It’s not easy to escape the luridly disgraceful Donald Sterling saga of the last week. It’s omnipresent. Sterling’s sentiments on race have brought about a veritable landslide of contumely and reproach.
That said, the mass phenomenon of condemnation and chest-thumping self-righteousness strikes me as more than a bit unseemly. Looked at objectively it is almost rhapsodically fraught with the same base emotionality as the Hitler Youth or a lynch mob. It offers an almost lemming-like escape for all of us from the quotidian challenges and worries of daily life, the ontological anxiety of summoning up the courage for facing the challenge of each aborning day, and the simple unspoken fears in each of us that we are not enough.
So, what does this have to do with the daily travails of us entrepreneurs who are busily analyzing our monthly P & Ls and worrying about making payroll? Well, speaking only for myself, it is a tempting distraction. This sort of mass emotional reaction to an event can be a pheromone-summoning mini-emotional vacation from the real existential journey that is the lot of every risk-taking business leader. It is a mass feel-good event—(“Thank God, I am not as Donald Sterling.”)— that can distract us from our own flawed efforts, our own venality, our own imperfection, our own sin.
I look on humility as one of the most salient of business skills. In this case, the humility of “There but for the grace of God…”. Criss Jami puts it this way, “Humility is honesty to one’s greatest flaws, the degree in which a man is fearless about truly appearing less righteous than another.” Humility is not a skill taught in business schools any more than courage is a skill that is taught in business schools. What the universal condemnation of Donald Sterling is is a nearly delirious ecstasy of schadenfreude that can lure us away from the difficult daily work of introspection and self-improvement that is part of the unrelenting task of all who strive for true entrepreneurial leadership. Embracing schadenfreude allows us to climb self-righteously onto our high horse and away from looking at our own shit.
Schadenfreude is defined in the Merriam-Webster Dictionary as joy in the troubles of others. Yeah. I think that’s a lot of what we might have here: an escapist descent from our own spiritual journey into a euphoric judgement of this crude, vulgar, and reprehensible man, Donald Sterling.
Lord Byron evokes the addictive escapism of schadenfreude when he says:
“The sight of blood to crowds begets the thirst of more,
As the first wine-cup leads to the long revel.”
Daily business life is teeming with danger and risk. It is a bloody scary process. A gleeful judgement of the public sins of another can offer a dangerous respite that can allow us to take our eye off the deepest fears of our own flawed imperfection, both as human beings and as entrepreneurs.
Early American preacher and theologian Jonathan Edwards put it this way: “The deceitfulness of the heart of man appears in no one thing so much as this of spiritual pride and self-righteousness. The subtlety of Satan appears in its height, in his managing persons with respect to this sin. And perhaps one reason may be that here he has most experience; he knows the way of its coming in; he is acquainted with the secret springs of it: it was his own sin.”
Thank you, Jonathan.