"Passion" No Excuse For Bad Business Behavior

burning-passionThe highlight of this past week was a long breakfast catch-up with one of my favorite colleagues from a job I had nearly 20 years ago. It had been two years since we had the chance to catch up in person and this time, with no agenda, the conversation was wide-ranging. Along the way, stories about two of the most despicable individuals I’ve encountered in business were told to illustrate points about values and perseverance, two themes that came up a few times during the extended dialogue.

In the car, leaving the restaurant where we had met, I hated that I had to think of this pair. More moments with the two dastardly characters who came up over breakfast flashed into my head. I realized those two antagonists led to significant professional changes. And remarkably, both of them used the same line in an effort to cover up reprehensible behavior.

The first example was a TV news director who didn’t like that I disagreed with her in a meeting. Instead of inviting me into her office for a “teaching moment” or otherwise providing guidance (I was only about 25 years old, after all), she verbally tore into me in the middle of the newsroom. While berating me publicly, she yelled “You need to go back to Producing 101.” It was a moment of humiliation like I had never felt before, or since.

At the end of that day, instead of apologizing privately or publicly, she walked by my desk and said, “What happened this afternoon was just two passionate people expressing their feelings.” That was it.

Fast-forward nearly 18 years to the second example – the new Vice President of a client organization who verbally abused one of my colleagues via phone the week before. I reported that unacceptable behavior to the CEO, who arranged a meeting between the VP and me. In that meeting, when I described behavior that led to my serious concern, the VP tore into me, in front of his boss, in a bombastic and acidic tone, even including an ethnic slur (Pro tip: saying “I’m not The Gestapo” to a guy named Friedman isn’t the best metaphor move).

When I responded by saying, “If you’re going to talk to me like that, we’re not going to be able to work together,” his response was, “Well, I’m just a passionate person.”

Professional passion isn’t about screaming or insulting. In fact, it’s the anthesis. Passion is about caring so much, that you go out of your way for other people to get the job done. It’s about giving maximum effort in every respect. Passion is about anticipation for the day to come when you get out of bed in the morning. It’s about putting the mission or the purpose of the work as the priority, even ahead of your own ego. Passion is admitting you are wrong, for the good of the organization. It’s about deriving true satisfaction out of the work.

“Passion” does not rationalize bad business behavior. Passion should actually prevent it from happening.

So what became of the relationships with these individuals? The first was no longer my boss just a few months later, because I resigned to make big changes in my career motivated, in part, by encounters like that. The second is no longer our client because the CEO refused to make any changes even after witnessing that exchange. Condoning bad behavior is bad as exhibiting it, if not worse. So we decided to end an 8-year relationship which, while financially painful, was the right decision because we have passion – actual passion – for our values as a firm.