dr-frankensteinYes October is here in full swing and for me that means I get to pull out all the old classic Universal Studio monster movies from the 1930’s and 1940’s. This year I decided to revisit the most classic of them all, Frankenstein. The first version from Universal was a tour de force, creating a cultural icon to this day.

The movie begins with Edward Van Sloan stepping from behind a curtain and delivering a brief caution before the opening credits: “How do you do? Mr. Carl Laemmle feels it would be a little unkind to present this picture without just a friendly word of warning: We are about to unfold the story of Frankenstein, a man of science who sought to create a man after his own image without reckoning upon God. It is one of the strangest tales ever told. It deals with the two great mysteries of creation; life and death. I think it will thrill you. It may shock you. It might even horrify you. So, if any of you feel that you do not care to subject your nerves to such a strain, now’s your chance to uh, well, – we warned you!!” I, for one, am thrilled each and every time I hear those lines.

One thing I learned in researching the movie version was that not only did Bela Lugosi, the Universal star from Dracula, expect to play the role but he was actually offered it. However after several disastrous make-up attempts and the lack of speaking lines Lugosi pulled out of the project. He later termed it the worst decision he ever made.

I wanted to try and take a different look at these pictures for some lessons not normally considered for them. Today I want to consider the original Universal version of Frankenstein for the leadership lessons of Dr. Victor Frankenstein or really the lack of leadership by the good doctor which led to the deaths of a small child, his brother and the rape of his wife-to-be on her wedding day. Of course it also led to the unleashing of his monster, technically called Frankenstein’s monster, upon the movie going world for years to come.

In a lecture at Indiana University’s Kelley School’s Business of Medicine, Dr. Richard Gunderman explored leadership lessons of Frankenstein. Gunderman began by asking, “What do we mean by leadership?” He went on to add, “That’s a question we’ll probably never bring to complete closure. Nor should we. Because it’s a question that each generation of future leaders needs to wrestle with for themselves.”

Gunderman asserted that leadership is fundamentally not an economic, commercial, or academic exercise, but is rather a moral exercise. He said, “Victor Frankenstein recoils in horror at what he’s created. That may be a powerful lesson for leaders. Leadership is a matter of morals, ethics, and human character. Who do you admire and what do you admire about that person? That’s the core of leadership.”

I thought about this insight in the context of Wells Fargo Chief Executive Officer (CEO) John Stumpf and the monster he created at Wells Fargo. He took the sales of as simple and ubiquitous a product as bank debit cards and let it spin so out of control that it truly became a monster within the organization. Perhaps, unlike Dr. Victor Frankenstein, Stumpf simply does not believe that he had any role in the creation of this monster. This was surely implied when he threw the 5,300 terminated employees under the bus immediately after the announcement of the $185MM penalty.

Gunderman went on to pose the question “In what sense are you responsible for what you create or cause to be created as a leader? How deep, how wide, and how far does your responsibility extend?” With the financial sanction of clawbacks ordered by the Wells Fargo Board of Directors of $41 million from Stumpf  (and $19MM in unvested stock awards from the now retired former head of the consumer banking group, Carrie Tolstedt) maybe, just maybe, he is beginning to under that some of this is his responsibility.

Gunderman had another interesting insight about this lack of love and empathy for his own creation by the doctor where he said it was “a cautionary tale for today’s leaders, as it weaves a narrative of “leadership gone bad”.” Gunderman then asked, “What if I said love is an essential element of great leadership?” You might respond as Gunderman did rhetorically “Would you say, “That’s absurd?”” But he then went on to note, “Mary Shelley invites us to take seriously the possibility that no amount of theoretical brilliance, technical know-how, or wizardry in the laboratory, can ever compensate or ever come to good with the absence of love.”

Gunderman concluded his remarks by noting, “Frankenstein was navigating by the wrong compass needle.” For Gunderman he challenged business leaders that “When the chips are down, and light is fading, what do you look to (as the guide) to determine the direction that you ought to be proceeding?” He concluded by stating, “Victor Frankenstein realized too late that he had forgotten what most demands our loyalty. He was irresponsible. If the cost of preserving something is so high that we have to forget everything else, it’s not a price worth paying.”

Wells Fargo will continue to be studied for many years. The actions of CEO Stumpf will be broken down in business schools across the country. However, I will continue to mine the classic Universal monster movies for lessons learned while I re-watch them this most scary month of October. Next up, The Bride of Frankenstein.


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© Thomas R. Fox, 2016