BLG Leadership Insights

Leadership & Moral Purpose: Siegmund Warburg

The most successful organizations, over time, are those in which people act consistently and decisively while innovating and building high-quality relationships. The task of leadership is to stimulate these kinds of actions, reliably and continually.

Pragmatic leaders deploy in some iteration a motivational tool that moves a team or an organization forward. This tool can, in cases, be refereed to as a  “moral purpose” according to Nikos Mourkogiannis in his article, The Realist’s Guide to Moral Purpose.

Mourkogiannas defines moral purpose as a value “that, when articulated, appeals to the innate sense held by some individuals of what are right and what is worthwhile.” For example, by all accounts, Sam Walton was an incredibly shrewd businessman, but at Wal-Mart, making money was secondary to another moral purpose: selling high quality products at the lowest possible price. He made his team feel that their work was worthwhile, by emphasizing the social benefits of families having more money to save and spend.

Moral purpose also allowed Siegmund Warburg to build his financial firm, S.G Warburg, into one of the top merchant banks in Europe after World War II. When Warburg molded his firm he tried his best to teach his employees with five pillars of good business: support pioneering advances, possess moral standing, earn a reputation for efficiency and high quality brain work, and make connections with personnel and organizations.

His emphasis on service and loyalty over pure profit spurred him to pioneer open-plan offices and create a corporate democracy. S.G. Warburg & Co. would take on a client only if every senior executive agreed. This moral purpose helped inspire great loyalty at S.G. Warburg. So much so that Warburg bankers worked longer hours than their rivals (at Warburg & Co. the work day began promptly at 8am…the crack of dawn for investment bankers in those days).

Mr. Warburg’s referred to his manner of business as “haute banque.” He strove for heroism directly inspired by the writings of Friedrich Nietzsche and possessed the moral purpose of creating an aristocracy of elite financiers who would bring, as he put it, “the diverse potentialities of the human being to their highest possible level.” The drive to provide efficiency and stability gave him and his firm capabilities that their competitors could not even begin to emulate

Warburg’s bank thrived by sustaining its morals and reputation. In today’s age when Goldman Sachs and their ilk pursue profit at the risk of damaging client relationships and at a time when bankers and legislators contemplate the future of “high finance,” they would be well advised to follow Warburg’s five principles, and remember it’s not always about the money.