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Marty Linsky
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Marty Linsky

Co-founder of the leadership-focused consulting firm, Cambridge Leadership Associates, Marty Linsky teaches at the Harvard Kennedy School, co-authors the advice column, Leadership House Call and blogs at Linsky on Leadership .

Spoiled by the Public

No surprise that those folks did not anticipate the public outrage over bonuses. See, for example, the Detroit CEOs flying to DC individually in their private jets to beg for money, or the lavish corporate retreat sites chosen by AIG after their bailout. It is no different than Alex Rodriquez' late night carousing in NYC with women other than his wife or Elliot Spitzer patronizing that prostitution service.

Big time athletes, politicians, and corporate plutocrats live in hermetically sealed tubes. They spend most of their time with people just like themselves who share their lifestyle, environment and values. They are, literally and figuratively, out of touch with the lives and mores of most people.

But in my experience and observation, having seen first-hand such self-absorbed and ultimately self-destructive behavior play itself out in all three arenas, the underlying causes are more than just their being out of contact with "normal lives". Here are two other factors.

First, the stories they tell themselves are ones of entitlement: "I work ferociously hard, earn huge profits for my employer or shareholders or (for politicians) sacrifice income and family time in order to serve the public." For as long as they have been around, working their way up the ladder, those benefits have gone to the people in the positions they now hold. They believe, they really believe, that they have earned the right to enjoy those benefits, too, just as their predecessors did before them.

Second, if they do feel a little abashed about what they are doing, they convince themselves that the are too smart to get caught or, if they do, they are powerful enough to be able to overcome the bad publicity or anger that their actions provoke, or clever enough to talk or buy their way out of trouble.

The politicians, plutocrats and athletes who do best to guard against these land mines are the ones who consciously keep people around them whose job it is to keep them grounded in reality. It is no accident that the moment of passion that got Bill Clinton in so much trouble occurred when his handlers were not around, the White House being run by a skeleton crew while Newt Gingrich and his Republican colleagues temporarily shut down the Government. Too often at those levels, loyalty gets equated with no dissent and as a result the folks at the center end up surrounding themselves with sycophants who are afraid to tell the emperor he has no clothes.

But as always, it is useful to look into the mirror and examine what is our piece of the mess. In what ways have we created and nurtured the environment in which these folks do not see how self-destructive their behavior is until it is too late? We collude in treating them specially, so that it is easy for them to start to believe it themselves. We applaud and stand when they enter the room. We defer to them, cater to them, pander to them, ask for their autographs and their thoughts, and in so many other ways treat them as if they deserve the perks. We allow ourselves to be persuaded by their views on any number of products and issues about which they know very little-- consulting Sam Waterson on TD Ameritrade or Oprah on almost anything. We wait in line for hours to catch a glimpse of them. We take jobs carrying their bags, literally and figuratively. As a society, we worship celebrity and power. We expect too much of those that have it. No wonder they are vulnerable to the temptations and excesses that are available to them.

By Marty Linsky

 |  February 2, 2009; 1:04 PM ET
Category:  Economic crisis Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
Previous: Feeling Good on Wall Street | Next: America's Deep Disconnect

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Marty,

You are right. They don’t have a blind spot. The have tuned a blind eye to normal society because we have placed them out of touch with the average American. They are not part of the hourly employee or even the salaried employee cohort. They are the commissioned and bonus road warriors and rainmakers. As a result, they have been given the entitled status of “Business Elite”. How do we change this? When thespians struggle to provide society their art and athletes play for just the sport of it, then maybe the system of compensation will return to some normalcy. Sadly, though, the system may never come come back to normal becasue of this new faith and worship in celebrity and status.

Posted by: cmburn | February 5, 2009 5:51 AM
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