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The Alchemy of Leadership Blog

It’s The Wolf!

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Over the summer I spent an idle few hours reading The Wolf of Wall Street by Jordan Belfort.  You know, the book of the film starring Leo DiCaprio.  Since I’ve not yet seen the film (unlike all the teenagers and bankers I know), I was able to enjoy the writing in all its glory.  And what a tale he tells!  This is a guy who dropped out of dentistry school (really), yet was earning $millions by the age of 30.  The book races through a wild life of parties, booze, hookers, boys’ toys and drugs.  Lots of drugs.  At one stage he lists what he’s taking on a daily basis: morphine, oxycodone, Soma, Xanax, Klonopin, Ambien, Qaaludes, coke, Prozac, Paxil, Zofran, Fiorinal, Valium, Salagen – and Senokot.  It’s a wonder he lived to tell the tale.

Everything Jordan does, he does to excess.  He starts his own brokerage firm and turns it into the biggest ‘boiler room’ operation on Wall Street.  He flies helicopters while high on those drugs and without worrying about minor details like a pilot’s licence.  He buys a massive yacht – because his wife tells him not to – and then sinks it in a storm.

He is clearly a very talented operator, building up his business while still in his twenties and using it to float several other companies in turn.  His most successful IPO was Steve Madden shoes, which has gone on to become a multi-billion dollar business in its own right.  But Jordan is unable to control his impulses.  Not content with achieving enormous success very quickly, he engages in a whole series of illegal activities to boost his wealth even further.  To me at least, these seem clumsy and amateurish.

It all comes crashing down when his Swiss money-laundering activities are exposed.  One of his advisers confesses and the FBI start closing in.  Simultaneously, Jordan’s drug-taking spirals even further out of control.  His marriage starts to disintegrate.  He pushes his wife down the stairs and crashes his car into his garage door, with his young daughter in the passenger seat.  He trashes his house and overdoses on morphine.

The wild ride ends in rehab.  Even then, in desperate trouble, Jordan’s self-confidence doesn’t desert him.  He subverts his own rehabilitation, my favourite bit of the book.  Despite this, he gets himself off the drugs and makes it home … only for the FBI to arrest him.  His marriage finally falls apart and the (long) book ends with the promise of an even wilder ride in the sequel.

Belfort is now a motivational speaker.  He still has a lifetime restitution order hanging over him.  He can’t operate on Wall Street any more but he’s found a way to earn a crust.

This is a well-written book, a page-turner.  Some people have questioned whether it’s true but, to me, the traits Jordan exhibits can be found in many business leaders.  Usually, leaders learn to control these traits.  It helps if they attain power later on in their careers than Jordan did.  It’s all about balance, something we talk about a lot with our delegates at the School for CEOs.  Read The Wolf of Wall Street – and do things differently!

© Patrick Macdonald 2015

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