Corner Office-Welcome Back, Humility

Corner Office-Welcome Back, Humility

We're fortunate to see a neglected friend return.

Dear Humility,

We want to apologize for forgetting about you. We’ve neglected you, but like a mistreated yet faithful dog, you’ve waited for us to open the door to greet and embrace you once more. Thank you for your forgiveness and patience.

During booming economic growth, you see, we thought we didn’t need you. Instead, we made friends with Arrogance, Cockiness, and Overconfidence. They encouraged us to create an overheated, overleveraged economy built on Materialism, Greed, and Excess. We ignored the lessons taught to us by our grandparents, about how awful life was during the Great Depression and about the importance of maintaining a close friendship with you.

We built up record levels of household debt and stopped saving. We signed on to mortgages we couldn’t afford. Many of us took out second mortgages, depleting the equity we had built up in our homes so that we could buy more stuff. We thought our supply of money was endless.

Consumers weren’t the only ones duped. As business leaders, we overleveraged our companies. We used risky leveraged buyouts, mergers, and acquisitions as get-rich-quick deals. Our real estate became an asset that we could pledge to the bank for more money. Our pals Materialism, Greed, and Excess took us for a good ride, but they’re fickle friends who abandoned us at the first sign of trouble.

Old friend, we are in deep trouble. Huge firms that were the bedrock of Wall Street have been wiped out. Our country’s banks—the backbone of our financial stability since the Depression—are in serious trouble, and pundits predict that only a small percentage of them will still be around in a few years. Automobile manufacturers that were the pride of America have fallen to their knees. Can you believe that we’re so desperate we’ve allowed the government to step in and take over banks and automakers?

The stock market has crumbled, shrinking the value of our investments and postponing retirement plans for many. Unemployment has risen, causing consumers to stop spending on anything that isn’t essential. Many small businesses have gone out of business, while many large businesses have filed for bankruptcy or been liquidated. People have lost their sources of credit, their health care benefits, and their homes. Our old friends Pride and Confidence are also slipping away.

Unfortunately, our government hasn’t been much help. Legislative and regulatory bodies that were supposed to watch over us failed miserably. And just like consumers and businesses, government was spending much more than it had in revenues, which resulted in a huge national debt. Now, that debt is being covered by China, which, until we needed its help, was considered an “evil empire” and a potential threat to our national security. But I suppose when we’re desperate for money, we can overlook such minor details.

Everyone is looking for answers and spending time with Sadness, Hopelessness, and Anger. Last November, a majority of Americans mandated a change in our government, believing that would be the answer. We got a visionary and energetic new president and many new members of our legislative branches. Unfortunately, since that change our national debt has doubled and programs are being proposed that will undoubtedly double it again. Many of us cannot understand how our country can bear the cost, but we are assured that money can be confiscated from the richest people in our society to cover it.

When Materialism, Greed, and Excess were our friends, our business culture glorified high-powered, ego-driven, status-conscious CEOs. We treated them with unearned respect and blind trust. The era spawned Ponzi schemes and other fraudulent ruses. Thank goodness you’ve helped expose these and bring their perpetrators to Justice.

While everyone and everything has been turned upside down during this economic disaster, the silver lining is that more people have discovered or reacquainted themselves with you. Excessive CEO salaries are no longer acceptable, consumers are being more disciplined with their spending, and savings levels are beginning to grow. We’ve learned that Greed is like a neighborhood bully. We allowed it to run over our lives without any consequence or intervention. But Society is fed up with Greed and is now pushing back and saying “No more!”

Business leaders have been humbled. We’ve learned that there is no such thing as “business as usual”; that planning on 15 to 20 percent growth each year does not make sense; that credit, customers, and suppliers can all disappear; and that nothing can be taken for granted.

This economic downturn has taught us to rely on Common Sense. Writing contingency plans for the worst what-if scenarios is no longer something we hire consultants to do for us every so often. Now, it’s something we talk about at length during regular board meetings. With Arrogance, Cockiness, and Overconfidence as our friends, we didn’t think about the what-ifs. With you, Discipline, and Self-Control, we realize that what’s painful now will leave us better off in the long run.

“Pride goeth before the fall,” from the fall of the Roman Empire to the fall of AIG. Is this a lesson that we will finally learn? I hope so, because if business leaders don’t learn to keep you as our constant companion, Humility, we will never regain Trust. I’m sad to say that this economic calamity has made most of us distrust lenders, politicians, Wall Street, and the economic system.

So, my dear friend Humility, thank you for waiting for us to befriend you again. It’s been a rough road back to you, but sometimes that’s what it takes for lessons to be learned. I hope that we will remember the devastation we brought upon ourselves, and that we’ll tell our grandchildren about the lessons we learned from this recession—and that, unlike us, they will always remain your faithful friend.

With Much Humility,

Mark Sheffert

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