With the end of every decade we often feel that the new eclipses the old and buries it. As we settle in and are taken by the shine of new numerals, those of the past claim and pack away everything associated with them. It provides a great feeling of optimism; it gives us comfort, raises hope and allows us to empty our hearts and minds in the same way one empties a closet, throwing old stuff to make way for the new.
If only things were that simple; if only they were so linear and arithmetic. And, logically, they should be. After all there is a limit to real estate, whether it is storage, memory or the human ability to deal with so much. Yet, things are not so simple, for there are rarely clear breaks between the arriving and departing decades. There often is a sense of tapering off and of the dilution of events, sentiments, fads, fashion and much of what may be held to be important. But at times there just isn’t, and matters continue to linger on and capture our attention and imagination.
At times, though, the events or behaviours of times past make such a strong resurgence, like a cancer that one thought had already been beaten and had continued with life as it should be lived, only to be rudely awoken to a reality that never really disappeared, but that has always laid waiting for another time when conditions are appropriate and the climate is more favourable. In such a case, independent of which decade such events belong to, and independent of how they walked into the sunset, they are back – and back with a vengeance, immune to how we have previously dealt with them. That is when we are at our most vulnerable, and that is when we need to pay attention.
One of the most interesting symbols of the eighties was the notorious Gordon Gekko, who immortalized the phrase “Greed, for the lack of a better word, is good.” He epitomized what the decade was about: greed in all its forms, corporate raiding, grabbing it all, insider trading, and everything in between, all for the aim of making money… lots of money, and all for him. That was unabashed and unrestrained greed, and Gekko was unapologetic about it. Gekko’s manifesto went on to explain “… Greed is right. Greed works. Greed clarifies, cuts through, and captures, the essence of the evolutionary spirit. Greed, in all of its forms; greed for life, for money, for love, knowledge, has marked the upward surge of mankind and greed, you mark my words, will not only save Teldar Paper, but that other malfunctioning corporation called the U.S.A.”
Almost 30 years later it is easy to sit back and pronounce judgment on that character and his ways. To start with, I am not one for greed; I stand at the far opposite end of it and accept that this may mean a slower manifestation of success. Mind you, I do respect hunger and what it produces when properly guided and well channeled. This said, I must confess that I respect Gordon Gekko because he was consistent with himself, and he did not pretend to be what he is not.
Today, we may be in a different time, but we are not in a different place. For one, I think Gekko’s progeny has spread, prospered and is poised to take us all down with the 21st Century expression of greed. Let’s not assume for a single second that greed died back then – like the phoenix, it has been reborn. From the boardroom to the street, greed is in the driving seat, and whatever car it is driving does not have any brakes whatsoever.
The drive for better margins is everywhere. Individual investors demand it, institutional investors demand it, and corporate bosses drive it. They all seem to have an insatiable appetite for more, thereby continuing to feed a monster that seems to have grown so big, and so powerful that it now enslaves all in a machine that perpetuates the notions of “more” and “not enough”, without paying heed to what all this means and what it could beget.
A casual look at a squeezed lemon is enough to teach us a simple lesson: once a lemon is squeezed, it will not produce additional juice. Somehow the practice of squeezing organisations and individuals alike in the interest of generating more to fuel the greed machine seems oblivious to the fact that this practice is suffocating the many geese that lay the golden eggs.
What I find shameful in this is not the desire for bigger and better success, and what it carries with it, but the fact that many a stock market-facing CEO seems to be singularly driven by higher returns and earning stock market favour independent of any other consideration. They seem convinced that people will produce more with less, and that if that means the day needs to be stretched, then it is fine; and that if it means poisoning the work environment, then it too shall pass because the powers that be will be pleased, the gods of finance will be appeased, and the stock markets will be happy. And when goals are not met, the fault seems to lie with those who were unable to deliver more simply because there was no more juice to be squeezed.
Moral argument aside, this path is particularly dangerous. It is a short term game that slowly strangulates organisations by milking the workforce and initiating an exodus of talent. Very quickly, the engines of growth become hollow and pretty soon they will slow down considerably, and possibly come to a halt. What is worse is that, clear as the reasons will be behind the ultimate downfall of milked organisations, it will take those at the helm some time to see the obvious. Whether or not they will admit that greed got them there remains to be seen.
Gordon Gekko called it as he saw it, and he was unashamed to call it greed. His progeny today promotes stretching to produce growth for the right to work and belong. Gekko’s progeny mask the truth. Beware of them, for they are everywhere and they are slowly killing the geese that lay the golden eggs.