An Interview with Rupert Lay

I found this interview by Thomas Pfister and Madeleine Stäubli-Roduner with Rupert Lay in the “Denkpausen Edition No. 11″.

Denkpausen (pauses for reflection) is a brochure edited by the Management School St. Gallen (BETTER BUSINESS). It provides “Inspiration on Management and Leadership”.

I remember well how Rupert called the top-managers the “poorest of the poor”. Mostly, he said, they are the loneliest persons in the world. And he felt he had to “help those poor creatures“.

Consequently, the initial question asked in the interview was:

“Are managers poor creatures?”

For me, this interview is a wonderful summary of many ideas we shared with Rupert. Ideas still as important today as they were then.

Here is the original text taken from the “Denkpausen”:


Are managers poor creatures?

The principle «posting, premium, prostitution» still works today. What is ignored is entrepreneurial culture. This is a conversation with Rupert Lay, a famous German business ethics teacher. We will talk about leadership personalities, overcharged managers, an ethics that has gone down the drain in many enterprises and disheartened executive boards.

Herr Lay, do you despise managers?

What an idea! I despise no person at all.

Well, after all, you write that you know «no more miserable people» than the managers when you look at the people attending your courses!

I even said that quite a few managers are poor, miserable creatures. And there is nothing more ridiculous than poor, miserable creatures in a permanent state of erection. But that is no reason for me to despise them. It is more that I pity them, because so many people own so much, yet have lost themselves.

Now that sounds quite arrogant. Is this how you treat your customers?

Yes, certainly, if it helps them to find themselves. I am sure you want to know what made me say this? Well: meeting managers. This sentence of mine is the essence of my experience from hundreds of seminars where I met thousands of managers. But, please, not to mistake me: that is how they were before they attended my seminars…

At least you say that managers have potential for learning…

Yes, I tried to convert managers who were pure leaders into true leadership personalities. Because many of them did not know ethics as a social necessity. A considerable number of them, however, learned new patterns of behavior in my seminars.

Are you telling us that your positive influence made good leaders out of managers who before had been poor creatures? Isn’t that a little arrogant?

At least, the managers had the equipment for this mutation. Quite frequently, I did cause some development. And we always continued to meet regularly in order to see whether or not some social and psychological maturing had taken place.

What, by your definition, is a good boss?

He must be a personality who will not be governed by systemic forces and who will not bend to any dictatorship. To be sure, leadership is also a question of skills. But it will often be very tedious and ineffective if you just let it degenerate into commanding. You also have to lead people in an atmosphere of goodwill. A good boss also wants to be loved.

A good boss does not pay. Or do you disagree?

In fact, he pays considerably better than a bad boss. All investment factors are smaller: the social, emotional, psychological and the financial investment. You could easily prove this if those factors were taken into consideration at the time of business evaluation. Charisma is something you either have or don’t have. Or can you learn to develop a personality?
There are certainly some social and psychological requirements. And every person can develop them through striving and a strong will.

Every person? 90 per cent of all managers are said to be overtaxed by the age of 50 …

Yes, they are not only said to be overtaxed, they actually are overtaxed! Often rationally, but also socially and emotionally.

So how are those overtaxed managers supposed to become better persons?

Practice, practice, practice!

Is that enough? There are certainly many leaders, but only few of them have true leadership qualities.

As a matter of facts, there are too many leaders. Quite a few of them are unnecessary. They should immediately be made redundant, because they create unnecessary costs. But, as you say quite correctly, we have too few leadership personalities.

What – in your opinion – is the difference?

A leader is purely a system agent full of restraints. A leadership personality, on the other hand, is free inside. I know some who developed into leadership personalities, but later were made redundant by administrative boards because they were useless as system agents.

«We have too many leaders. Quite a few of them are unnecessary. They should be made redundant. »

In other words: if you behave ethically correct, you will disrupt the system?

Exactly. Because the system agents will be made insecure as soon as they meet ethically oriented persons. System agents are those who slowly grew accustomed to this forced world and all they now do is execute the systemic morals. In business and politics, you will find many of them. In order to be one of them, you also need a certain psychological and social disposition.

«A leader is a system agent full of forced mechanisms. A leadership personality, on the other hand, is free inside.»

How do ethics and economy contradict each other?

Basically, there can be no contradiction, because ethically responsible business practice will have a sustainable positive economic effect. But economic forces may call for moral behaviour that is contrary to ethical compulsions. More often than not, however, these compulsions only seem to be necessary.

You say only a personality with a humane education has leadership qualities. That would mean what we need is education.

To be sure, during professional education, we will have to watch carefully and look for a person’s natural aptitude towards becoming a leadership personality. But it is especially important before you actually give someone a job. That is why I am in favour of the trainee system. A trainee will get acquainted with various departments and functions of his enterprise during his test phase.  The trainee work should always be supervised by a board member. If he is a leadership personality, his style will automatically have some influence on the trainee, because education does not happen through words. It happens through models. This trainee time should be two to three years. The trainee must learn to identify and accept the entrepreneurial culture with its moral, economical, personal and structural values. It seems that this way of selecting future employees is definitely superiour to assessment centres.

«Neglecting entrepreneurial culture is economically very short-sighted.»


Because it is the best education you can give anybody. It guarantees that leadership personalities will grow inside the enterprise without intervention from outside.

This is remarkable. What you are saying is that ethical education is not something people should learn at university or from their parents …

Exactly. This is definitely something a university should not be asked to teach. When it comes to education in the family, the parents will, apparently, play a significant role, but in the enterprise, the leaders are responsible.

And where do the board members get their norms and values?

Those among the board members who are best suited should be educated at an external seminar.

In order to enable personalities to change the system, you have to support them …

Most certainly. This is where the administrative board is responsible. When Alex Krauer was still president of the board at Ciba-Geigy, I was permitted to do a lot of work there and also introduce my principles But after they merged with Sandoz and became Novartis, it was no longer nice. Regardless of the financial success, a precious entrepreneurial culture suffered its demise. In the long run, the entrepreneurial success is not something you can measure exclusively by financial success.

In many enterprises, it was financial success that brought higher incomes, rather than better entrepreneurial culture. Is that supposed to replace missing values?

Quite possibly. Disregarding entrepreneurial culture is economically a rather short-sighted attitude. Well-paid managers should also take the worst case into consideration when organizing their lives and think about what they would need in such a case, instead of always itching for the best possible future scenario and wanting more and more. At least, they are models. Or that is what they should be.

«Many men lack the experience that you can gain more through care than through using your elbows.»

Words spoken by the priest. More success will also give you more power. And power can be abused, as, for instance, shown by Dominique Strauss-Kahn, Silvio Berlusconi or Sepp Blatter of the Fifa.

Unfortunately, power and abuse of power are close associates. Many people kiss moral norms good-bye the moment the acquire power. They see themselves as standing above the rules, all the others are just norm executors. It is a sign of omnipotence if the common codes no longer apply to me.

It is mostly men who act in this way. Would it be different if more women were at the forefront?

I do not know. The female heads of state in Great Britain, India, Israel and Turkey also all waged wars. But I certainly think more women should sit on administrative boards, if they are qualified. Women do not become system agents quite so fast, which is probably why they more often develop true leadership personalities.

Which are the better qualities in women?

During their education, women were not subjected to quite such strict codes. They were brought up in a more biophile way. In other words, they do not quite as easily follow those norms that were made exclusively for serving the system. Instead, they ask what is useful for life…

… which is why they do not get a career quite so often in this system.

Exactly. They resist being drawn too deeply into the systems. Women are also more prepared to fight power abuse than men.

Men need elbows, is that a stereotype?

Many men move to the top using pure force, because they lack the experience that you can make easier progress with love than with your elbows.

Small wonder that they then feel lonely when they have reached the top!

Only bad leaders will be lonely when they have reached the top. A good leader will do his job in the way as it is partly common in Japan: from bottom to top, according to the principle of subsidiarity. That would be the ideal scenario – an ideal leadership model.

Maybe for some managers, the concept of power is so attractive because it enables them to control everything single-handedly?

Yes, powerless power persons cannot bear to have anything happen they do not know about. They want to be omniscient. This is where quite a few Western enterprises make a huge mistake, since they think from top to bottom. Many enterprises are controlled like fiefdoms. Nothing can happen against the wishes of the top leaders.

And the bigger the organization, the stronger the hierarchical concept …

At one time, there was a tendency in business towards re-establishing small cells and divide huge enterprises into small units. That was in the 1970ies. As globalization advanced, these ideas died.

Formerly, everything was smaller. Above all, there were strict hierarchies with stern patrons. Is that supposedly the ideal?

The patron felt responsible for the entire enterprise. He had personal connections, he knew the families of his employees. His company was a huge family association with codes totally different from a large company. You will not easily be released from a family association. In a huge enterprise, the administrative boards would have to take up the role of patron. Mostly, this does not happen.

You are telling us that the administrative boards do not live up to their duties?

Mostly not. An administrative board should also be courageous enough to make the managers redundant if they abuse their power. But what administrative board member will ever do such a thing? More often than not, they are more concerned with business success than with a responsible entrepreneurial culture.

They also should prevent excessive incomes.

For me, it is a mystery how system agents who hinder the optimization of the company success can remain on their posts. Unfortunately, the principle of the three “p’s” still works: posting, premium, prostitution – even though it is both economically and socially far from the optimum. Sleaze is still at the forefront, you must not underestimate its role. The augurs will smile at each other, because each one of them knows what a villain the other is.

«Power and power abuse are in close proximity.»

Is that the reason why hardly ever anybody is punished for what he did?

Correct. Purely in terms of the system, there is a defect. Those whose work is detrimental for the company cannot be punished. More often than not, system agents are a structural element of the system and thus taboo. They will only be punished if they commit fraud, perfidy, or some such crime.

After the financial crisis, everybody talked new values. Today, nobody says anything of the sort.

That is something I am also truly worried about. The political and economic society seems to have become valueless in the truest sense of the word.

Did we understand correctly: you said if there were ethical codes in an enterprise, the business results would look better. If you do not do this, you will inevitably harm the firm.

That is indeed what I am saying. Stupidity or not being a success, however, are not punishable. Some managers actually know no better. Stupidity and not being a success are pre-destined. In those firms where I presided over the administrative board, I tried to divert the focus from the purely economic business success to more indirect aspects.

For example?

One category of being a business success is also the reputation you have, both internal and external. The positive ones are: I give people a job, I pay taxes, I provide service, etc. The negative ones are: I make people jobless, I pollute the environment, etc. These external factors can be represented in terms of money, just like the ecological factors. Every enterprise should make a balance sheet of these external factors…

«Business success can certainly not be measured exclusively by financial success.»

… and publish it.

Naturally. If you compare well with the competition, this will be quite attractive for the enterprise. It improves your external reputation. But it also improves the internal reputation, because an employee will prefer working in an enterprise that has a good external reputation. And this will also have an impact on the advertising power of a company. Many have now realized that the reputation of an enterprise is actually worth money. But if the internal reputation is not a match for the external reputation, you have a problem. Your credibility will suffer. A good external reputation combined with a bad internal reputation will not work. As a general rule, an employee will leave the enterprise if it is poorly governed. And an enterprise is poorly governed if it lacks leadership personalities.

That is if the bosses remain poor, miserable creatures!

Rupert Lay is a German philosopher, theologian, entrepreneur’s counsellor and psycho-therapist. He is also concerned with ethics and communication. In 1967, Rupert Lay established a psycho-therapeutic practice. Since the 1970ies, he has spent more and more time as a coach in management seminars, where he helped numerous persons from business and politics by providing advice. Among his customers are Federal Ministers and board chairpersons of huge concerns. In 1988, Lay also started coaching enterprises and sitting on administrative boards of enterprises himself. In 2004, Lay, who is also known under the titles  «Manager‘ Pope» or «Ethics Guru», was awarded the Fairness Prize by the Fairness Foundation for his life’s work.


Rupert Lay was my mentor and became an important friend.

Thank you, Rupert!


(Translated by EG)

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