by michael on December 2, 2010

Blog 12-1-10

One of the problems, a curse, perhaps, of having super bright friends of achievement who know super bright people of achievement is receiving communications from them at all hours of the day. Given that I hold them in high esteem, I tend to read their email and the unending linked articles and then the links to the articles. Then I look at my watch and note that a chunk of my day has passed and I ponder whether I have advanced my life’s mission or whether I was simply entertained.

Of course, some communications are more vital or relevant to my life than others. This communication from my friend and colleague, Roger Fransecky, was one such imposing communication.

I’ve known Roger for close to fifteen years. We met in Denver, Colorado. He now lives in Omaha, Nebraska and is the founder of a successful international consulting group, The Apogee Group. When Roger recommends I read something or think about something, history has proven that there is substance and wisdom behind his request.

This afternoon Roger sent me a transcript of a lengthy interview with Marshall Carter, a man known to me only by name. I share a partial description of Mr. Carter’s achievements, awards and accolades. Marshall N. Carter is chairman of the New York Stock Exchange Group and deputy chairman of the parent company NYSE Euronext. He was chairman of the board of directors of the predecessor, New York Stock Exchange for two years prior to the merger. Prior to the Exchange, Mr. Carter served as the chairman and chief executive officer of the State Street Bank and Trust Company, Boston, and of its holding company, State Street Corporation.

Mr. Carter holds a B.S. degree in civil engineering from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point (1962); an M.S. in operations research and systems analysis from the U.S. Naval Postgraduate School, Monterey, California (1970); and an M.A. in science, technology, and public policy from George Washington University (1976), which he attended on the GI Bill.

He is a former Marine Corps officer who was awarded the Navy Cross and Purple Heart during two years’ service as an infantry officer in Vietnam, Mr. Carter served from 1975-76 as a White House fellow at the U.S. State Department and Agency for International Development.

The list of his accomplishments goes on and one.

A man of seemingly superhuman achievement, Mr. Carter engaged in a wide ranging interview titled “Making Sense of the Financial Mess.” It focused primarily on the financial markets and what has euphemistically been referred to as their “meltdown.” I concluded that when Mr. Carter speaks, one should take a listen, as my grandma used to say.

I won’t address the issues of the financial markets covered in his interview—such as financial reform and whether it is politically possible to build legislation that will address the key issues—because they are tangential to the purposes of my book and to my knowledge base. However, some points raised by Mr. Carter are relevant to my book’s themes.

My curiosity elevated when Mr. Carter talked about greed and ethical issues. He did not believe that greed was a significant factor in the market meltdown. I would quibble with him on this point, particularly in the use of the word ‘greed.’ Whatever one calls it—greed or a softer concept such as just wanting more—is beside the point. People who had a lot wanted a lot more.

Call it what you want—greed—shmeed. Who cares? And greed may be okay, actually, depending on what one was willing to do to get that ‘lots more.’ If Bill Gates or Peyton Manning is motivated by greed, what’s it to me? No one is hurt. Bernie Madoff? Don’t get me started.

In the greed segment, Mr. Carter shared this anecdote.

“A friend of mine at Washington Mutual was in risk management and raised questions about the loan practices because of the risk. When he asked the questions, he was asked in return, “Are you a part of the team or aren’t you? This is our strategy and you either follow it or you don’t. If you don’t, you can go elsewhere.””

This anecdote does not present a greed issue. It does not illustrate an issue of morally ambiguity. This is a character issue. This anecdote raises issues of virtue and moral courage.

A moment later Mr. Carter is asked what he thinks it will take to create real ethical change in business. His answer is illuminating:

“I don’t have a real answer to this. It must start in grade school. The values in the schools and the families have deteriorated. The church is no better. Our future leaders must come from a foundation of ethics and trust.”

Now I am really engaged because this is why I wrote The Good, The Bad and The Difference. Mr. Carter elaborates somewhat on this assertion but does not address what I think are the foundational issues: I am not critical of this absence because it does go beyond the scope of his interview. But to me, the issue goes beyond teaching values.

Teaching is fine, but developing strategies and incentives for children to act on those values are the cornerstone to making a more ethical business culture and, incidentally, a more ethical world.

No teaching would have changed the behavior of the Washington Mutual executive that told the ethical manager to take a hike if he didn’t want to play ball. Here sanctions and punishment are needed. Having said that, I am reminded of a statement by Dennis Prager. I wrote about him yesterday.

Prager argues that we should not focus on why there is evil in the world but, rather, why there is good. It is preferable, he argues, to direct energy to understanding how to encourage good behavior and then implement those incentives. I try to do that with my little students. I offer parents skills to do that with their children.

Doing ‘good’ must become the default position when one is uncertain how to proceed. Aristotle wrote, “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act but a habit.” Virtue, for Aristotle, was embodied in noble action. Virtue meant doing ‘good,’ which means helping others and pursuing those first principles of Justice, Sanctity of Life, Beneficence and respecting Autonomy, one’s own and that of others. Those are the lessons Mr. Carter might find useful to teach our young children.

More later.

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