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GP13Apr05: A Better Vintage

The Pariahs.  On Saturday, March 9, Charles. Prince of Wales, finally tied the knot with Camilla Parker Bowles, after a 30 year romance.  The Royals are a little slow off the mark.  They’ve ever been subjects of mockery by the public and the press, and even the long American TV coverage of the wedding was rather tongue in check, with a clucking going on as the betrothed worked their way through a small civil ceremony and then made their way to a church service where they renounced their sinful lives and pledged to be eternally faithful. 

The English press is constantly after Charles and Camilla, and their wedding day was no exception.  The guttersniping about them merely proves that the English newspapers are worse off than their American cousins, though the Brits would like to think otherwise.  English journalism is simply nothing to purr about.  Some of the spoofing was rather fun, however.  See www.thespoof.com/news/spoof.cfm?headline=s1i7719.   

Penitence.  The blessing, after the civil union, at St. George’s Chapel was accompanied by all sorts of protestations of penitence for their adulterous life, taken straight out of the 1662 Anglican Book of Common Prayer: 

We acknowledge and bewail our manifold sins and wickedness, which we, from time to time, most grievously have committed, by thought, word and deed, against thy Divine Majesty, provoking most justly thy wrath and indignation against us. 

These very theatrical sorrows, accompanied by a reading from Wordsworth by actor Timothy West, were not very credible.  Better that the Prince and his bride hang from the side of Mount Yoshino, as do penitent pilgrims winding their way through Nara Prefecture in Japan (see “My Spring Break”).  But in these excessive times, it’s very unusual for anybody to confess wrong, even ceremonially.  Most, like Bill Clinton and Tom DeLay, follow Henry Ford’s injunction, “Never complain; never explain.”  Well, Clinton and DeLay do complain a little. 

It’s Not a Sin to Be Nuts. Unlike a goodly number of leaders in government and business, Charles should not be a target of wrath or ridicule in any event.  Ironically enough, he’s broadly knowledgeable about architecture, gardening, and a host of other subjects, setting him well apart from his critics in the press and his royal kinsmen, the majority of whom are simply ignorant ninnies who would do well to keep their own counsel.  Charles actually has substance.  

His big sin is not adultery—the stuff that makes gossips happy—but simply that he’s a 57-year-old wacko without a job who is said to talk to plants and harbor other eccentricities.  He’s a bit touched.  Of course, we ourselves have been known to rant at Spring weeds, hoping to bore them to death or drive them into somebody else’s garden.  Ironically, it is the peculiar trait of the modern press, particularly TV, to nail individuals of some substance to the cross, while celebrating the notoriously callow, such as Donald Trump, as if they walked on water.  

Hollow Men.  It’s no small matter that we are fastened on celebrity while skewering or ignoring men of genuine substance.  If we choose to follow hollow men, then our institutions will all decay, and quality will only be a dim memory.  Strutting roosters, crowing all the while, will only lead us in circles.  Jim Collins wrote about our starstruck ways in “The Misguided Mix-Up of Celebrity and Leadership (And Why It Imperils Our Institutions)” in the 2001 Annual Report of the Conference Board (www.conference-board.org/pdf_free/
annualessay2001.pdf).  He’s worth quoting: 

Virtually everything our modern culture believes about the type of leadership required to transform our institutions is wrong.  It is also dangerous.  There is perhaps no more corrosive trend to the health of institutions than the rise of the celebrity CEO, the rock-star leader whose deepest ambition is first and foremost self-centric. 

Like all consultants, Collins gets muddled when he tries to crack the code and uncover what makes for good leaders.  Nonetheless, he understands that the great ones are a bit self effacing and suffer from more than occasional doubts. They’re not the blustery, windbag sorts that light up the 24-hour news cycle for 2d string news analysts, which is why the media promotes all the wrong fellows. 

Understated.  Most have never heard of Stephen Tanzer, but those in the wine world know that he is at least the second best wine critic in the country.  His online wine newsletter has a vast and devoted following.  See www.wineaccess.com/expert/tanzer and www.forbes.com/bow/b2c/review.jhtml?id=7246.   

In a recent conversation with him, we covered many topics to include the changing economics of the world wine trade where massive consolidation is squeezing out smaller winemakers who often are responsible for the most interesting, finely cultivated tastes.  There is, in fact, a tendency towards big, highly alcoholic, hardly subtle concoctions throughout the trade which we ourselves might call loud, celebrity wines.  In the Cotswolds, once, we heard a lady of distinction refer to such wines disapprovingly as “grand, very grand.”  Something for parvenus who drink too much and drive around in cream-colored Bentleys. 

For sure these dazzlers grow out of the need of the big factory houses to move huge volumes of wine.  A movie Mondovino, which came out in 2004, shows how globalization and runaway commercialization has overwhelmed distinguished, circumspect wines that are filled with local flavor.  Perhaps because he himself is just a bit offstage, Tanzer stands for wines that never quite make it onto the billboards.  Though he’s reviewed wines since 1985, he only went fulltime as a wine writer in 1992, and he has only hit his stride post-2000 with his considerable success on the Internet.  Substantive people such as him are not overnight sensations. 

Helvetica Bold.  On Thursday, April 14, the Dallas Fort Worth Chapter of the American Institute of Graphic Arts will honor Jack Summerford, a local designer who is certainly the best that Dallas ever has had to offer.  In both his wit and his design, he exhibits an economy of style that is unknown in these parts, a sensibility that is comparable to Tanzer’s call for more interesting, less conspicuous wines.  As an amusement at one point, Summerford turned out a T-Shirt that had a simple Helvetica T on the back, quite restrained  for a Dallas that likes flash and dash.  If he re-issues it, we intend to put in for a copy.  Most of the local Texas titans of industry do not even know about this diamond in their rough.  Dallas is replete with virtues, but good taste and restraint is not one of them.  It favors small talents with an aptitude for self promotion—cotton mouths.  

The usual run of Big D designers produces lots of copycat pastel blues and browns, mixed with elongated pictures of hot red peppers and other spurious symbols of the Southwest.  As we suggested last week in Scenes from the Global Province, Fort Worth, down the road apiece, somehow has an eye for the beautiful that is missing in the Dallas.  Summerford jokes a bit about his own low key, but effective and original work in an article he wrote many years ago, knowing full well that he will go down in history as the  Helvetica Man slightly obsessed with typography.  His brand of design is particularly effective for professional service firms such as engineers, architects, and attorneys, since it conveys order and relies on few design elements.  See www.commarts.com/ca/coldesign/jacs_83.html

Quantum Mechanics for Quantum Leaps.  People like Tanzer and Summerford deserve our accolades because they exhibit an economy of style, a certain emotional wariness of celebrity.  As we search for leaders who can safely “transform our institutions,” to use Collins’ words, this spareness would be an important qualification.  As well, the masters of the 21st century will require a facility for dealing with both nano and macro complexity. 

This last week Brian Greene, a mathematician and physicist at Columbia University, did an excellent article about Einstein called “One Hundred Years of Uncertainty” (New York Times, April 8, 2005, p. A27).  It celebrated the 4 seminal papers that Einstein published in 1905 that brought the curtain down on Isaac Newton and wrested the globe away from Imperial England.  Greene notes that when we think of Einstein, we focus on relativity.  But it’s the fourth paper, says Greene, in which Einstein announced photons and invented quantum mechanics, that really upset the intellectual applecart and set civilization on a wholly new course.  In Newton’s world we had certainties; in the quantum world, you have probabilities, with the possibility of many outcomes. 

If we are to get past the sins of our media that worships hollow men, we must look for chaps with a certain low key economy of style who seem to have a penchant for quality.  But further, we must test the thinking of our candidates for greatness to see if they can deal with uncertainty or whether they are creatures of ideological rigor who can’t handle shades of grey.  While it does not make good press, we want some fellows who can say, “Maybe yes.  Maybe no.”  Who can live with more than one answer. 

Jim Collins seems to credit Darwin Smith, the modest onetime CEO of Kimberly Clark with saving the paper company.  Smith was full of doubts to the end

Smith, a man who never entirely erased his own self-doubts, later summed up his career by saying simply, “I never stopped trying to become qualified for the job.” 

We don’t want leaders who confess to us about past sins—about youthful indiscretions with drugs, or bouts of womanizing, or other simple zigzags of a misspent youth.  We are searching for those who can confess to philosophical doubts and admit to improbabilities and possibilities.  This age of quantum mechanics makes simplistic ideological purity and ill-placed cocksureness simply look silly. 

Peter Bernstein, the author of Against the Gods, a book about the history of financial risk, and thinker about many facets of investment, explains well how the intelligent management of risk really underlies the growth of capitalism as we know it.  Of course, risk management, whether we are dealing with terrorists, disease, fractals, or financial bubbles, demands a rather dispassionate ability to weigh the odds and estimate the probabilities.  The gods will strike us down if we cannot reckon with the many   simultaneous plots in which they have decided we will be actors.  For more on Bernstein, see “Getting the Boardroom off Unemployment,” “Don't Worry About the Copperheads; The Big Bear Will Get You First,” and www.peterlbernsteininc.com.

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