John Allison is a man on a mission.
According to Allison, his leadership over the years of such organizations as BB&T and the Cato Institute has been based on a personal goal to make the world a better place. And he believes he can do that by remaining true to three things: a purpose, a reason and self-esteem.
Allison, currently executive in residence at the Wake Forest University School of Business, spoke to a full house at the Kenan Center on Wednesday, Feb. 13, as part of an exclusive conversation on leadership with Kenan Scholars and members of the UNC Kenan-Flagler chapter of the Adam Smith Society.
In his presentation, Allison defined purpose as a combination of two components: making the world a better place, and doing so in a way that honors your own interests and ambitions. He characterized reason as how to pursue individual purpose. And self-esteem, he said, comes from having both a purpose and a reason.
To have self-esteem, said Allison, you need to believe you have a moral right to your own happiness. “Do you have as much right to your life as others have to theirs?” he asked. If you believe others merit happiness, he added, then you merit it as well.
But pursuing your own happiness comes with obligations, said Allison, including that of ensuring that your relationships, both business and personal, are win-win. “Taking advantage of other people isn’t selfish,” he said, “It’s self-destructive. If there’s nothing in the relationship for [the other party], then at the end of the day, there’s nothing in it for you.”
Allison also said that acting in your rational self-interest requires you to have a plan for your life and to not act “whimsically,” although he shared a personal story that indicates that he developed this philosophy over time.
As a new student at UNC-Chapel Hill, said Allison, when asked by school officials what major he wanted to declare, he replied, “engineering.” When the counselor told him UNC had no such degree, he asked, “Well, okay, then, what do you have?”
“And that,” said Allison, “is how I ended up in business.”