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Archive for December, 2014

981921190_d4ccc8ddcc_zA Scrooge story for the season.  Who says lawyers don’t have a heart?  Read on, MacDuff.

The Salvation Army realized that it had never received a donation from the city’s most successful lawyer.    So a volunteer paid the lawyer a visit to his lavish office just before Christmas.

The volunteer opened the meeting by saying, “Our research shows that even though your annual income is over two million dollars, you don’t give a penny to charity.  Wouldn’t you like to give something back to your community?… ”

The lawyer thinks for minute and says, “First, did your research also show you that my mother is dying after a long, painful illness, and she has huge medical bills that are far beyond her ability to pay?”

Embarrassed, the rep mumbles, “Uh…No, I didn’t know that.”

“Secondly,” says the lawyer, “did it show that my brother, a disabled veteran, is blind and confined to a wheelchair and is unable to support his wife and six children?”

The stricken rep begins to stammer an apology, but is cut off again.

“Thirdly, did your research also show you that my sister’s husband died in a dreadful car accident, leaving her penniless with a mortgage and three children, one of whom is disabled and another that has learning disabilities requiring an array of private tutors?”

The humiliated rep, completely beaten, says, “I’m so sorry.  I had no idea.”

And the lawyer says, “So, if I didn’t give any money to them, what makes you think I’d give any to you?”

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mike-nicholsMike Nichols, the great director and eclectic film and theater wise man, died of a heart attack on November 19, 2014. Among other qualities, Nichols was notably a humble man. I always liked him.

I was an actor earlier in my life and, though I never worked with Mike Nichols, I wrote him once about a little off-Broadway piece he was doing in 1978 at the Public Theater called Drinks Before Dinner. He sent me back a very sweet hand-written note thanking me for sharing my thoughts and telling me his reason for doing the play. Despite his accomplishments he was a man of existential humility and sincerity, open to all things and all people, far from the grandiosity others might have succumbed to in his place.

Nichols’ genuine humility was a gift. It was a useful quality that buttressed his theatrical artistry. The same trait should be cultivated as a base skill by all of us entrepreneurs. After all, the entrepreneurial vocation is not so very different from the artist’s.

Jonah Lehrer wrote an essay on the quality of humility in the Wall Street Journal several years ago, titled “The Power Trip,” on what psychologists call “the paradox of power.” (WSJ, 8/14/10) He made the point that often the very traits that helped leaders rise to power or success disappear when they ascend. Lehrer says, “Instead of continuing to be polite, honest, and outgoing, they often become impulsive, reckless and rude.”peggy_noonan_x200

People with power may become subject to hubristic overreach and Icarus-like arrogance. Lehrer quotes extensively from University of California at Berkeley psychologist Dr. Dacher Keltner‘s scientific findings from studies of power and success. Dr. Kelter states, “When you give people power, they basically start acting like fools. They flirt inappropriately, tease in a hostile fashion, and become totally impulsive.” Keltner compares the feeling of power to brain damage, stating that people with great power tend to behave like neurological patients with a damaged orbito-frontal lobe, a brain area essential for empathy and decision-making.

An entrepreneur is a person of power, if only in her very small pond. And, as such, is subject to the unbalancing lures that can come with power.

Peggy Noonan wrote an exceptionally lovely encomium to Mike Nichols last week in the WSJ. (Saturday, Nov. 29. 1014, A-13) Commenting on Nichols humility, Noonan said the following: “[Nichols] once told me he didn’t direct movies, he cast them. In a way it was a line and a typically modest one–it wasn’t him, it was them–but it also wasn’t. He was saying he picks actors who have the quality and depth to do what he wants, and he trusts them to do what he wants, and he trusts them to come through. That is a great thing, when an artist trusts his paint.”

John_Goodman_2011_(cropped)And so should the entrepreneur trust his paint. The growing trend of “empathetic management” is increasingly recognizing this point. By trusting your paint (your associates and employees) you nourish a sense of ownership, a sense of communal responsibility, and, ideally, activate a veritable army of mini-CEOs and innovators to work in harness with you.

Actor John Goodman said this about Mike Nichols as a director: “He made me feel as if I was a full partner or co-conspirator in finding clues to solve the puzzle.” Creating such an attitude, such a trope in a corporate community would surely be a triumph of empathetic leadership for any entrepreneur. So thank you John Goodman. And thank you Mike Nichols.

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dont_call_me_a_sexpert-293x307Sex writer and satirist Cynthia Heimel once said,  “When in doubt, make a fool of yourself.  There is a microscopically thin line between being brilliantly creative and acting like the most gigantic idiot on earth.”  (When the Phone Doesn’t Ring, It’ll Be Me!, Grove/Atlantic Inc., 1996)

I think it helps to be a bit of an idiot if you want to be a successful entrepreneur.  Idiocy is certainly not a skill they generally teach in business school, but given the huge rate of small business failure perhaps they should.

We all naturally gravitate towards playing it safe.  Current business structures are still variations on command-and-control.  I guess they have to be somewhat defensive constructs, built to fend off anarchy and existential business randomness, while creating dependable profit.  Nevertheless, I believe in salubrious chaos and risk.  And a healthy dose of seeming idiocy in the business process helps keep one weighted toward the seminal and the cutting-edge.

Perhaps my view on this is formed in part by the fact that I was an actor for many years before becoming a businessman.  The acting profession tends to lend itself to many good stories.  Here’s one.

ASNN0112M-280_977614a friend of mine, Paul, was playing the role of “Jamie Tyrone,” the older son in Eugene O’Neill‘s Long Day’s Journey Into Nightstarring Rip Torn.  Rehearsals had gone very well for my friend, but, with two weeks left in the rehearsal process, Paul felt he had fully realized his character and was ready to open.  His quandary was what to do with himself for the last two weeks of rehearsal, so he went to Rip Torn and asked him what he would do with this actor’s conundrum.  Paul recounts that Rip Torn thought it over for a moment, shrugged his shoulders, and said, “Fuck it up.”

Exactly.  He was saying let go of the safe, even perfect, to grasp for more.  Idiotic, but wise.

Best selling author Paul B. Brown wrote an article in Forbes last year titled “Want To Build A Successful Company?  Give Up Control.”  (Forbes Online, 9/8/13, 7:00 AM) Accepting that I am a fool helps me appropriately give up control every day.  Brown offers four simple but compelling reasons to not overly control your company.  To paraphrase Brown,

  1. Your business won’t grow bigger than you (the owner/CEO) can handle.
  2. With control you lose corporate flexibility.  Nothing moves fast when everything must be green-lighted by you.
  3. You don’t encourage the maximization of your employee’s gifts and passion when tightly riding herd on them.
  4. It is exhausting.

samuel_goldwynA cultivated idiocy is helpful in keeping down the inner Attila the Hun.  For me, awareness of my inner idiot keeps me free and loose and mindful.  It reminds me to always be open to the new and respect the non-rational.  It encourages a useful, practical business humility that is still serious, but doesn’t take itself seriously.  It allows one to be a fool and encourages others to be fools with you.  Indeed, to “Fuck it up,” as Rip Torn so eloquently suggests.  It’s a reminder that we are ultimately not in charge of life, but rather merely surfers and dust motes riding a cosmic maelstrom ultimately beyond our ken.  It makes business fun and silly and a thing of joy, not just a grim automaton for creating lucre and power and control.

As producer Samuel Goldwyn put it, “Give me a smart idiot over a stupid genius any day.”  Thanks, Sam.

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