Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Hard or Soft?

It wasn't easy finding someone who was working on Wall Street in October, 1929, but the Wall Street Journal found famed investor Seth Glickenhaus, chief investment officer of the firm that bears his name. Article link here.

At 94 Glickenhaus does not need to traffic in niceties. About the current crisis he concludes: "We've gotten soft in the United States, politically, economically, and in every way. We've had so much prosperity that we can't compete any more. Those days are gone, except in small companies."

How did we become so soft? Was it because we spent too much time wallowing in wealth or did we create a false sense of prosperity on borrowed money? Surely, it is the latter as much as the former.

Beyond the perils of prosperity, the culture also plays a role. How many children learn in school that competition is wrong because it divides the world into winners and losers. No competition, no losers.

And how many parents are told that video games will make their children into violent predators and that spelling bees and dodge ball must be banned lest someone's feelings be hurt.

When these same children go to college they learn that a competitive capitalist economy is really a way to oppress the masses. Is it surprising that some of the would-be tycoons who learned that capitalism is theft then went out and tried to cheat their way to great person fortunes. They were simply applying what they learned in school!

Of course, this is only part of our cultural milieu. From NASCAR to Friday Night Football the country still has a lusty appetite for competition. Americans play little league baseball, golf, and bridge in very large numbers.

So, the competitive spirit lives on... and hopefully, it will reassert itself in the business world without too much delay.

But think about this. When we vote in the upcoming election, should we vote for hard or soft?

Should we vote for fairness or competitiveness? Do we want a Nanny state that rains its bounty on us or do we want to get through the crisis with hard work and discipline? Is it time to dispense with sensitivity trainers and get about the business at hand? Should we worry about whether or not we are going to hurt someone's feelings or should we just strive to excel? Is it time to return to the dreaded Protestant work ethic?

Strange to say, and I am sure that this will cost me a few friends, but the most hard-assed candidate out there today is Sarah Palin. Being a woman, Palin does not have to make an extravagant show of being in touch with her feminine side. She gets a pass on sensitivity. The major male candidates seem to feel compelled to express their great depth of feeling.

This means that it is not impossible to be a woman and be tough. As though this is news. The problem is that it is becoming increasingly difficult to be a man and to be tough. That is the problem.

While we are on the subject, take a look at a post by psychologist Stephen Josephson on Tina Brown's new website, The Daily Beast. According to him, Josephson is the go-gut for Goldman Sachs partners and other masters of the universe.

Interestingly, he, as I, have noticed that these clients do not respond to the pabulum that traditional therapists have been offering up to them. Thus his work, whatever he calls it, really involves coaching.

As have I, Josephson saw that empathy, hand-holding, and deep insights are of little use to such people. And surely, this client population, to the extent that I too know it, has no real use for introspection.

So Josephson uses an old staple of coaching: insult. To shake these men out of their lethargy, to shock them into action, he looks them in the eye and tells them that they are acting like... girls.

There is nothing wrong with acting like a girl, if you are a girl. If not, you would be pretending to be someone you are not and this is the royal road to demoralization and depression.

Josephson's insults are a step in the right direction. He is not helping people to understand where they went wrong. He is embarrassing them, the better to push them to get things right.

But, as good coach, as he knows, does not just embarrass people. He prods them to take action, to recover the energy, toughness, and good character that helped them to make their first fortunes.

Shame is a powerful tool... when used judiciously. Parents use mild forms of shame all the time when they are trying to discipline children: Don't be a baby. You're acting like a child. Grow up.

When I say that shaming must be used judiciously, I mean that you do not want to go around attacking and criticizing people, especially if it makes them feel that they can never get anything right.

And you certainly do not want to humiliate anyone in public. Public humiliation provokes an almost unslakeable thirst for vengeance, and we all do better to stay away from that.

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