Sunday night I watched an episode of “The Men Who Built America” that featured Morgan, Carnegie, Rockefeller, T. Roosevelt and others. Interesting show. It included commentary by a variety of academics and business elite. A few of them did their best to assume the aura of those old titans of industry. It was a crown that didn’t fit very well, but that didn’t stop them from trying it on.
One asserted that he was really a nice guy, but if you picked a fight with him he would do real damage to you because he was a winner, not a loser. My immediate thought was that he had already lost. That sort of attitude seems to be followed up with behavior that “does not suffer fools gladly.” In my former occupation I frequently ran into corporate and political leaders like that. It didn’t take long to figure out that they were usually surrounded by fools of their own choosing. To employ another old bromide, they tended to operate on the principle of “lead, follow or get out of the way,” by which they meant “I’m leading so either follow me or get out of my way.” The result was to be surrounded by sycophants of marginal ability feasting on the crumbs left behind.
It works as long as the boss makes enough right, sometimes brilliant, decisions not just to get the job done, but to get it done in a spectacular way. There is always a limit to how often that can happen because those kinds of decisions are as much a matter of fortuitous coincidence as they are of skill. The ancient writers of Greek tragedy understood that well, and contemporary examples of hubris outrunning ability can be seen. ITT, American Airlines, Enron, and AIG come to mind. Even when affairs of business go well (for at least one person), losses of immense magnitude pile up in personal lives, indeed in the very ability to enjoy life at all.
How sad is that! By contrast I’ve been observing the firefighter/paramedics for whom I am a chaplain, and while none of them is likely to ever be a wealthy titan of industry or politics, they are, for the most part, far more successful in life. Their business is saving lives under life threatening conditions, and they do it very well. They know how to both lead and follow, and because they are confident that each one has the another’s back, no one is shoved out of the way. There is simply no room for yes-men or sycophants in a well run fire department. Because life is so precious that they will risk their lives to save other lives, life itself is to be enjoyed. Yes, they have all the normal problems of any group of human beings, sometimes more. Post traumatic stress for instance. But, as far as I can tell, they also rejoice in family, children, friends, and community. Isn’t that what success is about?
The nation does benefit from certain titans. They burn bright for a while, and in their moment have made the building of America possible. That does not excuse their ruthlessness, but we can admire their accomplishments. The wannabe titans who may be wealthy but have built little of any value to society are another matter. Hopefully they won’t do too much damage before they go their way.