COMMENT: Humble is Cool
This was the year hubris morphed into humility.
Those arrogant know-it-alls who made zillions in the market and became convinced that they were smarter than the rest of us are now getting theirs. It’s being played out most blatantly with the Enron mess, as that company’s honchos, just a few months ago routinely skirting financial questions from Wall Street and the press and getting away with it are now battling to stay out of jail.
Just last week, the CEO of Arthur Anderson, Enron’s auditor, told Congress that the company had engaged in “possibly illegal acts.” Of course, this is just the beginning. Expect a long and sordid unraveling of a company whose market value has plunged from $77 billion to $500 million a company that will make it into the history books for all the wrong reasons.
Humility is being played out all over the corporate landscape.
You see it with those normally imperious airline chieftains toddling to Congress for post-Sept. 11 bailout money. These are the same guys who used to thumb their noses at the feds when it came to on-time arrivals or high fares. But here they are pleading with the politicos to keep them alive. America West, unquestionably the worst run carrier in America (and that’s saying a lot), actually proposed that the government buy 10 percent of the carrier as part of its bailout plan.
You see it with venture capitalists who just a year or two ago trumpeted each dot-com investment they bought into and who now, in the face of huge losses, talk mostly about rejiggering their portfolios. That is, if you can get them on the phone.
You see it in the New York and Hollywood media markets long a bastion of fat expense accounts, petty bickerings and self-absorption bordering on the obscene where, for now, the showbiz blather has been replaced with worries about job cuts and salary freezes.
And you see it in more subtle ways six-figure executives having to squeeze into coach class, normally lavish holiday parties being reduced to pot luck socials, and high-priced wineries doing without the chi-chi crowd.
My own little barometer is cigar smoking. Remember those bloated, self-satisfied looks of bizboys (and even a few bizgals) in the late ’90s with their big, wet, expensive stogies? It somehow epitomized the age of overindulgence and pseudo-privilege. But no more these days, it takes some doing to find a cigar smoker, at least one in public view.
I kind of like this return to humbler times, even if it’s being forced upon us by a recession and the terrorist attacks. When people get too big for their britches, as clearly happened these past few years, they tend to do foolish things, whether it’s taking their secretaries to Paris for the weekend or stepping over the legal line in determining quarterly revenue. These are not necessarily bad people just caught up by the money, the power, whatever.
That’s why I hope this period of humility is more of a breather than a habit. America needs its swagger back. Entrepreneurs need to have the confidence to dream big dreams and bankers and shareholders must, in turn, have the comfort to invest in those dreams. Otherwise, everybody hesitates and nobody wins.
Except this time around, wouldn’t it be nice if “winning” becomes a relative term instead of an excuse to run roughshod over everyone else? Hey, it’s just a thought this holiday season.
Mark Lacter is editor of the Business Journal.