David Sokol, a top Berkshire Hathaway executive who once was speculated to be Warren Buffett’s next-in-line, resigned under a cloud when it was revealed he purchased $10 million worth of Lubrizol stock a day after he set in motion a merger with Berkshire. The company’s acquisition of Lubrizol for $9 billion increased Sokol’s holding by $3 million. Although Buffett initially defended Sokol, at a shareholder’s meeting on April 30, he called Sokol’s actions “inexcusable” and “incomprehensible.”

What got our attention about this coverage was the nattering in a New York Times article on April 23, which quoted a series of experts who wondered whether Buffett’s management style is too “hands off.” It cites a paper from Stanford University’s Graduate School of business: “Did Sokol’s actions reveal shortcomings in the company’s governance system that need to be addressed?” We think it’s the wrong question, and illuminates the thinking that has created and fostered the entrenched parent-child cultures that are so damaging to organizations.

This is fed by the mythology that one person can be in charge of another’s accountability. If Sokol’s actions were unethical (as most agree they were), why speculate about whether Buffett’s hands-off management style is to blame? The fact is, a trusted leader made a choice to behave in an unethical way. Unless Buffett was actively encouraging an unethical culture, why castigate his management style? Would a more stringent management style have prevented that from happening? Maybe. And maybe not: All kinds of abuses and unethical behavior can and have emerged in hierarchical, strictly controlled business environments.

Buffett also announced at the shareholder meeting that he had no plans to become a “stricter parent” in the wake of Sokol’s resignation. It would be a shame if he had. Many people have extolled the generally ethical environment at Berkshire Hathaway. As Berkshire’s vice chairman, Charles Munger, pointed out, “We’ve had a close brush with scandal two times in 50 years. We’re not going to devote a lot of time to this.”

Buffett’s business philosophy, as outlined in a recent Vanity Fair article, has long been to let the leaders of Berkshire Hathaway’s subsidiaries run things as they think best, based on their experience and expertise. The company is decentralized and the responsibility for operations rests solely in the hands of local managers. And this clearly hasn’t inhibited Berkshire Hathaway’s success.

Can promoting this kind of management freedom result in abuses and bad choices? Of course! (And it also presents opportunities to learn from the fallout.) But when a smart, experienced adult chooses to behave in an ethically questionable way, the blame should land squarely on the person who made the choice, not on the boss for being a “bad parent.”


Written by Maren and Jamie Showkeir

Owners of henning-showkeir & associates, inc., and co-authors of Authentic Conversations: Moving from Manipulation to Truth and Commitment.


The first newspaper I worked for as a freshly minted journalist had a monthly bulletin that doled out kudos and critiques to the writers and editors. We would applaud our colleagues for snappy headlines, great writing, and beating the competition on a news story. We were invited to nominate the best news and feature articles, with the final winners chosen by a committee. It shined a light on the unsung heroes of the copy desk, publishing the mistakes they caught before our readers ever them, and helping us learn what not to do again. It also pointed out the mistakes that did get through, and areas that needed improvement. Everyone was encouraged to contribute.

One of the monthly “awards” I have learned to particularly appreciate over the years was called The Good Try that Didn’t Work.

Our editor, Max Jennings, believed passionately in helping us learn to take the initiative to try something different. Whether we were crafting a story, photographing a news event, or designing a page, Max didn’t want us to be afraid to butt our heads against perceived boundaries. And he wanted to make sure we celebrated attempts to push beyond our comfort zones, even when those attempts fell flat. One of his favorite sayings was, “If it ain’t broke, let’s break it so we can fix it.” It used to drive us crazy, and we used to tease him that his motto should be “Ready, Fire, Aim.” But his influence fostered one of the most dynamic, creative, passionate organizations I have ever worked in.

I was reminded of this when I saw that Seth Godin had released another book called Poke the Box. In a Q&A published on his Amazon book page, he says that conformity once was crucial to success, but compliance has become a killer in today’s competitive world. “We need to be nudged away from conformity and toward ingenuity. Even if we fail … we learn what not to do by experience and doing the new.”

So take the initiative to try something completely different. Maybe it will be a mistake. If it is, you will still have a reason to learn and celebrate.


Written by Maren and Jamie Showkeir

Owners of henning-showkeir & associates, inc., and co-authors of Authentic Conversations: Moving from Manipulation to Truth and Commitment.


Constancy and consistency are rare in relationships, whether at work, in families or among friends. As we grow and change, it makes sense that some relationships might no longer fit so well. Letting go of those that no longer serve us could be the answer. But when we want or need relationships, we can renegotiate boundaries or ground rules.

At work, for instance, you may not have the option of abandoning a relationship that isn’t working well. In a family or friendship, a sense of history and love keeps you bound, but you want to shift the ways you relate. A conversation of renewal can help.

Here is an outline of a conversation based on two people who have a history of being indirect — or even untruthful — about how they really feel, which has eroded trust. When having this conversation, authentically choosing goodwill and connection is foundational.

* Be clear about the purpose of the conversation: “I want to talk with you about some difficulties (or changes I’d like to see) in our relationship. Are you willing?”
* Name the issue: “My experience is we don’t feel comfortable telling each other the truth.”
* Ask for their views of the issue and your contribution: “How do you see the situation? What have I contributed to the lack of trust between us?”
* Extend understanding and own your contribution: “You’re right. I haven’t always been honest for fear of losing the relationship. In addition, sometimes I have told you one thing, and then talked to others about how I really feel.”
* Frame choices about how to proceed: “The way I see it, we can continue this way or make conscious changes to create trust in our relationship. That’s what I would like. What choices do you see?”
* State your intention to make it work: “I am committing to tell you the truth as I see it, and to hear the truth from you without getting defensive or combative.”
* Ask for agreement and commitment: “Are you willing to make a similar commitment? Are there other commitments you see we should be making here?”
* Talk about future steps or another conversation: “My intention is to start changing today. But I’d like to keep this conversation going. How would you like to proceed?”

Changes won’t happen overnight — and forgiveness and letting go of the past are essential. But this conversation is a great start for living out your intentions authentically. It will create relationships you can believe in with the people who are important to you.


Written by Maren and Jamie Showkeir

Owners of henning-showkeir & associates, inc., and co-authors of Authentic Conversations: Moving from Manipulation to Truth and Commitment.


We are so excited over the announcement of a new National Institute of Civil Discourse, affiliated with the University of Arizona in Tucson. (This is the city where the shooting of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, where six were killed and 14 injured, took place.)

We wanted to share this commentary from our friend Rush Kidder, who eloquently stated one of the dilemmas the Institute faces. How we use words is powerful, and until we own our own contributions to the divisive climate we have created, it will be impossible to begin to create a new future.

Here is Rush's essay:

"If you care about sound governance and social order, this has been a disconcerting week. Protesters took to the streets from Morocco to Yemen while bloody battles erupted in Libya. The Wisconsin legislature froze up as Democratic representatives fled the state to prevent passage of a much-contested union-busting bill. And there were thunderings of a federal government shutdown over a budget impasse.

Against that great wall of noise, a call for civil discourse might seem like a mouse squeak in a nor’easter. Instead, the launch of a new National Institute for Civil Discourse, announced over the weekend, is attracting surprising attention.

Part of the new institute’s allure is that former U.S. presidents George H. W. Bush and Bill Clinton are honorary co-chairs. Part of it comes from its affiliation with the University of Arizona, located near the site of the Tucson shootings that killed six and injured 13, including U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords. Part of it comes from the ability of the institute to attract board members from across the political spectrum, including bedfellows as odd as Fox News anchor Greta Van Susteren and former U.S. secretary of state Madeleine Albright.

But part of its appeal, I suspect, comes from a nagging suspicion that a culture of incivility had something to do with those shootings, and that the January 8 tragedy was a wake-up call to think harder about the relationship of words to actions. On that latter point, the new institute is straddling a paradox.

Fred DuVal, the organization’s principal architect and a former co-chair of Giffords’ finance committee, says he drew inspiration for the institute from President Barack Obama’s comments at the memorial event after the tragedy. “At a time when our discourse has become so sharply polarized,” the president said, “it’s important for us to pause for a moment and make sure that we are talking with each other in a way that heals, not a way that wounds.” The new organization’s website notes that “this Institute is a response to that call.” Yet the website’s Q&A page responds to the question, “Are you blaming heated rhetoric for the shootings?” with the assertion, “Absolutely not.”

And therein lies the paradox. You can see why the institute took that line. There is no forensic or sociological evidence connecting alleged gunman Jared Loughner’s actions to any specific piece of polarizing rhetoric. Any hint, therefore, that irresponsible public discourse might have motivated him enrages the talk-show tribe. A strong denial on that point allows the institute to attract conservatives as well as liberals.

Yet the president’s artful ambiguity opens the window onto another view. The verb “wounds,” as Mr. Obama used it, can be read as mentally harms or as physically damages. Given the grisly context of this speech, these two meanings merge. Obama didn’t go to Tucson because the way that we were “talking to each other” caused people to be mentally wounded. He went there because bodies were lying around a Safeway parking lot. Seen that way, the logic behind the institute’s founding is clear: Words can heal or wound, and in Tucson they wounded fatally. Our “sharply polarized” discourse has played a role in this wounding, and a new institute is required to address this problem.

That logic will be rejected by those in the media whose livelihood depends on attracting audiences through a discourse of rage and incivility. To survive that antagonism, the institute will need the moral courage to be both credible and relevant. Credibility requires it to talk not just in broad generalities about how incivility “wounds” us, but to speak in sharp specifics about what’s wrong with diatribe, invective, hate speech, and cruelly personal attacks. Relevance will require the institute to point out the problem that it is confronting — the connection between verbal attack and the ills that plague our democracy, up to and including physical violence and assassination. To do anything less will be to ignore the nation’s plea for help as it struggles to understand how public discourse creates action either for good (through Facebook on the streets of Egypt) or for bad (through Twitter in the hands of school bullies).

If the institute “absolutely” denies any possibility that a culture of “heated rhetoric” played a role in the Tucson shootings, it will find itself living with a proverbial elephant in the room. If, however, it faces up to that challenge and digs deeply enough, it will discover the core moral values that hold us together. It then will need to teach us how to shape our discourse around those values. Doing so, it may prove to be the mouse that trumps the blizzard, reminding us that even elephants are frightened off by mice."


Owners of henning-showkeir & associates, inc., and co-authors of Authentic Conversations: Moving from Manipulation to Truth and Commitment.