Arkadi Kuhlmann’s rebel alliance

Arkadi Kuhlmann, Founding CEO of ING Direct, compares himself to Luke Skywalker (with the big banks as Darth Vader). But he’s just as likely to turn his intellectual lightsabre against conventional wisdom in general.

“I like people who have failed,” he says provocatively. “They have a burning desire to prove to themselves that they can make a difference, they can be a success.” The reason? “To move a business forward, the most critical component is motivation.”

Kuhlmann promotes what he calls a “Dirty Dozen” approach to team-building. “The more different people are, the better it works,” he declares. “This is totally counterintuitive to the way we are as human beings. We like to get people that are like us. But if you really want to change something, and you really want creative and positive tension, you need people with different views. That really speaks to motivation, challenge and proving something.”

Kuhlmann further proposes that business leaders actually focus less on traditional business values. “If you were to die,” he speculates, “what do you think would be the last things that would go through your mind? I assure you that it’s going to be around the things you loved, the people that you journeyed with, the things you really cared about. You will not think about those performance things”—meaning money, power and competition. “If that’s going to be the end, why not live that today?”

But how does he convince investors and clients to come onboard with these unconventional ideas? It’s his way with words. “Storytelling is in our nature, it’s in our very DNA,” he explains. “If you have a creative view of the world, and you truly love ideas and art, and then you love people—if you mix those together, it won’t be hard to find people who will want to come with you, because they feel the same thing.”