Editor's Note: This week's news about Wells Fargo and the first Presidential debate got me thinking and here I go again. Read on and enjoy. As always, you can find all my blog posts from 2013 to the present on my website at http://stevemarshallassociates.com/steves-blog/
Fear is a Subject I Know Something About
I have enjoyed walking on the edge of terror many times in my life. As for guts, I have been accused of being an adrenaline junkie many, many times. I wasn’t born this way; in fact; until 1972, I was a bookworm, eschewing most physical activities, mostly spending my time roaming the inner recesses of my mind.
But then, I changed. I couldn’t get enough of living on the edge, running from one high-risk adventure to another. Hang-gliding, rock-climbing, white water kayaking, parachuting, flying airplanes, motorcycle racing, high-speed downhill skiing, flying gliders in thunderstorms, racing mountain bikes downhill, driving like a maniac on back roads are just a few of the many adrenaline sports I have (and still do) entertain myself with at different times in my life.
The reason for this addiction is simple; I became hooked on adrenaline, flying helicopters during my time in SE Asia. This experience resulted in feeling like the only time I was alive is when I was close to dying. And, with all of the many high-risk activities that are readily available in America to the upper-middle-class person, it is easy to see how I became an adrenaline junkie.
I have also paid for this, too; regarding bodily harm and injuries, but never in any permanent way. My guardian angels have always steered me away from the final cliff with kindness, but they have left me with some lingering aches and pains – in essence – physical reminders that I am not 18 anymore.
As a result, I feel qualified to talk about and fear and guts. In short, I see more of the former than the latter in my day-to-day life. Why is that? I see fear as one of the “easy” emotions; those states that are easy to fall into like anger; built into our physiology as a means of protection. After all, we have all evolved over millions of years that have left all of us with some vestige of the primitive lizard brain that comes to the forefront when we are under duress.
Fear is a Great Motivator
Initially, anyway; an active force that propels us away from the object of fear, but doesn’t move us in a particular direction or toward something like a goal. Think about fire – if we are threatened by a hot burning object or situation, we are quick to move away from it. But, where to? Nowhere in particular, really, just away from the source of the heat.
Conversely, a psychological state like courage takes; well, “guts.” It is contrary to our evolution and means taking risks. It takes guts to have a goal and move toward it, especially if your job is to bring others along, too. It takes guts to disagree with a colleague, peer, subordinate, or a supervisor in the workplace. It takes guts to appear the fool in front of people potentially; it even takes guts to take a firm stance in something in which you believe.
To bring this out of the theoretical into today’s headlines, I would like to turn to the recent debacle at Wells Fargo. Because the Board and the top leadership wanted to see increased earnings in their stock holdings, they came up witha plan to do so at the expense of their customers (and employees). Banks can only make money two ways; by loaning money and by charging fees to use their services. By increasing the number of accounts that each customer had from three to seven to eight, they could effectively more than double their earnings (and stock value) if the customers took the offer to add additional accounts. Sounds good, right? Well, in the way I have explained it, yes, but, in reality, they became a bit greedy and started opening new accounts ($200 million worth) for customers without ever informing them! For the want of having a business conversation with a customer, and having them decide whether they wanted to take on more accounts, over 5,000 Wells Fargo employees were fired. How many of those that were terminated were managers and executives? One Area Vice-President and a couple of managers.
In Japan, when a company makes a major mistake that harms its customers or employees, the CEO resigns in shame. In America, not so much, because, as it turns out, where did that decision to not inform the customers come from? Like most decisions in corporate America, it came from the top of the corporate ladder, probably from the CEO, John Stumpf (left). Why did it happen? Quite simply - fear (think fire). The fear of disappointing shareholders and Wall Street with potentially lower earnings, coupled with very gross monetary incentives offered to the WF executives, meant that the executive ranks at Well Fargo joined in fear and ran away from what would have taken some amount of courage by owning the mistake rather than letting $11.00/hour employees take the fall. Hopefully, this isn't the end of this story and either heads will roll at the top of the WF pyramid and/or all of the money they earned while this was going on will be 'clawed' back by the company.
Think about 2008 and the great crash on Wall Street. In hindsight, it could have been avoided if the people at the top of the ladder at the U.S. Treasury Department, the Federal Reserve, and the big investment banking houses had set a goal to not only avoid the crash but to proactively work together on a solution to fix the problem permanently.
The list of “fear failures” goes on and on, and I firmly believe that fear, or lack of guts, are at the root of most of our ills in today’s world. On the other hand, since it is so rare, people with guts and willing to take actual risks stand out from the crowd. Think of Elon Musk, who is building the largest factory in the world in Nevada to build lithium-ion batteries for cars and homes, even when the market demand is nowhere near justifying his investment in this facility. By 2020, his plan is to build more batteries in this 13 million square foot plant annually than were produced worldwide in 2013. This move is so deeply rooted in his belief in the advent of global warming that he is willing to risk $5 billion to stave off the end of our planet. There are certainly others, too, but there are far fewer in the 'risk ranks' than those signed up for the 'fear squads.'
To close this epistle, I will leave you with the following piece, author unknown, written as a eulogy to the Challenger astronauts after their deaths in 1986.
To laugh is to risk appearing the fool,
To weep is to risk being called sentimental.
To reach out to another is to risk involvement.
To expose feelings is to risk showing your true self.
To place your ideas and dreams before the crowd is to risk being called naïve.
To live is to risk dying,
To hope is to risk despair,
To try is to risk failure.
But risks must be taken, because the greatest risk in life is to risk nothing.
The people who risk nothing, do nothing, are nothing, and become nothing.
They may avoid suffering and sorrow, but they simply cannot learn to feel, and change, and grow, and love, or live.
Chained by their servitude, they are slaves; they’ve forfeited their freedom.
Only the people who risk are truly free.
Next Week: Still More S#*t That I Think About.