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Resilience and Leadership: Bob Castrignano

Resilience and Leadership: Bob Castrignano

“If you’ve been given a fair amount, you owe something back.”

This was one of the first things Bob said to me over lunch as we discussed what motivated him to jump back into Wall Street after 9/11.

In the spring of 2001, Bob Castignano had retired from a very successful career at Goldman Sachs.  He was thinking he’d put out feelers to do some teaching.  “I thought I’d call Fr. Kelley at Fairfield (University) and use my battlefield MBA.  I thought I would teach international finance”

But, he said, “I never had the opportunity to have that conversation” with Fr. Kelley.  Shortly after 9/11, Bob got a call from a friend and colleague from his days at Goldman, Anthony Scaramucci.  Anthony told Bob about a firm called Sandler O’Neill and Partners (S.O.P.) that had been ravaged by the collapse of the South Tower.

Anthony knew Jimmy Dunne, Sandler ONeill’s only surviving Senior Managing Principal.  Anthony was feeling the sting of the loss of his close friend, Chris Quackenbush, who died on 9/11 and was also a Managing Principal at Sandler O’Neill.   He knew that Jimmy, who was also a close friend of Chris’, needed help re-populating the firm that had lost most of its staff that terrible day.  “He (Anthony) called me and asked if I’d like to volunteer.”  It was not what Bob had been planning for his life.

Hoping to be of help at a critical time, Bob had dinner with Jimmy.  It was the first time they had ever met.  Bob got the harrowing overview of the situation from Jimmy.  He decided then to come on board as a volunteer to reconstruct the devastated Equities Division for S.O.P.   I asked him how did he go from being retired, to a volunteer at Sandler O’Neill and Partners to a Managing Principal for Equities?

“I think leaders…look at a situation you’re presented with and then say, ‘OK, can I make an impact here.’  Not a contribution, an impact.  There’s a big difference.  Somebody knows what to do and they do it.  I started thinking.  For whatever reason, I’ve been presented with the following data set.”

He then went on to describe a firm that had lost 66 people, 24 of them were the entire Equities Division.

“We had no building, no technology, no records, no accounts…”  He asked himself, “Do you think you can make an impact?   I thought this is something I need to do.  I thought I could make an impact.  So, I said ‘yes.'”

What was striking in Bob’s speech was how clear thinking and resolute he was.  There was no dwelling on emotional distractions that would sway him from a course of having the greatest possible impact for the greatest number of people.

I’ve written about how survival emotions like fear and anger have debilitating effects on our judgment.  They can then either paralyze our will, as when we are in a Weakened Identity,  or misdirect it toward divisive and conflictual styles of relating to others, as when we are in a Rigid Identity.   Understanding how crisis affects our judgment, will and our ability to work with others is critical if we want our best resilient potential to flourish.  This understanding is especially critical for a leader.

Cultivating the skill to quiet our instinctual survival emotions of anger and fear and the bias they create is key to sound judgment and applying our will in a productive way.   We can then direct our judgment and will with resolution to focus on serving the greatest good.  At Sandler O’Neill and in our conversation, Bob perfectly demonstrated these abilities.

I asked him what was going on in his gut during that time.  There was no building, no records, no staff support, no technical infrastructure, not even a list of clients!  How did he deal with the emotion of it all?  Wasn’t it all overwhelming?

The Resolve of David in the Moment Before He Confronts Goliath

“I think the feeling was one of resolve that it wasn’t going to be a sprint.  It was going to be a marathon.  I knew what to do.  Where to look for friends on the street to recruit help…   The idea that I would be overwhelmed honestly never reached my conscious mind.  Never there.  I never doubted it would work.”

This capacity to keep one’s eye on the goal without being diverted by instinctual survival emotions sets leaders like Bob apart from the crowd. Some, like Bob, by  temperament as well as by disciplined practice, have a handle on the emotions that could overwhelm their thinking.  As a result, their will is more focused.  They have a sense of moral resolve to accomplish their goal.

As we work together in a family, a school, community or business. we have a notion of who our community is.  Our judgment is used for the service of a community.  Our will is directed to fulfill the needs of that community.

But, this is not enough to be an ethical leader. What community will we serve?  A community of one?  Will we be interested only in our own ethnic, racial or religious group?

After all, Hitler had a focused resolve.  He certainly did not have a handle on his anger, to put it mildly.  As a result and most importantly, the community he was resolved to serve was very rigid and exclusive.  Everyone outside of that group was expendable.  This is how the Rigid Identity warps our ethical reasoning.  It creates a highly emotionally charged “us” versus “them” mentality that leads to conflict.

Hitler’s actions are rightly regarded as evil as a result of the exclusive rigid community he chose to serve.  This is where we must be careful of the affects of trauma and loss on our lives.  If we do not manage our grief and the resultant fear and anger well, we are prone to falling into the ethical distortions of a Weakened or Rigid Identity and the conflictual relationships that follow.

Loss can lead to three kinds of identity structures that either dilute our sense of belonging (the Weakened Identity), make our identification rigid and exclusive (the Rigid Identity) or we can make a choice to see the humanity we all share and the suffering that is a part of the human condition.  This links us in compassion to others (the Compassionate Identity).

As it was with his clear judgment and focused resolve, Bob never questioned that he was doing this work for others.  It went without saying.  The goal was the welfare of others.  In his quiet way, Bob operates from a Compassionate Identity.  Clarity in these three areas: judgment, will and an inclusive transcendent goal are essential for an ethical leader.

There is an important lesson here about resilience, personal fulfillment and leadership that we will explore more in later posts and the upcoming book.

Bob Castrignano

Bob went on to focus on the qualities of the group at Sandler O’Neill,  “It was a really really resolute group.  There was no doubt!…  People were just coming in really intent on what was going to be done.  There was an incredible level of concentration and attention to detail.”

“You had to compartmentalize your feelings so that there was a task at hand…. Very mundane stuff.  Interview the right people, find the account list.  The people who would join had to have a sense from you that this was going to work.  They had to believe they are betting on the right team.  I wanted to be overly protective of the fact that if there is any doubt in your mind don’t do this because there is no doubt in my mind…  People will respond positively to you if you engender somebody that’s worth following.”

This same clarity of judgment, resolute focus and commitment to the larger community were also present in Jimmy Dunne and others at Sandler O’Neill.  Otherwise, it is hard to imagine how the crippled firm could have survived.

After such a devastating loss it is important to keep in mind that while natural grief is a healthy thing, one has to keep an eye on the extremes of certain emotions that can persist after a loss.  This is especially an important goal when unskillful emotional habits are distorting one’s judgment or crippling one’s will power.  Devastating losses like those sustained on 9/11 stir up just the survival emotions that can lead to these negative effects.

It is at those times when, instead of dwelling on strong survival feelings like fear and anger, it is important to find a larger goal that serves to energize healthier emotions  and focus our resolve.  Feelings like compassion, empathy and grief that link us to others need to be allowed a wide and open field of play.  Survival emotions that pit us against others like fear and anger constrain our judgment and distort our will when we need them most.

Bob got this instinctually.  So did Jimmy Dunne who talked in a previous post about “small” emotions like anger and vindictiveness that bring out the worst in people and stir conflict.  Yet, he grieved openly and honestly about the loss of his friends.  In times of crisis, certain emotions are helpful to bind us to others in a moral resolve to do great things.  Other emotions sap the strength of our resolve, distort our judgment and fan the flames of conflict.

For Bob, it was all about working toward a worthy goal and bringing his experience and talents to bear in order to have a wide impact.  It wasn’t about his personal needs.  He avoided all of the traps that unchecked instinctual emotions set.

“Look, it’s only one business but it is a paradigm.   An example of what people can do when you put a business goal or a focus on an end game than on what it specifically means to you. That’s the answer.”

I had the chance to speak with several people about Bob.  To a person they mentioned his always being there for others.  Unasked, they would talk about his generosity of spirit.  Many on Wall Street give lip service to providing service to customers when their real interest is in the advantage they can gain over intermediaries in leveraged deals.  Everyone said Bob was different.  He demonstrated time and again thoughout his career, and often times to his detriment, that he really was more concerned about serving others.

Anthony Scaramucci was emphatic on this point.  He wanted to be sure this aspect of Bob’s character and leadership did not go unnoticed and even scheduled a meeting in his office with me to be sure I got it.  Bob is called  “the Coach” by a generation on Wall Street whom he helped get started.  To them, he is nearly venerated.  Anthony mentions him at length in his courageous look at Wall Street, Goodbye Gordon Gekko.

In the long run, it’s about how big your circle of inclusion is.  Who is in, and who is out?  Our suffering and loss have a way of making that circle small and rigid.  It is our job in life to resist this pull.  Our happiness ultimately depends on living life for the greatest good, the Compassionate Identity.  This identity keeps our judgment sound, our will resolute and our relations healthy.

We can teach these skills to kids.  They can refine their judgment and not allow it to be distorted by fear and anger.  They can strengthen their will to aspire to noble ends that serve the widest possible circle.  In fact, we need to get busy helping the next generation acquire these skills.

The world is getting more complex and perilous.  The next generation has to know how to manage this peril without falling prey to fear and anger and the distortions of judgment, will and connection to humanity they engender.  This is what the Unity Project’s initiative ReachUP! USA is all about.  It is a way to develop these skills in a new generation of leaders using service to others through a national movement of youth empowerment.

Fountain Dedicated to St. Joseph in Vatican City

When I think about Bob Castignano, I think of  the metaphor of a fountain.   When the pipes are clean, the water can flow through them.  The perpetual giving allows the water to return, to recirculate.  If you are not thinking about yourself, if fear and anger are quelled and you focus your will on the larger goal, the best can flow from you.  Opportunity, connection to others and prosperity come back to you.  You can have the greatest possible impact.

In one of the greatest mysteries of life, we say most loudly who we are when we are most focused on something greater than ourselves.

In an interesting twist where the metaphorical and literal meet, I learned that Bob has recently  been quietly involved in providing the means to construct a fountain in Vatican City in honor of St. Joseph.   How fitting.

Related Posts:

ReachUP! USA for the 10th Anniversary of 9/11.

Resilience and Leadership: Jimmy Dunne.

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Resilience and Leadership: Jimmy Dunne

Resilience and Leadership: Jimmy Dunne

With the 10th anniversary of 9/11, we have all had a chance to reflect on the meaning of that terrible day in our lives.  Many of these posts are about the choices we face as individuals as the challenges of these trying times weigh more and more heavily on us.   Ultimately, this choice either will lead us down a road of fear and anger, or we will find a higher way, a path of mature restraint, reflection and compassion.  For each of us as individuals and as a nation, this anniversary puts this choice into sharp relief.

I want to lay out in the next few posts how the psychology of fear and anger moves in society after a tragic loss and how these get expressed as extremism if we don’t use the skills needed to choose to work from the “better angels of our nature.”  We need to understand the mechanism of this choice so we have some tools at our disposal when the next tragic event touches our lives.  We’ll start with a quick discussion about grief.

Often times we hear people talk about “getting over” their grief.  It makes it sound like grief is a cold that we just need to recover from.  But, grief is much more than that.  It winds up defining us for good or bad, depending on the choices we make.  Grief is the rightful expression of the loss of something we love.  To say we are “getting over” our grief almost sounds like we are saying we are “getting over” our love.  It devalues what we love.  No, we don’t “get over” grief.  We allow grief to bring us to a more full understanding of what it is we love, what we value most in life and how we will live our life as a result.  In fact, it is not approaching grief in this way, avoiding or devaluing it, that causes problems.  More on that below.

Any terrible loss will evoke grief in us.   In healthy grief, for instance, we think of the person who has left us and are reminded of their good qualities.  As we grieve, there is a natural and necessary sadness that accompanies the grief.  Grief resolves itself when we find a way to give meaning to the loss, especially when we resolve to somehow keep alive in our own lives the good qualities of those who have passed on.  When we decide to make those qualities that were alive in our loved one alive in our own life, the energy of grief is transformed into moral commitment.   This is the gift of grief.

When my mother passed away, I was asked to give her eulogy.   I saw this as a difficult, but final precious gift I could give her.  Before the funeral, I bought every white rose I could find at all the florists in town and brought them to the church for the service.  I spoke of my mother’s fine qualities, her virtues of courage, her openness to see the delight in every situation, her deep strength and generosity.  We laughed and cried as I told stories we all knew that demonstrated these virtues.

Then, I asked my 8 brothers and sisters to come up and receive the white roses.  I asked them to give these roses to their kids.  I asked my nephews and nieces to accept a rose as a symbol of their grandmother’s best qualities.  It was now their task to keep these virtues alive in their own lives and to add to them with their own “flowers,” their own unique strengths, talents and virtues.  Together, these “flowers” make up our family garden of character.  I invited them to be attentive to that garden.  To be responsible for its health and to not settle for only taking from it, but also to give to it, freely, consciously and generously.

This movement from grief to moral commitment has been a formula for working through grief since at least the times of the Funeral Oration of Pericles in 431 BC up to Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address.  But, this grieving process can go awry.  In the uncertainty and powerlessness we feel after the horror of a deliberately cruel mass-murder like after 9/11 or the senseless killings in Tucson, we become vulnerable to our own worst nature.  It is the role of leaders of point out the higher road to us and lead the way up it.

We are wired, by genetics and neurology, to instinctually react to threats with certain survival mechanisms.  These instinctual survival responses arise from the part of our brain, the brain stem, that doesn’t think, but instead, reacts quickly to get us out of trouble.  This is a good thing, too.  If we had to think about what it means when a car is barreling down on us, we would likely get run over.  Instead, our brain stem reacts and has us jump out of the way reflexively, without a thought.  The thinking comes later.  So, when we face a threat, we are wired to react and not think, in such a way as to get us out of danger.

The sense of powerlessness we feel after a terrible loss acts like a threat to us.  It can stir up the same unthinking survival responses just as surely as a lion chasing us can.  This sense of powerlessness jump starts our survival responses.  To amplify and focus our attention, this survival response is attached to two emotions: fear or anger (or both).  When fear and anger are turned on, our normal grief stops.  We are no longer concerned with completing the work of grief.  We are no longer viewing the world objectively.  We become fixated on survival by fleeing the threat or attacking it.

Fear and Anger stop the process of higher thought: acquiring wisdom and higher moral conviction.  Fear and anger are excellent lenses to focus our attention and resolve in times of threat.  But, they are disaterous in social settings if we want to create community, foster relationships and raise healthy children.  If fear becomes an unexamined habitual pattern of response in our life, it ultimately leads us to alienation and a paralysis of our motivation.  Anger leads us to conflict and the focus of our will on divisiveness.  These two feed extremism, which we will discuss in the next posts.

Fear and anger become filters that color all of our mental processes.  We no longer look at the world objectively.  Everything we perceive is processed through the filter of this strong emotion.  So, if we are afraid, everything we perceive tells us we should stay afraid.  If we are angry, everything we take in is “proof” of why we are justified in being angry.  Objective thinking stops.   This is fine if we are trying to stave off a threat and need to be entirely focused on our survival.   But, if the situation doesn’t call for fear or anger, our mental abilities remain constrained by these emotions nonetheless.  We are less able to deal with the situation we face on its own terms.

In a sense, we become enslaved to our survival emotions if they are operating without being restrained by our higher cortical brain centers.  These cortical brain centers only come into play as a result of the practice of choice: the choice to calm our fear and anger.  We are controlled by our instincts until we choose to be guided by our moral intentions.

Neurologically, we could say that when fear and anger are turned on, the cortex of the brain, where we engage creative thinking, where choice is exercised across a broad spectrum of options, becomes subservient to the brain stem.  The moral reasoning part of the brain is dominated by the survival reflexes driven by the brain-stem.  With anger and fear, control of the brain is coming from the bottom/unthinking structures of the brainstem instead of the most human part that is on top, the cortex.

It was my pleasure and privilege recently to meet and interview a very interesting man for the book I am writing about this topic of our ability to make the best choice in a terrible situation.  His name is Jimmy Dunne.   Jimmy is one of the senior partners of Sandler O’Neill & Partners, a financial firm that suffered the heartbreaking loss of 66 people to the cowardly and cruel attacks on the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001.  The remarkable story of the recovery and growth of Sandler O’Neill has been told many times since 9/11. Jimmy Dunne is the driving force behind that truly great American story of resilience.

One of the things that struck me about Jimmy as we spoke was how freely he showed emotions about his personal and professional loses of that day.  He grieved openly for the loss of dear friends and colleagues.  He called his grief a “genuine emotion.”  It was a proof of his love and care for those he lost.  For him, this was the only manly and honest thing to do, weep for their loss.   He had the courage and heart to not let the weight of his significant grief turn his heart toward hatred or fear.  In fact, in a very moving eulogy he gave at his best friend’s funeral, he emphatically called out, “You do not give in to hate!  You do not let fear run your life!”

It takes tremendous discipline, clarity of vision and moral courage to say this and mean it.  I asked Jimmy about why he said this about fear and hatred. They could have easily been justified as his response to that terrible day.   The talk at that time in the country was very much about anger.  A pervasive fear seemed to grip everyone.  He said these were feelings based on “the smallness of a person.”   There is nothing small about Jimmy Dunne.  With this kind of clarity about the value of what these individuals meant to him and without the distortions of anger or fear, his resolve became galvanized to make his firm successful and to become more than what he was, to become more like those whom he loved and lost.

This kind of response is the best of what it means to be a human being.  Jimmy Dunne has made an important point.  Emotions like anger and hatred are reactive emotions.  They are unthinking reflexes.  In that sense, they do not come from reasoned choice.  Anatomically, the unthinking reflexive brain stem region from which they come is often referred to as the “reptilian brain,”  not the creative and reflective cortex that is unique to humans.

What a man like Jimmy Dunne was able to do in his rejection of hatred and fear, despite heart-wrenching loss, we must all do to one degree or another as we face the uncertainties and dangers of life.  That means being able to grieve honestly, understanding that this is really nothing more than continuing to honor those we love when they are gone.  Being able to do this successfully leads to what I call a “Compassionate Identity” that deals with integrity and honesty with the world around us.  No doubt, Mr. Dunne’s phenomenal financial success, as well as his many deep and longstanding friendships, are a result of his ability to reject the “smallness” we all carry, and exercise instead an habitual choice toward something higher.

If we are unable to make this choice, significant consequences haunt us and ultimately undermine our personal integrity, our happiness and our relationships.  The next posts examine two major expressions of these consequences, the “Weakened Identity” and the “Rigid Identity.”  Both of these identities are at the center of the national discussion going on now in the aftermath of the shooting in Tucson.

We can disagree.  We can compete in the world of ideas.  But, hatred and fear not only tear us apart personally, they undermine the fabric  of civilization and weaken democracy.

Click here for “Suffering Sucessfully”

Related posts:

Read about Jimmy’s wife, Susan Dunne here: “What Sue Remembers

A wonderful story from the Balkans:  “Compassion, Fantastic Coffee and My Shock

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All Rights Reserved, John Woodall,MD, Copyright,2011