Honor. Integrity. Trust. Pride. Hard work. All elements of a job well-done. Why did people do this? Because they cared. Because they wanted to provide for themselves and their family. Because it was simply the right thing to do. It didn’t require a lot of explanation. People just did it. You worked hard for your employer and they took care of you. This applied to positions in both the public and private sectors. Somewhere along the line, at the upper echelons of Corporate America and within our Government, we lost our way. Incentives became skewed. The moral absolute of working hard and working honestly fell by the wayside. The impact of ones’ actions were not part of the equation. Material rewards came too easily for many. This change in culture permeated our institutions and has contributed to the numerous crises we are witnessing today.
Many in the US became intoxicated with money. Money and consumption. Of the conspicuous variety. The phrase “Keeping up with the Joneses” that used to characterize the dreams of the middle class morphed into something quite different among the wealthy. At some point it because a competition involving vacation houses, cars, jets and art – even charitable giving. At the upper echelons of the economic ladder, the great partnerships of Wall Street used to reflect a quiet sense of privilege, power and philanthropy accumulated over years of carefully shepherding partner capital; this has been replaced by public relations, personal branding and egocentricity reflective of a compensation structure and a culture that rewards big risk takers and punishes the prudent. If you really think about it, nausea is sure to follow.
It seems as if we’ve lost a few critical genes over the years, such as those representing Accountability and Shared Responsibility. Look at Congress. Wall Street. Corporate America. How many of our breakdowns are due to a lack of these genes, where agency effects have dulled the senses against individual behaviors and so many are unable or unwilling to think beyond themselves? Whether it was the mortgage banker cuttting corners on loan applications to generate larger commissions, the senior capital markets executive who continued packaging CDOs even as credit quality rapidly deteriorated or the Congressperson who just didn’t think about the impact of compensating the GSEs for making trillions in loans to unqualified borrowers, they all blew it. Money. Power. Influence. And all for the wrong reasons.
Blogger David Feldt penned an interesting post on a related topic today. While he takes a decidedly spiritual angle in addressing today’s problems, his thought process is very consistent with my own and I find his take to be both very refreshing and important.
We have been seduced by the “American Dream” for the past 20+ years, borrowed money we couldn’t afford, bought things we didn’t need and speculated wantonly in the pursuit of more and more. Avarice and stupidity at their respective best. Humanity at it’s collective worst.
I believe we are being given a huge opportunity to change the game. To abandon the dominance of our selfish nature and to embrace a new world where giving back and caring for others is the path to our redemption. We have the opportunity to temper the destructive nature within ourselves where personal gain triumphs over everything else. We are being given the change to balance it with empathy, concern and care for others.
The quantum opportunity we have before us is to democratize this “giving” mindset beyond a select few. We have the tools to enable this change literally at our fingertips. Technology and the Internet has provided a platform that connects all 6 billion of us on this planet like never before. Let’s use it to serve others and thereby serve ourselves. Let’s elevate this world together via the enormous power our collective connectivity affords us.
Interestingly, my friend Peter Bloom has gotten very involved in a fantastic charity called DonorsChoose.org. It is just the kind of giving that David has in mind. Technology-enabled. Extremely tangible. A direct connection between the donor and the recipient with minimal friction. I donated a microscope to a high school class in Queens for students from largely immigrant families, and every single student in the class sent me a thank you note. Children from all over the world, so thankful that someone cared enough to help with their learning. But this is only one of many worthy organizations that offer the giving opportunities contemplated by David. The point, however, is much bigger than giving to charity; it’s about being a giving member of an interconnected world. And from embracing the concept of shared responsibility, I believe the concept of accountability springs naturally.
This has been a lousy week and an even lousier year on so many levels, but 2009 need not be the train wreck that 2008 has become. If we can insist on shared responsibility – recognition of the needs of multiple stakeholders, focus on the impact of ones actions, behaviors that are ethical and moral – and hold those in Government and business accountable, perhaps we can apply the same high standards to our own lives. It is in facing our own shortcomings that we can all rise to a higher plane. Let’s all resolve to be better in 2009 – for ourselves, our families and society at large.