George Fink: I Tip My Hat To You

March 25th, 2014

I sat next to a well-dressed older gentleman on the plane the other day. He and I exchanged pleasantries and for quite a while, nothing more, except for the typical, do you mind getting up so I can go to the rest room kind of exchanges.  And then, about half way through the trip he strikes up a conversation. It was memorable for it and gave me a glimpse into what I believe is the wave of the future of conscious leadership, and paradoxically, a blast from the past where more leaders were pure in heart and intent. The gentleman was George Fink, the Chairman and CEO of the Bonterra Energy Corporation, a company that primarily produces oil. Its asset base consists of concentrated, stable and underdeveloped properties located across western Canada with large amounts of remaining oil still in place, a long reserve life and low-risk drilling locations. Bonterra is the third largest operator in the Pembina Cardium, the largest reservoir in Canada, and George has been at the helm since it’s inception in 1998. 

George enjoys being the CEO, but not for reasons that most might suspect. In contrast to the typical “I like the power” kinds of reasons CEOs become CEOs, George’s sole focus is on developing people. He sees his role as a privilege, a way of contributing to his employees and returning spectacularly steady and reliable returns to its shareholders, of which, all employees are a member. I found myself marveling at this man, not just for what he’s accomplished, but more importantly his way of being. In asking him why he does not sit in first class among the rest of the more wealthy people, he said it is not his custom. Coach is “just fine for him,” he said in his amiable Canadian accent, even though his old bones might prefer a little more room. In musing further on the subject, he said, “we don’t as executives, expect anything more than what we provide for others.”  In a world where CEOs seem much like celebrities, he shies away from not just the spotlight but also anything that puts his attention on himself. “I’m just a human being doing my best to help out,” seemed to be his attitude.

George spoke confidently, yet without self-aggrandizement.  If anything, he was quite understated. It was a quality I have grown accustomed to appreciating in some great leaders. It seems that the best I know have this rare combination of solidity or certainty, and humility. As we talked further, I found myself reflecting a bit on this combination and have since done so some more. In my way of seeing, the qualities of certainty and humility are often seen as opposites, and yet paradoxically, in the most conscious of leaders I know, they live comfortably together and certainly did so with George. He did not tout his own horn in any way. Instead, he seemed happy to ask questions of me as if like a sponge, seeking to learn from the work I do. He even went so far as to request we talk again, in hopes that he might gain some wisdom from my work.  “I have so much to learn,” he said more than once, and I really don’t know much about a lot.  Here was an extraordinarily accomplished man, who has been CEO of companies for over 40 years talking like a young man just starting out on his journey of leadership and learning. It reminded me of the old Buddhist story of the scholar who sat with a Buddhist master to seek wisdom. The scholar regaled the master with his knowledge of Buddhism.  The master listened and as he poured tea for the scholar, he let the tea overflow and spill from the cup. When the scholar exclaimed, “what are you doing!?,” the master replied, “your brain, like this cup, is too full.” You must empty it and come to this work with your mind open before I can teach you anything.” This is the essence of the Buddhist mind—to come to exploration with a child’s mind of deep curiosity. George embodies this attitude beautifully, and yet without an ounce of self-deprecation.

Humility was all over this man, but at the same time, so too was certainty. He spoke confidently and with quiet self-assured tones about why his company was so successful and his role in it. He believed strongly that success comes from steady progress and not reaching for the stars. In contrast to the typical audacious goal dreams and visions I hear from charismatic CEOs, his was a deliberate path toward success, born out of a solid foundation of understanding, a commitment to share the fruits of the company’s success with all employees, bar none, and a belief that anything is possible with determination, hard work, and collaboration.

Whether or not this man was true to his word, was beyond my ken for it was just a conversation, but he struck me in his tone and in his kind manner as a man of his word, with no need to prove anything to me or anyone else for that matter. George’s self effaced assuredness is in stark contrast to the tendency on the part of so many charismatic leaders to be so self-focused. It appears that the drive to become a CEO, so laden with a need for power and influence, also tends to result in a high tendency to be self-focused. It’s understandable. Often people choose to be leaders because of a deeply felt need to be seen and recognized. From this place, they enjoy and even crave the spotlight. This underbelly of leadership has been explored a great deal of late and the phrase, The Narcissistic Leader, certainly has gotten plenty of attention. I see it all the time. And yet, in my research on remarkable leaders, the best have a strong inner compass while at the same time have an outer focus (focused on the needs of the whole). This is what I saw in George Fink, and I want to honor all the leaders like him. George Fink, I tip my hat to you! You are showing us the way to the kind of leadership that in my estimation, great leaders are meant to be.

 

 

Leave a Reply