Cockney Philosophy, Charity failures and the challenge of humility

Whilst ancient Greece and Rome is well known for their great thinkers, their ‘lovers of wisdom and the origin of the word ‘Philosophy’ (first coined by Pythagoras) the reality is that every era and every generation has great philosophical thinkers capable of providing fresh perspectives to the way we see our lives.

Prussia (and then Germany) in the late 19th Century has Neitzsche.

The east was philosophically well served in ancient (and not so ancient) times with Confucius, Sun Tzu and Loa-Tzu.

and the list goes on….

France had Voltaire, Descartes and Sartre.

America had Dewey, Jefferson and still has Chomsky.

and

In my particular part of East London in the mid 80’s and early 90’s we had…

My Mum

Okay, maybe my Mum as a philosopher isn’t as meaningful as Marcus Aurelius, as prolific as Plato, or as Astute as Aristotle but she still had her own brand of home spun own brand philosophy. My own personal favourite was:-

“There’s a fine line between confidence and arrogance”

Now obviously my mum probably wasn’t the first one to say it (although she was the first one I heard it from) although a quick google search doesn’t reveal who it’s originally attributed to…maybe it is was my mum and it’s spread into common parlance from the East End over the last 30 years.

Pretty improbable but I’m holding out hope.

Now what I find myself wondering today is where this particularly line is, how we know when as individuals (or as a profession or as a wider financial industry) when we step across that line and whether many in the world of money, be it advisers and planners or product manufacturers or fund managers or large financial institutions like the banks are normally on the ‘right side of the line’.

Firstly let’s confirm that Arrogance (or Overconfidence) happens in men and women of every age, every walk of life and  in every occupation. This uniquely human attribute and how it manifests itself fascinates me.

It’s why one of the stories which has fascinated me in recent months is the story of Camila Batmanghelidjh and kids company.

Undoubtedly the responsibility for the failure of kids company came from the top.

However instead of taking responsibility Camila decided to blame everyone else. 

The media was to blame.

So was the government.

Camila herself at one point blamed a ‘collective madness’ (whatever this means)

The reality is that the major reason for Kids Company’s failure was clear.

You see it’s true to say is that Camila built something special with Kids Company. A charity with hounourable aims, grand vision and actually helped people.

This undoubtedly took vision, ambition, passion and confidence.

However the reality as it seems to me is that whilst I’m sure there were a bunch of contributory factors in the failure of Kids Company the fact that Camila made excuses, blamed others and (here’s the bottom line) created a culture from the top which resulted in the charities ultimate demise.

The fact that to this point Camila fails to take responsibility and admit that she personally made mistakes. An attitude which doesn’t show much humility and is usually an indicator of arrogance.

However both the confidence and arrogance of Camila Batmanghelidjh and Kids Company is only one example in one area.

The reality is that arrogance (or overconfidence) impacts a number of industries, professions and organisations in the private, public or charity sector. Which brings us back to the original thoughts…

What impact does overconfidence (and arrogance) have on the financial sector?

There’s the obvious stuff…

The part that arrogance and overconfidence played in a number of financial crises including 2007/8 financial crisis, the dot com bubble and Black Monday (although you could go as far back as the 17th century and ‘tulip mania’ to show various other examples).

The part that arrogance played when rogue traders like Nick Leeson and Kweku Adeboli who collectively lost 3.6 billion dollars where a huge contributory factor (as was highlighted in both cases) was due to the fact that both Leeson and Adeboli felt that the conventional rules and safeguards didn’t apply to them.

and

Although less obvious the part that overconfidence plays in other parts of the financial industry. From fund management to product providers to financial planners and advisers all the way through to retail banking, financial journalism, regulation and the growing world of financial technology.

 

There’s plenty of personal stories that spring to mind…

Like the time I sat next to a representative from a fund manager and when I questioned how much value they genuinely added based on their additional charges was told, instead of engaging in a reasoned debate, that “some advisers aren’t sophisticated enough to understand our fund”.

Like the time a relatively mature adviser told me that whilst he told me that he liked “my enthusiasm” but “a lot of my ideas were flawed”. You see he’d been “doing the job for thirty odd years and he knew how the job was done”.

or

When traditional product providers assume that they’ve got all the right answers because of their size and scale and attempt to ‘share’ great ideas on how to ‘develop my business’ which (funnily enough) normally involves some of their product..

Now maybe these people are right…or maybe they’re not.

Maybe the fund manager is right and I’m just not sophisticated enough to understand why my clients should pay for the value I didn’t understand (I’m not always the sharpest tool in the shed!). However maybe a bout of overconfidence meant that, as fund managers, they didn’t feel the need to properly explain how they added value to this particular ‘unsophisticated’ financial planner.

Maybe the experienced financial adviser has a bunch of great ideas (I’m sure he did have). However maybe this lack of openness to fresh ideas has also been holding him back.

I would have been happy to engage further with him and shared some of what works in our business (as well as hearing about what works for him so I could learn) but a metaphorical ‘pat on the head’ didn’t exactly put me in a sharing mood.

and

Maybe traditional product providers have some of the right answers and due to their scope and scale can provide a broader insight into some of the market challenges.

However maybe their lack of practical experience in serving clients directly and the potentially slow moving nature of some of these businesses means that some of the best answers come from small nimble financial planning firms who have closer relationships with their clients than any large providers ever could.

I just wonder what our profession, and our wider industry would look like if we were all (and I include myself in this) did just one thing…

Became a little more humble.

However maybe in a business where confidence is often integral to thrive perhaps finding the right balance between confidence and humility is incredibly tough.

Because as one of the finest philosophers of East London in the 1980’s once said…

“There’s a fine line between confidence and arrogance”

What do you think?

Share:

Leave a Reply