When Greed Leads

In the infamous movie “Wall Street” with Michael Douglas playing the shoe-shined, spit-polished, and dressed to the nines villain, Gordon Gekko, he uttered the phrase “greed is good.” As he found out, for greed to be considered in the same ball park as good, it needs a lot of caveats. We all want more, so each of us has a greed gene inside of us, but unadulterated greed, is not good.

In the US, many of our problems can be traced to greed. We pay CEOs in the US twenty to thirty times higher than CEOs are paid in other countries, when we look at the ratio of CEO pay to pay of the average worker. While the UK and Canada and other places are more like 15 to 1, the US ratio is more like 350 to 1. Having worked with a lot of CEOs in my day, I do not believe US CEOs are worth that differential. To perpetuate this wealth and income levels, in our country we use reasonably legal, but somewhat unethical means to gain political favor. It is not a surprise with the high cost of running for office, that so many legislators retire from service with much more wealth than they started with. That wealth did not come from a legislator’s salary. In other words, our greed perpetuation is much more legitimized.

Yet, in other countries, greed has led to rampant corruption and bribery. The evicted President of the Ukraine, Viktor Yanukovych, is the most recent example of living high on the hog at the expense of a country in need. Apparently, he built himself an estate with the all the finishings, personal golf course, included. While Ukrainian people experienced severe economic difficulty, he was well above the fray. However, any leader willing to shoot  on his own citizens with sniper fire, speaks volumes about his character, but that deserves its own post. Russia is now giving him asylum as their leaders value corruption as a skill.

What I have witnessed in my years as a business person, is the more totalitarian the leadership, the more corruption exists. Hosni Mubarak, when he was ousted as the Egyptian leader was worth US$ 81 Billion. So, while Egyptians were getting by on US$ 2 per day, Mubarak was not so economically challenged. It is like a current day “Animal Farm” where George Orwell described the pigs living quite nicely inside the house, while the other animals toiled away for nothing.

But, greed is not restricted to country leadership, as there are numerous examples in industry whether it be for profit or non-profit. On the latter, we have witnessed many seemingly altruistic, even religious people get caught up in greed. My favorite quote is from Reverend Jim Bakker of the Praise The Lord club who solicited millions from unsuspecting donors and lived in a house with solid gold faucets. Bakker was quoted as saying “The Lord wanted me to have nice things.” Bakker went to jail for his false advertising to people and poor stewardship with their money. Unfortunately, he has company from other religious leaders with convictions of tax evasion, bilking funders, poor stewardship, etc.

Yet, the true greed gets back to the CEO suite of for profit companies. We are only beginning to touch the issue of better governance of CEO and CEO direct reports’ pay. The issue of relativity of CEO pay to the average worker is telling. I have worked with organizations that are very egalitarian and leaders make an appropriate level of income. However, I have also worked with, consulted with and known many CEOs who are simply greedy sons of bitches. As an example, one CEO was not only paid very well, he never paid for anything that he could get the company to pay for. The company paid for his daughter’s wedding because he invited clients. And, one of his classic lines when he was being apprised of a potential benefit program for employees was to hold up his hand to stop the talker and ask “what’s in it for me?”

So, it comes down to we the people have to be as vigilant as possible. We have to question leaders whether they are in industry, philanthropy, religious organization or government. We need to challenge them to be the best of stewards with our money and resources. And, we need a healthy dose of skepticism. We need to dig underneath why someone is recommending something. Do they have a vested interest in the decision? It never hurts to ask. As the answer may be one that needs to be heard by many.

A greeting or smile can make a difference

I am the friendly old guy that tells people he meets along the avenues “good morning,” offers a nod or smiles. A good friend of mine from upstate New York said one of the hardest things she had to get used to when she moved to the south were strangers talking to you in the grocery store line. She said if you did that where I am from, people would think you are crazy. So, please forgive my intrusions, I am not crazy, just proud of my southern eccentricities. I am trying to acknowledge that we are human and need to be greeted. I am just a big, tall guy (hence the moniker, BTG) who does not mistake kindness for weakness.

I was reading a blog which is devoted to capturing acts of kindness. In this stressed out, less civil  world in which we live, acts of kindness are needed more than ever. A recent entry was meaningful as the author made a difference to an older man, walking along in pain, merely with a smile. Here is a link to this encounter.

http://kindnessblog.com/2014/02/24/a-simple-smile-lit-him-up/

Since I am an Old Fart, I have been greeting people like this for all of my adult life. Based on my anecdotal experience of tens of thousands of greetings, the lion share of people will respond in kind. I do get the silent treatment on occasion, but I make up for it by offering their missing part of the unstated conversation in my head – “Thanks for asking, I am doing great. Have a nice day.” Since I do a lot of hiking and walking on trails, I fully understand the need for a lone female jogger not to engage in too much conversation with a lone male on a trail. I get that. But, many will smile or nod their heads. As a needed sidebar comment, I would also encourage female joggers to not jog alone, unless it is a well-frequented trail. I worry when I see a lone jogger on a woodsy trail.

Yet, I also realize that some people need a “hello” more than others. There was segment on CBS Good Morning last week about how that “hello” can make a difference. So many people are depressed or lonely, that a greeting can boost their spirits. I would add that in working with homeless people, many feel less valued and appreciate even the smallest of gestures. Treating people as human beings is important. There is a story of a pedestrian who spoke to a homeless person on the street and he started crying. He said, “you are the first person to speak to me in a long while.”

I was walking on a college campus the other day and there were some people using the college facilities for a community meeting, but by their actions gave me the impression they did not feel they belonged there. They looked down when I passed. So, when I spoke to say good afternoon, it startled them. This made me sad, as it should not be this way. I must confess, it made me think less of this college for my daughter, as it gave me the impression that these guests were made to the feel this way. Fortunately, she deselected the college for other reasons.

So, if you are less inclined to do this, do yourself a favor and try greeting people for a day and see what happens. See if it makes you look at others differently. Remember the responses and how they made you feel. Look for conversation pieces. T-shirts, ball caps, brightly colored shoes, funny handbags are all fair game and people usually enjoy being noticed. Plus, you just might be greeting someone who truly needs it. Good day.

Restorative Justice – a concept which makes a difference

Earlier this week, my wife and I were enthralled by a PBS Newshour report on a concept being deployed in a Colorado high school called “Restorative Justice.”  In essence, rather than suspend offenders from school, which does not resolve much of anything, the school counselors invite the offenders into a circle with their parents to discuss the conflict and various points of view. They pass around a “talking stick” which means only the person with the stick may share his or her points of view. The idea is the offenders hear the other person’s point of view, recognize how differences occur and begin a restorative process rather letting animosities fester.

The concept is straightforward, practical and replicable in many settings where conflict resolution is needed. The number of suspensions and fights have declined significantly in the Colorado high school comparing the numbers to previous year trends. Yet, the school is taking it a step further to teach the kids how to resolve conflict in a restorative circle. In other words, they are letting the kids resolve some conflicts and issues, as well as brainstorm ideas, etc. which are terrific skills to cultivate.

The news video can be accessed with the following link:

http://www.pbs.org/newshour/bb/new-approach-discipline-school/

A more detailed summary of the Restorative Justice concept can also be gleaned from the attached link to an Oakland high school, which includes some metrics and data around the demographic groups affected most by suspensions and how this approach has kept kids in school.

http://www.ousd.k12.ca.us/restorativejustice

We came away very impressed by these efforts and hope you will as well. I would love to hear your feedback and thoughts. Restorative Justice has a nice ring to it.

Random Musings on a Rainy Friday

“Let it Rain” sang Eric Clapton, as that is precisely what it is doing. At least it is not snow and ice, as we have had more than enough of the solid precipitation. A few random musings on this rainy Friday are in order.

Obama nominates some questionable ambassadors. This disappointed me as he was supposed to be above recommending ambassador posts to some big donors. For someone who tends to get shortchanged on the good things he has done balanced by some of the bad things that have happened, you would think the President would not do something so foolish as to appoint some ambassadors who were not qualified and could not answer some basic questions. The fact that others have done this before is no excuse. In tennis, this would be called an “unforced error.”

Bill Nye has two debates with people with some interesting views. Bill Nye the Science Guy had not just one, but two debates the past ten days. First, he debated with Ken Ham about Creationism and the age of the world. Second, he debated Republican Congresswoman Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee, who is Vice Chairperson of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, about climate change. Tennessee is home to the new Creationism museum which has among other things dinosaurs walking with people in exhibits. I am sorry but the Creationist debate was put to bed about 100 years ago and for people to believe the world is only 6,000 years old flies in the face of a mountain of data. I am not saying someone cannot believe in God, but the authors of the bible who were men, had lesser understanding of science than is known today.

As for Rep. Blackburn, she holds to the conviction that climate change is unproven science and said Nye was just an actor and engineer. It is time for the GOP to join the rest of the world and stop listening to their funders in the fossil fuel industry. Why am I picking on them? The industry hired a Public Relations firm around the time of Al Gore’s “An Inconvenient Truth” whose sole purpose was to convince people global warming was a hoax. They did a good job, as the goal was to create enough doubt to continue fossil fuel retrieval at an even faster pace. If this was a sporting event, it would be a route 96 to 4. 96% of scientists, including the actor, believe climate change is real and man-influenced. The data is overwhelming.

But, let me put these two issues together for simplicity. If the GOP cannot recognize that climate change is real and is harming our planet right now or continue to let people in their party equivocate Creationism with science even passing laws to teach it as such, then they cannot be trusted with any problems of the day. I left the GOP for its stance on climate change in 2006 and that was eight years ago. Stop being the dinosaurs who show up with people in your Creationism museum.

Ukraine. You cannot kill your own people. If you do then you are a tyrant. A peace accord was reached today. Let’s hope the parties honor this and get to a better place. The Ukraine leadership has to decide which direction they want to go, forward toward freer markets and governance or backward toward more iron fisted rule, as that is what Putin wants them to do. Putin says he has no dog in this fight, but you cannot stir things up like he did, and then step back and say you had no role. The people seem to want the former and are willing to die for it.

Iran. The discussion between Iran and other countries to limit their nuclear development to electrical power uses show promising signs. I know these conversations are unsettling to some, but making progress through conversations about mutual needs, is far better than the alternative. I know there is an element of “trust but verify” needed in the discussions, but I see this as promising.

Syria. I was hopeful these conversations would have more success. The fact that there have been two sets of meetings following the chemical arms disarmament is good. Yet, for this decimated country to survive, two things need to happen, one of which is quite difficult, while the other is needed but harms an ego. The extremists in the rebel ranks need to be dealt with. They are capitalizing on the rebellion and have made it much worse. That is the hard part. The easier part is Assad must go. His ego is getting in the way. This country cannot continue with any trust in leadership with this individual in charge. It is that simple.

North Korea. Moving from one dictator to another, the United Nations has completed a report which says the North Korean regime has committed crimes against humanity. The conclusion is not a surprise, except the fact that is now in a formal public document. On the good side, a reunion of some separated families between South Korea and North Korea was allowed to happen, but only for a brief meeting. It is sad that there is not freer travel, but the first sentence above tells us why. If people were allowed to leave, they would likely not come back. It should be noted these meetings were on North Korean soil.

US Businesses are clamoring for immigration reform. This morning I read a piece that said businesses are pleading for immigration reform, as the states are doing Congress’ job in their absence of action. As a result, multi-state employers are having to deal with the various changes in immigration laws on a state by state business. The innovators have been crying for change as well as it is harder for them to recruit and keep talented immigrants and foreigners. The key problem is innovation is portable, so manufacturing will develop wherever the innovators land. Congress needs to decide if wants to govern or run for office. Unfortunately, their actions are toward the latter.

I hope everyone has a great weekend. Thanks for reading my random musings. I look forward to your thoughts and opinions.

When misstatements go uncorrected

I was reading an editorial by a conservative writer this weekend who was focusing on Senator Michele Bachmann, who will be leaving the senate at the end of this year. During the editorial, Bachmann referenced Hillary Clinton as the “godmother of Obamacare.” While this may be a nice sound byte, it is not true and was not only left uncorrected, it was a key theme of the piece.

We deserve to hear the truth and while Bachmann may not like Hillary Clinton or Obamacare, the truth is Clinton is not the “godmother of Obamacare.” In fact, Obamacare traces some of its roots to an idea of the conservative thinking Heritage Foundation put forth by GOP Senator Bob Dole when he ran for president as an alternative to the Clinton proposal. It is also true that Senator Jim DeMint of Tea Party fame advocated for Romneycare, which borrowed from the Dole plan, until Obamacare patterned itself after it and Romney ran for president.

What frustrates me is when politicians try to rewrite history to mask their own hypocrisy and current agenda. It frustrates me more, when people let them off the hook when they do this. To be frank, this writer should have known better, but it is a good example of when editorialists have become “homers” for a way of thinking. This kind of writing disappoints no matter where it comes from. It is so very hard to know the underlying facts of an issue, when people who should know better, let misstatements go without being corrected. Or, this writer could be accused of being Machiavellian. I would  call it sophisticated name-calling, to paint something with a brush with intent to deceive.

I wrote a post a few months ago calling politicians on the carpet for calling something you don’t like as Nazism or Apartheid. The politicians should be vilified for doing this, as we are talking about a serious set of atrocities. To equate something with those atrocities against mankind, you better be talking about a serious offense. Reporters of any persuasion should call these folks on the carpet, as they are purposefully trying to deceive. We need to let politicians know that this is improper and that if they cannot come up with a better argument against something you disagree with than to call it Nazism, then maybe you do not deserve our trust as a leader.

Our problems are complex, so solutions need to factor in a multitude of issues. I realize that requires more of the reader (and writer), but we must do so, or the writer is doing a disservice to the public. Some solutions to problems even make good sound bytes, but unless you know the holistic issues or look at the real problem, rather than the problem as presented by an industry lobbyist, the solution will not address the problem or actually may make it worse. Whether the issue is gun deaths, climate change, eco-energy, education, poverty, etc., we need reporters and editorialists to focus on the issues and when politicians say things that are untrue, let people know they are.

I have noted this example before, but Senator John Kyl was caught in an incorrect use of facts and his response was priceless. “Don’t let my statements be confused with being factual.” I may not have quoted this exactly, but in essence he said do not trust me as I am a liar. This should have gotten more coverage than it did. The fact he was caught in a deception is outstanding in and of itself, but the fact he was not cornered on his excuse is amazing. Talk about an opportunity lost as an example for others. A reporter should have countered with a follow-up question that would ask him how should his constituents react to this statement.

I read editorials from many sources. It is one thing to have a bent one way or the other, but please do not misrepresent and don’t let people get away with comments that are incorrect. I realized they get thousands of emails, but I write editorialists on occasion with a job well done, but also to question why something was said a certain way. This is also why my favorite writers are the ones who tend to be more evenhanded. They see extremism for what it is and try to speak to the issues more. And, that is what we need to focus on, the issues and not the win-lose game of politics.

Technology can short change some wonderful experiences

Our civilization has made some incredible advances technology-wise and there are many more yet to come. The power of an iPhone actually exceeds the firepower capacity of the computer on board the Voyager satellite launched so many years ago. Yet, we miss out on some wonderful things by being so connected. Walk with me down the garden path on this one.

I was thinking of a young seventh grade boy I used to be and the excitement of writing notes to young girls in class hoping that said girls would return the favor. We folded them so carefully and gave them our own sense of style. I had this heavy-duty crush on an 8th grade girl named Ginger and no, she was not the one on Gilligan’s Island, embodied in Tina Louise. While she had a 9th grade boyfriend, she was flattered by my crush and wrote notes to me and permitted me to do the same. She even had some of her friends write me as well. This was pretty heady stuff and very exciting for this young boy. Today, that would all be done by text and you would risk being ostracized if texts were routed to the wrong sort.

Also, the nervousness of asking girls out or just calling them for the first time. I remember many times rehearsing my words, hanging up several times before dialing and eventually having the words come out not as planned. I wanted to grab the words as they left my mouth, but it was too late. But, even beforehand, the discovery of whether someone liked you was interesting. I recall my friend Linda would be an ambassador for me and others as she helped discover if a feeling was somewhat mutual between a girl and me. I personally cannot imagine doing this via technology as I wanted this discovery process to be somewhat discreet. Again, I would hate to see my queries broadcast to the world. You would need an even thicker skin today, than when I was full of acne and flying hormones.

I think one of things I relished in was hanging out with best friends or playing some sort of ball, depending on the season – football, basketball, baseball, etc. We are friends to this day and when we last got together, the waitress could not believe we were still talking after three hours. Now, the central theme is hanging out and watching or playing against each other in an electronic game. Mind you, I love that my kids hang out up stairs with their friends and love to hear their laughter, the greatest sound any parent can hear. Yet, I feel conversation, ragging on each other, talking about dreams, sports teams, girls, etc. may get shortchanged in today’s time. It is different to me, which is why I likely don’t see all that is happening. However, the fact there is a gathering and fun is being had, is all that matters.

But, as we walk down the garden path, the biggest drawback is the incessant need to be connected to the electronic world. I have noted before that a communication consultant once told me we are too connected. This causes more stress than it alleviates. There are times I don’t want to hear music or see who emailed, texted or called. I would rather walk down the garden path and listen to the birds sing and squirrels rustle the leaves or smell the flowers and fauna. I want to catch the shadows and sunlight dancing through the trees giving an aura to the proceedings. I want to stop in my tracks by some combination of sights in the woods – an arching path into the deeper shadows with sunlight peaking through above.

Even when you are not in a garden and are walking the avenues, hearing sounds and seeing the sights is invigorating. And, one thing I noticed with technology playing a greater role, is you do not hear people whistling very much anymore. This may not be a surprise, but on occasion I will hum or whistle a tune while I am walking. The stimulus for the song can come from anywhere. But, I don’t hear many others so doing. I think that is a loss. I remember in the building where I first worked, a white-haired gentleman who was unmatched as a whistler. He loved doing it and others appreciated his passion and talent.

Perhaps, I am being overly nostalgic. Maybe I am wishing for spring after all of the snow we have had. For my Australian and other southern hemisphere friends, maybe you are craving a nice autumn day about now. I would love to hear some of your thoughts. What do you recall that brings you joy, that may not be as possible with today’s connectivity. I would love to hear from you.

The Frackers – the Outrageous Inside Story of the New Billionaire Wildcatters

I recently completed a very interesting book written by Gregory Zuckerman, a Wall Street Journal reporter called “The Frackers – the Outrageous Inside Story of the New Billionaire Wildcatters,” published by Portfolio/ Penguin Press in 2013. Zuckerman is also author of “The Greatest Trade Ever.” I highly recommend this book as it is as entertaining as it is informative, in multiple ways. It gives you a clearer picture of the risks and rewards of fracking, but also shows how hard it is to both glean the fossil fuel you are seeking and to be so highly leveraged in debt as you do.

The successful fracking companies, usually bucked the odds and the more measured risk takers in the larger companies who had much more capital to withstand some of the risk. As a result, even the ones who had success, usually failed before, after and sometimes during their success, due to the need to be land rich which came at a highly collaterized cost of debt. When some went public, they also had to contend with impatient shareholders. These wildcat developers made and lost huge sums of money, oftentimes with their egos getting in the way of knowing when to stop.

Zuckerman does an excellent job of telling the story of people like George Mitchell, who has been called the “father of shale fracking,” Aubrey McClendon, Tom Ward, Harold Hamm, Charif Souki, Robert Hauptfurher and Mark Papa, among countless others who were key to the success of gleaning natural gas and oil from places that were perceived too difficult to crack. He also defines why methods and strategies are so secretive, as companies will follow suit to leverage off your success. These men and their companies, Mitchell Energy, Oryx Energy, Chesapeake Energy, Continental Resources, Chenier Energy and EOG Resources, were truly the path finders in this process called fracking. They led the US to become more energy independent, yet in so doing, understated or overlooked the risks that came with those rewards.

As I read this entertaining book, I found myself convinced of a preconceived notion, that the main mission of these guys was to make a lot of money, as well as proving others wrong. Some even took delight that their hypothesis was true, even if they had not benefitted as greatly as the company that bought out their rights. Yet, what I also found this lust for money also was an Achilles Heel, and there seemed to be less consideration of what fracking was doing to the environment. They were more content to let the problems be handled by someone else and often belittled the complaints and complainers.

Zuckerman addresses these concerns from the frackers viewpoint earlier in the book, yet does devote an Afterword to the environmental risks that are real. But, before doing so, he notes that George Mitchell, late in life continued to buck convention. Per Zuckerman, Mitchell “gave millions to research clean energy even as he, along with his son and Joe Greenberg, invested in a new shale formation in Canada.” But the quote that interests me most, is by Mitchell who responds to those who contend how safe fracking is:

“Fracking can be handled if they watch and patrol the wildcat guys. They don’t give a damn about anything; the industry has to band together to stop isolated incidents.”

This dovetails nicely with a well-worn phrase I gleaned early on. Even if fracking were safe, it is only as safe as its worst operator. Mitchell, the father of fracking is more than acknowledging the bad operators. His son Todd, who was also in business with his father, said “his father’s work will have had a negative impact on the world if it forestalls progress on renewable energy, instead of giving innovators time to improve wind, solar and other cleaner energy sources.”

Let me close with an even-handed quote from Zuckerman, which frames the issue, yet also notes a caution. He answers the question “Is fracking as bad as activists say, and what will its impact be as drillers continue to pursue energy from shale and other rock formations?” His conclusion is as follows:

“The short answer: Fracking has created less harm than the most vociferous critics claim, but more damage than the energy industry contends. And, it may be years before the full consequences of the drilling and fracking are clear.”

With my reading I would agree with both of these sentences, yet not place the fulcrum in the middle of the scale. I would be more on the side of vociferous critics as the evidence continues to mount and as non-industry scientists are revealing issues. The massive water usage, the seepage of the poisonous slickwater fracking fluid into the environment, the particles that are blasted into the atmosphere which are causing breathing difficulty, and the degradation to the surrounding environment just to get vehicles and equipment into frack are compelling arguments by themselves.

But, the great caution in his last sentence is where we need to focus. “And, it may be years before the full consequences of the drilling and fracking are clear.” This is the bane of any environmental group fighting for people and the environment. Oftentimes, it takes years for the true damage to be seen and felt. Some show up in shorter order, yet when the companies making the money do not want to stop a mission, they can afford to fight people who cannot clearly make a connection. The developers want to settle with each complaint at minimal outlay and move on. Unfortunately, the people exposed to the problem, remain in harm’s way.