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GP24Sep:  Big Beliefs Make Big Men

Great Expectations.  “There is a mysterious cycle in human events.  To some generations much is given.  Of other generations, much is expected.  This generation of Americans has a rendezvous with destiny.” 

These words from Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s re-nomination acceptance speech at the Philadelphia Democratic Convention on June 27, 1936 probably best dramatize what he really did as president.  Here he was asking Americans to ward off dictators abroad and monopolists at home in the name of democracy and freedom.  But most of all, we think, he was once again helping battered Americans regain confidence in themselves and igniting their belief in their future.  Big beliefs make big men; big men galvanize belief.  (See full text at www.presidency.ucsb.edu/site/docs/pppus.php?admin=032&year=1936&id=82).  

The “Rendezvous” phase dated back at least to William McKinley, who was part and parcel of the 19th century and Manifest Destiny, but it was FDR who really brought it to life.  Since then, LBJ, Ronald Reagan, both the Clintons, George the Younger Bush, Jacques Chirac, and others have tried to capture the same words as their own, hoping some of the patrician Roosevelt’s greatness would rub off on them.  

To get a nation, an institution, or a company to believe in itself--that is the task of a leader.  Asking for a “rendezvous,” the leader is not merely calling for a brush with destiny, but is invoking a full-blown tryst, a bonding with tomorrow.  He is asking his followers to seize the future.   

Executive Development.  For half a century, American business has been spending a carload of money on executive education, but nobody quite knows what the outcome should be.  In our own eyes, FDR got it right.  At least in our management practice, executive development is designed to build each executive’s self confidence as well as his belief in his appointed mission on earth. 

That, as Mark McCormack would have said, is not “what they teach you at the Harvard Business School.”  (See What They Don’t Teach You at Harvard Business School).  Business schools, after all, are simply overpriced vocational schools for future business bureaucrats that acquaint teacher and student alike with arcane technique but not with the metaphors to handle uncertain tomorrows. 

The Will to Believe.  Numerous Americans are now having a hard time believing in themselves or the future.  9/11 upset the psyche of Americans more profoundly than either our friends or enemies abroad understand.  It has been followed by an unending  string of severe job layoffs at America’s major corporations that show no sign of letting up.  These are troubled times, not so unlike the 1930s.   

Senior executives, no matter their degree of bluster, have shown increasing insecurity for a much longer period of time.  The long restructuring of our economy, not yet complete, started in the 1970s, and they still cannot foresee the outcome or divine what strategy to adopt for their own enterprises.  This has only compounded the stress they have felt as they climb the corporate ladder where they have found oxygen in short supply and the perch uncertain.   

In this tremulous atmosphere, executives must achieve the “Will to Believe.”  This is the title of one essay by William James, who was a father of American Pragmatism, this country’s unique contribution to world philosophy.  Here he argues for faith in the absence of clear evidence to support it,  and elsewhere he goes on to claim that the power of belief is critical for advantageously dealing with a future that is malleable and plastic, capable of being shaped by men of conviction.  James, incidentally, was a troubled, insecure spirit in his own right who worked his way forward through affirmative philosophy and psychology.  Executives, we would claim, are not capable of leadership until they attain a similar degree of assured belief. 

Real Role.  The wacky, outré, gay wit Quentin Crisp said that we call young actors adventurous and experimental because they try on all sorts of roles that are largely ill suited to their own personas.  Finally, later in life, they discover their one true role which they play brilliantly, no matter the part in which they are cast.  Then we call them accomplished.  It is the same in life he thought:  each of us spends decades discovering our one true role.   

That’s the other main educational task for senior executives.  They must comprehend the role they really should be playing. 

One of our clients spent his whole life as an accomplished engineer at one of America’s largest corporations.  We worked with him and watched his slow transformation as he worked his way towards retirement.  What happened is that he became an outplacement counselor for senior Fortune 500 executives, a 180-degree career switch where he performed gloriously.   

It had always been evident to us that Ed was intended for other things.  A French TV producer, now a New York restaurateur, had done a feature on him for French TV.  It was evident to the talented Parisian and his audience that this absolutely charming, mannerly, totally kind man should be dealing with people and not equations.  If we are truly to pursue our destiny, such dramatic changes are in store for us.  The writer Arthur Koestler dramatically threw over successful careers two or three times, which not only brought out his talent but saved him from being a victim of the Holocaust.  One can read about this in his marvelous two-volume autobiography Arrow in the Blue and Invisible Writing.  All our lives, said Crisp, we are discovering what our true role is.   

Fanatic About Change.  Lately we have been studying serial entrepreneurs largely to find out why they do what they do.  Time and again, we discover that these fascinating folks pursue something new because they can’t bear it that the world is doing things in such a bumbling way.  They are irked beyond belief that hospitals kill so many of their patients; that surgical tools, designed around 1915, don’t really do the job, that the window crank mechanisms inside car doors are so complex that they are doomed to fail; that Microsoft software is certain to crash.  They know it can be done better and know they can do it.  In other words, they believe they can change the world, and there’s no stopping them.  We suspect executive education should convince its pupils to find something they really want to change. 

What is Destiny?  We have said that the goal of executive education is to teach future leaders that they and those that they inspire have a Rendezvous with Destiny.   

But what is destiny?  It’s a culmination beyond the ordinary and the pedestrian.  The very concept of destiny argues that there is a god or gods, because it is an outcome and magic event ordained somewhere in the heavens.  Destiny is the handiwork of the gods. 

Several of the more fundamentalist religious sects around the world would say that Western societies have trivialized life, falling totally under the domination of the passions of man, avoiding the dominion of the gods.  If this is true, it presents a monumental problem for countries that are overwhelmingly secular.  Is he who is not pointed at metaphysical truths a slave to mediocrity?  Probably there is no rendezvous with destiny for those whose feet are stuck in mortal clay.  Is this why the postwar generation of leaders in politics and business has never quite achieved greatness?  

We are not saying, of course, that conventional religion lies at the heart of greatness.  Rather we would assert that people of destiny sense that most awesome events in the universe only regard mankind as a footnote.  John Roebling, tireless worker and creator of the Brooklyn Bridge, only allowed himself one diversion--the study of the philosopher Hegel, who had been a mentor in his youth.  We would venture to say that his appreciation of Hegel’s dialectic equipped him to tackle monumental projects about which the rest of us can only dream.  Hegel, incidentally, had encouraged him to come to America.  Some of this unfolds in the historian David McCullough’s best work, The Great Bridge, which depicts the breadth of Roebling’s undertaking.  It remade New York City, just as Tip O’Neill’s Big Dig (www.bigdig.com) is redoing Boston.  

Curiously enough, Tony Blair of Great Britain and Juichiro Koizumi of Japan, who have shifted government away from faction towards some of the broader concerns of their societies, may have reclaimed that higher ground where destiny can come out of hiding.  Ironically enough, they were perceived as standard political hacks by the pundits when they first came on the scene, all proving we never know who will be destiny’s children. 

P.S.  Keeping Up.  Today’s too busy executives have an ever more difficult time keeping up with changes in business thinking.  Several services now provide them with extracts on breaking thought.  One, www.meansbusiness.com, is particularly geared to corporations which are trying to carry on in-house corporate education for executives. 

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