Megalomania. Time was, this was a rarely used word, used to describe third world despots, religious cranks, and the Hitlers of the world. But it is a word that perhaps is in need of a revival. It’s application seems to have grown considerably.
I’m just a country boy (I can’t believe I said that!) who happened to be a small businessman all my life. The only major corporation I ever worked for (Texas to New York to London ownership) went broke in 1982 after a series of ill-considered decisions regarding the economy). I wasn’t a wildly successful businessman, although I did have some successes and did manage to run my own business for 25 years. But creating an environment in which a group of disparate people can coordinate their efforts well enough to have a sense of accomplishment and turn a profit is a very special thing. Very special.
But sometimes, the arena gets over-crowded and out of whack. This, to me, is one of those times. Business has become way too big and too pushy.
I believe there are two basic types of businessmen. The first is the genuine entrepreneur, the individual who has an idea and has the brains, the luck, and the work ethic to run with it. These are very special people and, naturally, are fairly rare. Actually, there are many, many would-be entrepreneurs who, for various reasons, miss out on the ‘luck’ aspect of success and flounder even though they, too, have the work ethic and the brains. It’s no fun watching this person fail when his neighbor, for no apparent reason, succeeds. Such is the nature of luck. In any case, the true entrepreneur is fun to watch and his story is always interesting. No less than a great composer or writer, they have a ‘vision’.
The second type of businessman is what I like to call the ‘functionary’. Their job is to be custodian of the business, making sure it doesn’t fall of the rails and working to see that it attains certain goals. Most businessmen fall into this category and while many of them are supremely competent and possess definite leadership qualities, they’re not entrepreneurs and they sure as hell don’t need their egos inflated with such odious descriptors as ‘community leaders’ and ‘captains of industry’. They’re caretakers. Most of them go to work everyday hoping the rails don’t come off the train they’re conducting. They’re quite happy with a holding pattern.
But sometimes the market forces allow the ‘custodian’ businesses to grow in spite of their leadership. Stock market expectations explain the goal – if you are not growing you’re dying – and see-no-evil governments refrain from imposing any curbs on business affairs.
Forget the morality of large corporations for a minute.
What we have now is a proliferation of multi-national corporations. Their sheer size and political clout practically ensures that they can conduct their affairs with very little restraint. What this does to any one particular community is an ongoing subject for research (If you live in an urban area and frequent a shopping centre or big box centre, you’re almost guaranteed not to be able to find one small independent store, not even a coffee shop. What this says about the level of competition in the commercial world is discouraging to say the least) but what is MOST interesting is what it has done to those who actually run these huge operations.
Corporate execs may be functionaries at heart but today they come as close as any one group to being a modern form of royalty. One has only to look at how they live. They are paid obscene salaries with almost limitless perks. They live in enclaves and spend most of their time either travelling to their places of business, or to their places of leisure. They move about in limos and private jets. Most of them have little or no knowledge of the actual community in which they live. Their social contacts are their peers and the politicians they either own or plan to own. Troubling questions arise. Are we creating a new privileged class no different from Europe in the early middle ages? How do these people see themselves?
Well, it’s all plenty of stuff for op-ed dissection and graduate theses. But let’s look at one small detail to see what it tells us. This is one advertisement placed in the Economist for a Ph.D in economics (If you weren’t aware, the Economist’s target market is not middle America).
“. . . . . Institute has been offering a unique PhD in Finance programme to elite practitioners who aspire to higher intellectual levels and aim to redefine the investment banking and asset management industries.
Drawing its faculty from the world’s best universities and enjoying the support of a leader in industry-relevant academic research, the . . . Institute PhD in Finance creates an extraordinary platform for professional development and industry innovation
Following a stimulating scientific curriculum and working individually with leading specialists on research issues of particular relevance to their organizations, practitioners on the programme’s executive track learn tom leverage their experience and insights to make original contributions to the frontiers of financial knowledge and practices.
Challenging professionals to step back, reflect, and generate radical innovations, the . . .
Institute PhD in Finance is the ultimate degree for financial executives.”
I don’t know about you but I don’t think that ad was aimed at me or anyone I know. I’d like to examine it from a thousand different perspectives but, assuming the writer of the ad has stopped patting himself on the back for his glorious adherence to academic gobbledegook, let’s see what the ad says about the world of business.
A world of privilege, elitism, and pretension might be a start. I know any number of academic disciplines are guilty of self-importance masquerading as intellectual ‘frontiers’, but this PhD is aimed directly at those who see themselves at the cutting edge of . . what? . . . Innovation? Market penetration? Market rigging? Mergers and acquisitions? Outsourcing? Obviously it’s aimed at a world of self-satisfied corporate types who hunger for something more, presumably as long as it is in that corporate world.
The arrogance of the ad is staggering and we wonder how closely it represents the natures of the people it was meant to attract. If it is close, the world may be in trouble. If it isn’t close and is, instead, the result of an excess of self-love, it would be interesting to hear the comments of those short-listed for the position. Either way, it’s a vivid example of how misguided the corporate world can be.
Perhaps, if Citizen’s United is with us for the long-term, then the least we can if corporations are people, is take steps to make sure they, like us, don’t live forever. Let the next generation have its day too.
Robert Alan Davidson