Non credo

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA A business lesson—and especially a life lesson—that I picked up from my rock & roll days is to maintain some skepticism towards leadership and authority. Especially when that authority appears to be unquestioned.

Bob Dylan said not to follow leaders. John Lennon said not to follow Dylan. Green Day’s Billie Joe Armstrong said we’re not meant to follow anybody and that we should even “revolt against the honor to obey.” Strong stuff. It’s too bad this sentiment has been endlessly trivialized on bumper stickers and lapel pins, because deference to hierarchy, obeisance to authority, uncritical acceptance of orthodoxy (economic, scientific, religious, etc.), and lack of critical thinking in general are among the most dangerous habits on ample display these days.

The business world is hardly exempt from this. If you work for a company you may be led to believe in the infallibility of your company’s leaders—or in the unexamined goodness of your company’s business model, practices, culture, etc. (If you’re self-employed, you can substitute industry or field for company.) If you worked for a large investment bank in the middle of the last decade you probably believed in the bounteous benefits of financial “innovations” like unregulated credit default swaps, collateralized debt obligations, and other derivatives.

Imagine the economic misery the world would have been spared since 2008 if even a handful of business leaders had challenged the accepted wisdom of Wall Street and had spoken out—loudly—against the reckless practices that were continually defended by financial authorities and experts.

Of course it’s difficult to maintain objectivity when you’re surrounded by people in your community who share the same assumptions—which hardens into orthodoxy. Not just in financial services. When I consulted in the energy industry everyone seemed to assume that all environmentalists were ill-informed wackaloons, whose warnings could be ignored (including those concerning oil spills). And all environmentalists seemed to assume that all energy companies were run by avaricious, rapacious cartoon characters, who should never be trusted.

The lesson? Question assumptions. And take everything with a grain of sea salt. Including this blog.

Sometimes bumper stickers give good advice.

(To be continued in the month—and years—ahead.)

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  1. Your reference must be to John Lennon's song "God" when he went on a long rant about famous people, including Dylan, whom he didn't believe in. But he was at his best when he went after religious icons, especially when he smelled hypocrisy.

    1. Yes. "I don't believe in Zimmerman" (Bob's name by birth) were Lennon's exact words in that song. He was at his best and worst when he attacked religious or spiritual figures, like the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi (in "God" and "Sexy Sadie"). I have mixed feelings on that one.

      But I loved Lennon's tendency to call out abuse of power, hypocrisy of leaders, etc.

  2. I think the problems of 2008 weren't so much due to politicians failing to challenge the accepted wisdom of Wall Street as lacking the courage to challenge the power of Wall Street (or the London Stock Exchange, the Dax etc etc). Politicians wanted the tax revenues the financial services companies generated and were scared they'd domicile themselves elsewhere if they started asking too many questions or imposing a "regulatory burden." (Wall Street for, "Leave us alone, punk.") So they took the line of least resitance, rode the wave while it lasted and now make vague, general mumblings about "bankers" when they want someone to blame.

    Meantime, Joe Public continues to pay.

    1. Now that I think about it, it's the BUSINESS leaders who should have challenged the accepted wisdom. I think it was too much to expect of the political leaders, in the US anyway. (I just changed it in my post.)

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