your success - to the community. Today, there are so many ways that one can choose to give back. In the private sector including its many associations, in the public sector, and through non-profit organisations or NGOs. None of these worlds are perfect and none of them holds the secret of virtue alone: the greatest results come, nonetheless, through the cooperation between worlds often impermeable to each other

Finally, true leaders are capable of taking ownership of their responsibilities, that is, they are ready to get their hands dirty because “it is difficult to do good without getting your hands dirty,” as Pope Francis says.

To do this, you need to have a passion for reality, as well as a youthful spirit not intended as a biological status that comes to end after a certain number of years, but as a state of mind. Youth is absolute love of freedom: never – not even once - exchange it for a piece of success. Youth is courage winning over fear, not abandoning our ideals, and above all, trusting yourself and others. Youth is looking ahead and being open to everything.

There is so much more that I wish I could say to you if I had the time.

Take this last thought with you, though: we are not born leaders, we learn how to become leaders.

Congratulations on choosing this path: the best is yet to come!