Professors Robert Bushman, Robert Davidson, Aiyesha Dey, and Abbie Smith have written a fascinating paper titled, “Bank CEO Materialism: Risk Controls, Culture and Tail Risk.” They actually measured how materialistic bank CEOs were, and they examined the impact that the CEO's personal value system might have on the risk culture of the banks that they led.
Their sample included 284 firms and 445 CEOs during the 1992-2013 time period. They examined personal ownership of luxury goods as a proxy for the "materialistic" nature of a bank CEO. They labeled CEOs as materialistic if they owned an automobile that cost more than $75K, a boat longer than 25 feet, or a home worth more than twice the median price of homes near their company's headquarters. They also ran their analysis using higher cut-offs for each of these luxury goods (for example, they raised the purchase price of cars to $110,000). Then, the researchers also examined the banks' risk management cultures. They did so by collecting data on the risk management index of each bank. This index draws on data from reports that the banks file with the Federal Reserve each year, and it strives to evaluate the "strength and independence of the risk management function" at each institution.
What did they find? The scholars report, "Using an index reflecting the strength of risk management functions (RMI), we find that RMI is significantly lower for banks with materialistic CEOs, and that RMI significantly decreases after a materialistic CEO succeeds a non-materialistic one and increases after a non-materialistic CEO replaces a materialistic CEO."
Finally, the scholars report an increase in the number of materialistic CEOs over the years. I find the study very interesting, both because of the findings and the great care that the scholars took to try to measure key variables. We all might believe intuitively that value systems matter, but this study actually shows a relationship between a leader's values and the behavior of the organization that he or she leads. Naturally, these scholars are not saying that buying a big house or a large boat is inherently bad. However, they are suggesting that we should pay attention to actions and decisions that may reveal a leader's value system. Their personal purchasing decisions are one piece of a larger picture, and we should pay attention to all the cues available to us. In the end, it doesn't mean we should reject a leader who may display signs of being materialistic...but we should be a bit more vigilant about the impact that the leader may have on the organization's culture.