Golden Handcuffs

I pick up the Sunday paper from my doorstep. A circular for Office Max falls out. On the front is a picture of a black man holding a cell phone in one hand, newspaper stock tables in the other, his mouth agape in a toothy smile. He‘s wearing a white shirt and a patterned maroon cravat -- part kente cloth, part power tie, part noose. ”My business IS my life,“ his thought balloon says. The slogan: ”In a world of doing more and getting less . . .“ I imagine his prayers. Our Chairman, who art home by 7, hallowed be thy name. Thy profits come, thy will be done, on Earth as it is in Heaven. Give us this day our daily pay, and forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us, and lead us not into unemployment, but deliver us from recession. Amen.

It’s been said that capitalism is the true American religion. As theocracies view God in all things, we look for shareholder value. Witness the holy trinities (CEO, CFO, COO), the elaborate rituals (corporate accounting, stock options), the mysterious ways (poison pills, white knights, golden parachutes and handcuffs). Witness President George W. Bush, a Harvard Business School graduate, running the national family business. Witness how our most charged protests are directed against murky financial gatherings recast as cabals (the World Economic Forum, the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund). Witness how our front-page scandals -- Enron, Global Crossing -- are blamed on the betrayals of top executives. Vice presidents play the part of fallen apostles: Jeffrey Skillings, or maybe Dick Cheney, as Judas. In today‘s recessionary climate, we are facing a crisis of faith.

The value of recent autobiographies by sexagenarians Jack Welch and Quincy Jones lies in the insights they provide into the kind of men at the very top of the ”pile,“ one of Welch’s many buzzwords. Some life. Jack is primarily an account of Welch‘s time as General Electric’s CEO, from 1981 to 2001. He views his regime through the lens of his high-concept initiatives: Six Sigma quality, boundaryless behavior, digitization, globalization and the vitality curve (employees in the top 20 are rewarded, the vital 70 keep their jobs, and the bottom 10 are replaced). His ideas worked. Under Welch, GE‘s market capitalization rose by $450 billion, in large part due to GE Capital, the ”growth engine.“ Recently it’s been pointed out that GE Capital was Enronesque, but why worry? In 2000, the unit was responsible for 41 percent of the company‘s income.

Jones’ career began at the other end of the professional spectrum, in music. Like sports, it was one of the fields most open to African-American contributions; Jones is unusual in that he figured out how to get paid. Half of his book, Q, is devoted to ”witness“ chapters written by friends, family and fellow musicians, and it makes sense, because his career is a lesson in the importance of ”relationships.“ ”If Quincy were writing Dante‘s Inferno, he’d have Satan‘s telephone number,“ writes arranger and conductor Bobby Tucker.

Jones parlayed the cool earned by early gigs as an arranger for singers such as Frank Sinatra, Sarah Vaughan and Ray Charles into friendships with people such as Steve Ross, the mastermind behind the Time-Warner merger, who became his mentor. He built these associations into an entertainment empire, producing Oscar-winning films (The Color Purple), popular TV shows (Fresh Prince of Bel Air), and the top-selling album and single of all time (Michael Jackson’s Thriller and ”We Are the World,“ respectively).

There are some obvious cultural differences between Welch and Jones. While Welch plays up his rebelliousness, his success is well within the confines of white, corporate America. ”We didn‘t like the culture in the record business,“ he writes, explaining why he rapidly jettisoned RCA Records after acquiring it in GE’s 1985 purchase of NBC. He‘s not talking about culture as you or I might think of it -- he didn’t dislike Elvis Presley or Perry Como. He‘s dismissing RCA’s corporate culture as inferior to that of GE.

Yes, Jones has had more fun. In a chapter titled ”My Life as a Dog,“ he tells the story of waking up naked in a friend‘s apartment with two other men and five Playboy bunnies. At the conclusion of the chapter, after listing the rest of his conquests, he presents us with a moral, and the hope that his diversions have granted him the self-knowledge that Welch apparently lacks: ”After all, a man must embrace the feminine side of himself, especially if he is an artist. You can’t let your machoness mess up your good ‘thang.’“

The strangest thing about reading these two books side by side, though, is not how divergent these men‘s lives are, but how similar. Both hew to the primary creation myth of American business, the prototypical Horatio Alger story: Through self-reliance and hard, honest work, even men from humble beginnings can move onward and upward. (If you’re skeptical of attaching the weight of religion to business, please note that Alger was a Unitarian minister, as was his father before him.)


Born to second-generation Irish-immigrant parents in Salem, Massachusetts, Welch gives much of the credit for his success to his mother, a supportive housewife who taught him ”the fun and joy of competition“ over rounds of gin rummy. His father, a railroad conductor on the Boston & Maine line, studied the commuters on his route and passed along his observations:

My father not only got me started on knowing what was going on outside of Salem, he also taught me, through example, the value of hard work. And he did something else that would last a lifetime -- he introduced me to golf. My father told me that the big shots on his train were always talking about their golf games.

The second half of that lesson provided Welch his Holy Grail. Golf is obviously the central pleasure of his life. He devotes a chapter to ”A Short Reflection on Golf,“ but spends less than a page -- two paragraphs, actually -- on his divorce from his first wife. ”Unfortunately, while I was doing the biggest deal of my professional career, the biggest merger of my personal life was ending,“ he writes. A page later, he sums up the advantages of his second marriage, to one Jane Beasley:

I had been trying to win club championships for years and had never gotten anywhere. We got better together. Even though she had never played golf before meeting me, Jane won the club championship at Sankaty Head in Nantucket four years in a row -- and I won it twice. She‘s become the perfect partner.

One assumes golfing and otherwise, but who can tell? (Welch may have messed up his good thang. He’s been in the news this month after revelations of an affair with Suzy Wetlaufer, editor in chief of the Harvard Business Review; evidently, a media merger was part of his post-GE strategy. Jane has filed for divorce.)

Welch claims that the sport of golf is a window into one‘s inner nature. ”I got a very early look at how attractive or how big a jackass someone can be by watching their behavior on the golf course,“ he writes. But his most important insight into the game emerges in the ”Reflections“ chapter: ”Golf is where you constantly seek the illusion of perfection.“ The game becomes a metaphor for avoiding the self, for pretending that character can be summed up by ”behavior,“ and social life by the teams one plays on.

While Welch’s family was merely working-class, Jones‘ endured deeper hardships. Mother Sarah was a schizophrenic institutionalized while Jones was a baby. At one point he visits her in the mental hospital, and she defecates into her palm, then eats her feces. Jones’ father teaches Quincy the value of self-reliance.

He provided a roof, a warm place to eat, and food; the rest was up to you. Besides, for as long as I knew him, he seemed to be in water over his head. Our house constantly teetered on the edge of emotional collapse, with one crisis after another. He had all these kids, everything always seemed to be falling apart in our house, no one seemed to know what was going on, everyone was bent on his own survival, yet he smiled and shrugged and went to work every day as if nothing was wrong.

To really understand Welch and Jones, you need to focus on their fathers‘ teachings. Every day Jones’ father put in an impossibly hard day of work ”as if nothing was wrong“; Welch‘s dad idealized the men who played golf, ”the illusion of perfection.“ Businessmen are often described as pragmatic, but Jones and Welch come across as dogged optimists who hold financial success as their romantic ideal.

Can we learn something of our nation’s economic well-being through their examples? On the plus side, there is the impression that these two are essentially good men. They appear to be forthright, fair and generous, though this might simply be what they‘re presenting for public consumption. Hence the minus side: They apparently lack the serenity that introspection and openness bring to a life. They spend little time considering the contents of their hearts and their heads, and their health suffers accordingly. Welch had a quintuple bypass in 1995; Jones, an aneurysm (”the equivalent of 16 strokes“) in 1974 and a mental breakdown in 1986.


The real moral of this story: If business be our only religion, then God help us.


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