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Ian O. Ihnatowycz Institute for Leadership

Temperance: Your personal braking system

  • Gerard Seijts
  • |
  • Nov 1, 2019
Temperance: Your personal braking system

Temperate people conduct themselves in a calm, composed manner. They maintain the ability to think clearly and respond reasonably in tense situations. They complete work and solve problems in a thoughtful, careful manner. They are prudent—resisting excesses and staying grounded. Temperance is essential to good judgment and yet my research on and consulting with leaders from the public, private and not-for-profit sectors consistently reveals that they score lowest on this character dimension. This is a problem. For example, a high level of drive and/or courage without the corresponding capacity for temperance risks reckless decision-making. As my colleagues Mary Crossan and Jeffrey Gandz have stated on many occasions, this lack of balance and integration between character dimensions is analogous to having a sports car with a highly tuned, powerful engine but a poor braking or suspension system. Sooner or later you may hit a wall at 180 kilometers per hour – will you survive the impact?   I like to share two examples of temperance—and intemperance—in action and the leadership lessons embedded within them.

Chip Wilson is a serial entrepreneur who has been celebrated as one of Canada’s most creative business practitioners in the late 20th and early 21st centuries. He founded several retail apparel companies, most notably the yoga-inspired athletic apparel company Lululemon Athletica Inc.  What’s interesting about Wilson, for the purposes of this blog, is how over the course of his impressive career he not only has mastered myriad business challenges, but also has created other problems by losing control over his emotions, and his tongue.  For example, in 1980, Wilson founded Westbeach Snowboard Ltd., a surf, skate, and snowboard vertical retailer. He served as its CEO until 1995, when the private equity group to whom he had sold Westbeach ran out of patience with the company’s lack of profitability:

I remember being in Hong Kong and getting a fax conveying the fact that I had been removed as CEO and that they had decided to put in their own CEO. I did the predictable. I complained. I jumped up and down. I called my lawyers. And then, you know, I just settled down and started to reflect.

What Wilson realized, but only upon reflection, was that his board of directors—which had been imposed upon him by his venture capitalists—was right.  The directors were older, more experienced individuals who were interested in giving back their knowledge in life and to mentor and to teach. It was time for him to get out of the way. 

He then started Lululemon. Over the next decade or so, as the leader of Lululemon, Wilson went down a road roughly similar to the one he had traveled at Westbeach: from pioneering entrepreneur to somewhat disaffected manager, sometimes prone to blurting out what was on his mind without considering the consequences.  In 2013, for example, Lululemon came under fire when some of its women’s yoga pants turned out to be unexpectedly transparent under workout conditions; Wilson’s public response was that some women’s bodies simply weren’t appropriate for Lululemon’s products. In the ensuing firestorm, one analyst—citing Wilson’s misstep—downgraded Lululemon’s stock, and Wilson was savaged in the media. Eventually, and despite being the founder and largest shareholder in the company, he was pressured to resign from the board. 

An example of a business leader who demonstrated temperance during difficult circumstances is Halla Tomasdottir – her approach to financial services in Iceland stood in stark contrast to the approaches of most other Icelandic financial firms. Tomasdottir and a colleague, Kristin Petursdottir, founded Audur Capital in Reykjavik in 2007. Both had been investment bankers in the U.S. and had experienced firsthand the giddy, irrationally exuberant mood then prevalent on Wall Street. Convinced that the global financial party—which by that point had fully engulfed tiny Iceland—was bound to end, they set up Audur, a boutique investment bank explicitly designed to take a more prudent and temperate approach. “We believed that we had a set of values,” Tomasdottir explains, “and a way of doing business that would be more sustainable than what we had experienced until then.” Those values, she added, were “feminine values.”  She and her colleagues at Audur conducted what they called “emotional due diligence,” as well as the financial equivalent. They engaged in straight talk with their clients, including straight talk about the ever-increasing risks in the investment environment. They argued in favor of long-term profits that took into account social and environmental benefits. And while she doesn’t blame men, as a gender, for the giant economic swoon that began in 2008, she does believe that a “lack of diversity, and sameness, leads to disastrous problems.” Her prescription, going forward? We need to start embracing the beauty of balance,” she says. “That’s the only sustainable future.” Balance paid off well at Audur, which successfully protected its own capital and that of its clients throughout the meltdown.

So what may be the lessons embedded in these stories for you?  First, self-control is essential – remain disciplined and stay on track.  Second, be patient – recognize that not everything that needs to be accomplished, and accomplished well, can be done immediately. And third, remain composed – maintain your presence of mind and focus, especially in challenging situations; learn to address the inevitable frustrations without reacting with anxiousness, agitation, or anger. For example, during the campaign for the U.S. presidency Barack Obama almost never got upset, or panicked, by the day-to-day shifts in momentum, and the ups and downs of opinion polls. His campaign mantra was “No Drama Obama.”  Up until the end of his presidency, Obama maintained his self-control and temperance.

Andy Chisholm, MBA '85, director of Royal Bank of Canada, and former senior global strategy officer, Goldman Sachs, explains how temperance and humility were critical success in his career.

You can read more about temperance in the book Developing Leadership Character written by Ivey Business School professors Mary Crossan, Gerard Seijts and Jeffrey Gandz (New York, NY: Routledge, 2016).