April 2010

It would be an understatement to say that this newsletter is coming at a very interesting and momentous time in our history. The passing and signing of the new HealthCare bill signals a watershed mark in the evolution of our society. Whether this is a good mark or a bad mark is being hotly debated, and I continue to be intrigued by the framing of the debate in terms of “morality” versus “economics.” I don’t know anyone who thinks that some people in our country ought to have no access to health insurance (or health care), or ought to go bankrupt because they get sick. Nor do I know anyone who can say with absolute certainty that we can afford this bill, or, on the contrary, that it will take us down financially. I think the key underlying issue that this bill has brought to the forefront, is the question of what kind of culture do we want to live in, in terms of risk, innovation, and growth. Have we reached our tolerance limit for risk? Are we ready to pass the mantle of innovation to another culture? Have we had enough growth, and do we now want to embrace comfort as a societal goal? I’ll address these issues in this newsletter.
Business Tips
Fathers and Leaders: The Power of Emotional Connections
In some recent work with a corporate client, I had one of those painfully obvious “duh” moments. It had become clear, through working with the senior management team, as well as a key group of middle managers, that the COO was a very difficult person to work with, and that most of his colleagues and subordinates chose to minimize their interactions with him, or to avoid dealing with him, if at all possible. There were a slew of complaints about him, but they essentially revolved around two major issues: Whenever an idea, project, or report was presented to him, it was met with a surgical, unemotional, and completely impersonal rebuttal and dismissal. It was given no credence, whatsoever, and instead of being critiqued, it was eviscerated, in the manner of a verbal autopsy. In addition, everyone who interacted with him, left feeling like they had just been in combat and had lost the battle. Many also felt personally discounted, diminished, and depreciated.
In attempting to deal with this situation, we pulled together a meeting involving the COO and a number of his direct reports. All of the direct reports had had a history of difficult, unpleasant, and unproductive interactions with the COO, over periods of time ranging from a few years to over ten years. All of them, at different times, had given him feedback about how difficult he could be to deal with, and a couple had engaged in quite spirited conflict with him, on a few occasions. But until this meeting, no one had shared with him directly, how personally impacted, in a negative way, they were, and how much they felt assaulted and attacked.
To everyone’s surprise, including the COO, he was shocked and profoundly shaken by the feedback. He was certainly aware that he could be “argumentative,” and that he was not the easiest person in the world to work with; but he was really taken aback by how hurtful his behavior was, and, at the same time, how unintentional it was. By the end of the meeting he was clearly sobered by the feedback, but completely clueless about where his behavior was coming from.
Things became a lot clearer in our one-on-one meeting, following the group session. After some discussion about the feedback from his colleagues and his reaction to it, he told me that this had been a particularly stressful year for him. When I asked him why, he said that his father had died earlier in the year, and that he was really impacted by his father’s passing; and that this surprised him. I asked him why he was surprised, and he told me that he had never had a good relationship with his father, and that he had been a very unhappy person, impossible to please, and emotionally distant. He added that he had grown up feeling like he never wanted to be like his father, nor did he want to treat people like he had been treated. I then asked him if he was aware that he was acting exactly like his father. He looked puzzled, then turned beet red, and said that he had never thought about that. He had a lot of feelings in his eyes, and it was clear that he had made a significant connection. We spent the rest of our time together talking about the life his father had lived, and how sad many of his choices had been.
So what can we learn from this?
Every single leader I have worked with – man or woman – had either an emotionally unavailable father; a father who was deeply unhappy and unfulfilled in his own life; or a father who was never satisfied with the achievements of his children. Many leaders had all three.
The death of our fathers, is the death of what could have been. It solidifies a process of hoping that somewhere, with somebody, our needs for closeness, validation, and an emotional connection, will come true.
We cannot “break the chain” and change, in ourselves, the destructive behavior we grew up with (including what we missed), by doing the opposite. Trying to do the opposite, in fact, guarantees a replication of the past. It’s like trying to be there for everything your kids do, because no one was there for what you did. Your kids know it isn’t for them, and you never get the appreciation you’re looking for, because it isn’t about the present. Grieving what we lost is the only way to leave sad feelings and experiences behind, and to truly begin anew.
My time with the COO was the beginning of a grieving process. It is a reiterative process; a review and articulation of feelings long buried, but profoundly impactful. He will now be able to do this again (and again), and with each reiteration, he will dilute the power of his past and live more in his present.
As an interesting update; within a week after our encounter, a number of his colleagues reported that they had interactions with him that were not only pleasant, but also productive. He actually listened, gave them helpful feedback, and everyone learned something. Miracles may not happen, but change does occur.
Political and Cultural Observations
What’s Behind ObamaCare?  
As I indicated in my introduction to this newsletter, I think the underlying issue that the passage of the HealthCare bill has brought to the forefront is the question of what kind of culture do we want to live in. Specifically around the issues of risk, innovation and growth.
An important point here: All cultures are trade-offs. When societies declare (consciously or unconsciously) what’s most important to them, they also, implicitly accept both the good and the bad that comes with those choices. There is no free lunch, nor is there a utopian society.
Example: If we say that we value individual choice and responsibility (politically translated into personal freedom), then we have to live with bad choices, as well as good ones. In other words, there can be no preemptive intervention with people because we think they may behave badly. That means that one of the prices of freedom is regular instances of people doing awful things to each other, or to themselves. A lot of people don’t understand this (along with most of the mass media), and go through the same ritual of angst and blaming every time some disturbed soul commits a heinous act. They rail about our inability to predict aberrant behavior and to protect the rest of us from dangerous lunatics. We could stop 99% of this behavior if we were willing to give up our personal freedom, and turn our country into a fascist police state. The old East Germany and the old Soviet Union were some of the safest places on earth. People lived in constant fear of being accused of harboring thoughts and intentions that the State thought subversive.
This country was built by risktakers. They ventured everything, including at times, their very lives, to carve out a culture that has met the needs of the vast majority of its citizens, at a level unparalleled in the history of the species. And this achievement came at a price. Some people who took risks failed. Some people who took no risks lost everything. Until fairly recently, we have implicitly accepted this trade-off. Whether or not we talk about it much, it is clearly understood, for example, that jobs are created by people who take the risk of starting a business and making sure that it stays viable. There would not be one job in America were it not for the men and women who put everything on the line to create enterprises that produced goods or provided services. (Or generated tax revenues that supported the public sector.) And these risktakers are at the heart of our nation’s creativity and innovation, as well as its primary driver of individual and societal growth.
There is no doubt in my mind, that Obama and the people around him, at best, want to minimize the role played by risktakers and maximize the guarantees provided by government. At worst, they seem, at times, to be launching a full scale assault on the very people (entrepreneurs, small business owners, mid-size business leaders) that feed the pipeline of job creation. The philosophical bent of those surrounding Obama is unmistakable – 93% of his advisors have only public sector experience. The next closest administrations were those of Kennedy and Johnson, at between 50 and 60%.
So, what evidence do we have of this negative predilection toward risktakers? Three specifics have always struck me:

1. The very first act of the Obama administration was to kill the voucher program for poor families who had chosen to send their children to non-traditional, non-public schools in the District of Columbia, which has, arguably, the worst public schools in the country. This was done, clearly, to assuage the teachers union, which sees these schools (and the school choice movement) as a threat to their guaranteed jobs and their low-risk view of life. The irony of this cut was that its impact was felt entirely by minority (almost exclusively Black) families.

2. The staggering burden of new taxes instituted by this administration will fall predominantly on the shoulders of small, independent business people (sole proprietors, partnerships, LLC’s, etc.) who run “pass thru” operations. These men and women create 85% of the jobs in America, and have razor thin margins in their businesses. Additional dollars of taxation put them in the position of keeping a tight lid on their overhead, which translates into no new hiring, or even worse, laying people off. These folks are the real risktakers in our society; not the “barons of industry” that the media is always carping about.

3. Obama’s sticky alliance with the union movement is not accidental. The mission of the unions is to maximize guarantees and minimize risk, which is the antithesis of what built this country. The pioneers of every epoch were not looking for guarantees; they were seeking opportunities. America’s creativity and ingenuity are driven by risktakers, not bureaucrats. I learned an indelible lesson living in western Europe and spending much time in Scandinavia. The higher you raise the floor, the lower you bring down the ceiling. And the ultimate physics of this dynamic is inescapable and fatal. The culture dies of suffocation.

I am not opposed to reforming the healthcare/health insurance system in our country (and I know no one who is). What bothers me is the sledge hammer approach and the unstated agenda of further removing risk from the culture and substituting guarantees. We need to remember that there was not one peep from unions, government regulators, the media, nor the public at large, when Wall Street “wheeler-dealers” were raking in the profits and filling the coffers of union pension funds; when Fannie and Freddie were underwriting loans that could never be serviced; and when financial advisors were helping private citizens stuff their pockets with cash. I have never had much respect for selective outrage, particularly when it comes from politicians.

I have heard much these days about how we are to judge what a “good society” is. Most of it says something to the effect that the good and noble society is defined by how it takes care of its “less fortunate” citizens. I couldn’t disagree more. From my perspective, the good and noble society is distinguished by how it supports, incentivizes, and rewards its most successful citizens. Without these risktaking and courageous people there would be no resources whatsoever, to help anyone with anything. The greatest threat to our culture, at this point, is not external. It is the continual discouragement and demonization of those amongst us who have done the best. Class warfare and hostility, generated by envy, has destroyed many societies. I fervently hope we can move beyond it.

Personal Notes
My Father and the Racetrack: Old Feelings Never Die  
A few weeks ago, Arleah and I were in L.A. spending some time with our son, our daughter-in-law, and our granddaughter. They had discovered a unique place to have breakfast – Santa Anita racetrack – and we all decided to go there one morning. Santa Anita is one of those classical places, rich in history, and replete with memories for those who have even a sparse connection with thoroughbred racing. The breakfast is held in the pavilion-like area right up against the railing of the track, and the timing of it coincides with the working out of the horses. You’re literally thirty to forty feet away from some of the most beautiful animals in the world. They are truly magnificent creatures. And nothing on earth moves with their grace, elegance, and raw power.
As we entered the area where we were to have our breakfast, I stopped for a moment to take in the full panorama of the track, the infield area, and the horses in various stages of being worked. It was a beautiful spectacle. I was really enjoying it, when all of a sudden, I was hit with a wave of grief. My eyes teared up and a deep sense of sadness swept thru me, replacing the joy of the previous moment. It really took me by surprise, and for a few moments I had no idea what was going on. Then a picture of my father flashed into my head, and things became clearer.
When I was growing up, there were two things that my father and I did together. We went to Chicago Bear’s football games and we went to the racetrack, in suburban Chicago. These were the only places where I saw my father feel anything.
At the Bear’s games we would sit quietly, most of the time, freezing our asses off, until an exciting play occurred and/or the Bears scored. When this happened, my father would shoot out of his seat, screaming at the top of his lungs, and pounding anyone around him on the back (as I got older, it was often me). As soon as the play was over, he was back in his seat, looking intently at the field. When I was real young, these outbursts were a little scary. As I got older, I anticipated them, and saw them as part of the game experience.
At the racetrack, the experience was somewhat similar. As the horses rounded the final turn and headed down the stretch, toward the finish line, he was up on his feet, screaming his lungs out. It was like he was instantaneously transported to another world. And, again, as soon as the race was over, he was back in his seat, studying the racing form, preparing for the next race.
The racetrack culture was one of the most unique societies I had ever been exposed to (or have since experienced). It was a weird amalgam of upper middle class professionals (it was said that if you needed a doctor or a dentist, in Chicago, on a Wednesday or a Saturday, you’d best be prepared to go out to the racetrack); and gambling addicts and racetrack touts. The touts were men who spent their whole lives at tracks throughout the country, hanging around the stables, talking with trainers, handlers, and jockeys, and making their living giving tips to well-heeled bettors. If the tips paid off, they got “tipped” with a portion of the winnings; sometimes quite handsomely. My father knew the most well-known tout, a Persian immigrant named “Charlie Potatoes” (no one knew his real name). He took great pride in the fact that he never owned an overcoat, nor ever worked a day in his life at a regular job. One day, toward the end of the season in Chicago, he had a spectacularly successful day, and since he was headed south anyway, he took a cab from Chicago to Miami (I believe he said that it cost $10,000). I have very fond memories of those times. They may have been the beginnings of my lifelong interest in interesting people and unique subcultures.
My father was a kind and gentle man. Everyone said, about him, that he was the easiest going person they knew. His patients worshipped the ground he walked on, and I don’t believe that there was a person on this planet that disliked him. He never got angry at anyone or anything. He put up with my grandmother (my mother’s mother) living with them, from the day they were married, till the day she died. I think my mother secretly wished that he would have given her an ultimatum that it was either him or my grandmother.
My father gave me a hug and kissed me at my Bar Mitzvah. It was the only time in my life. On his deathbed, when I told him I loved him, he couldn’t reciprocate. After I left the room, he told Arleah that he loved me.
Years ago, I stopped feeling angry at him. I’m just sad. My father was embarrassed by feelings, especially with men. I have struggled with that my whole life, and I imagine that I always will. I grieve this regularly, and it frees me up, to do so.


N.B. This newsletter is labeled “April” because I got behind, again, and considered the last newsletter to be “February/March.” I will try to get on schedule again, but there are no guarantees. As you may have deduced by now, I struggle with getting these out. I very much like the end product, but I hate the process, and still can’t figure out why.


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