This column comes with a health warning. Those people who are allergic to or intolerant of “vented spleen” are advised to either turn to another article in this great issue of the Integral Leadership Review, or to ensure that they are wearing the appropriate protective clothing.
I have to admit that as I sit writing today, I am angry. Actually that’s an understatement, I am furious, and I think that you should be too. For the past 18 months or so, I have been watching the unfolding economic meltdown with some considerable degree of equanimity. Just 12 short months ago I wrote in these hallowed pages my thoughts on what was then being called the credit crisis, and said that the actions taken by all the leaders would be critical if we were not to see a massive unwinding of the major systems that support life as we know it today.
I had been working on my column for the past two weeks looking to explore some aspects of this crisis and in respect of the role of tolerances in any major operational system, and the need for focused leadership as one approaches those tolerances. And very interesting a column it was going to be—and I propose returning to it at some time in the near future. But this morning, as I read the report in the New York Times covering a congressional hearing of Alan Greenspan to discuss his role in the current economic crisis, I couldn’t help but feel a surging wave of anger bordering on apoplexy.
True, there are some signs that the former leader not only of the United States Monetary System but also in many aspects that of the world, is showing some contrition. Personally, I wouldn’t go as far as the New York Times and say that he was “humbled” as he would only accept a limited degree of responsibility in the drama that is playing out across all continents at the present time.
In his heyday, Greenspan knew that he could turn markets with the use of a word or a phrase. An off-the-cuff remark had the ability to make or lose fortunes as analysts attempted to understand the implications of what he was saying. As a consequence, I have no doubt that the “maestro”, as Bob Woodward dubbed him, is very careful in the words that he uses, and even at the prime age of 82 will not have said anything at yesterday’s hearing that was not very carefully considered.
So when he makes a statement along the lines, “Those of us who have looked to the self-interest of lending institutions to protect shareholders’ equity, myself included, are in a state of shocked disbelief,” what are we as mere mortals supposed to make of it? Is this what we expect of our leaders? That on reflection they discover that the beliefs upon which they made decisions that affected billions of people across the globe were flawed? All he needs to do is to express “his shocked disbelief” and everything will be okay?
He continued in his testimony, “Yes, I’ve found a flaw. I don’t know how significant or permanent it is. But I’ve been very distressed by that fact.” Yet history will show that many leading economists pointed out this flaw, among many others, to him several times during his tenure. However, like most leaders who assume absolute control he truly strode the world stage fixated in his self-belief, and ignored those who were questioning him.
As I pointed out this time last year, it doesn’t take much probing into Alan Greenspan’s psyche to realize that for most of his life he had been fighting the intellectual battle of the Cold War. The fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of Communism in his mind vindicated his belief that market economies were always going to be superior to planned economies. As a consequence, anything that even hinted at having an aspect of a planned economy he fought tooth and nail to stop happening.
Deregulation and the avoidance of application of regulations to creative areas of the economy were his Holy Grail. Such were his powers of persuasion and intellect that he effectively “bulldozered” the opposition into total submission. New and highly technical financial products were let loose on an unsuspecting marketplace that freed up money which then flowed to the hotspot of the day, initially the technology sector and the dot-com boom, and then latterly into the housing market. But the blind faith that drove the Greenspan creed, “that regulation was bad and that the markets would create their own controls” led to the situation we find ourselves in today.
Thank heavens Greenspan was not around at the beginning of the 20th century when the leaders of the day determined that there was merit in having a degree of regulation with respect to the side of the road on which we drove our cars. If the former chairman of the Federal Reserve was involved in those discussions then one can imagine him standing on his high horse proclaiming that the market (in this case cars on the road) would work it all out for themselves.
Any system that has merit and delivers value to significant parts of population has to have a degree of regulation built into it. From an Integral Leadership perspective the challenge is to have the right balance of regulation built into the system. If we take, for example, the roads that we use day in and day out and look at the consequences of regulation, it becomes eminently clear that too little regulation (e.g., no direction as to which side of the road to use) and the system would rapidly drop into chaos and traffic would fail to flow. On the other hand, excessive regulation that constrains the actions of the driver (e.g. overuse of speed restrictions on traffic calming measures) would have the same impact.
The purpose of regulation is to achieve optimal output from any given system. It is paramount in my opinion that any leader who has custodianship of any such system needs to park his or her faith or beliefs and to honor the purpose of the system. Safeguards need to be put in place to ensure that any such leader is not allowed, as happened in the case of Alan Greenspan, to override the needs of the system to satisfy his own personal shadow elements.
There is a tendency, I believe, in the integral community to say, “we cannot have a major impact on these systems, because they are driven by individuals rooted in first-tier values.” As a consequence, we tend to step back and observe what happens and to use the outcomes as data to substantiate the wonderful theories that we are building up. However, sometimes it is much more important that we stand up and be counted. When we see a first tier pathology manifesting itself in a system that pervades all aspects of life, it is incumbent upon us to exclaim, to the best of our ability, “Stop! This is wrong!”
Failure to do so, we will so significantly erode the foundations of this integral world that we are trying to build. When the Alan Greenspan’s of this world are pursuing dogma rather than commonsense, we not only have the obligation to point it out, but to warn them that they will be held accountable for their actions in the future. They should not be allowed to squirm in front of a congressional committee expressing nothing more than surprise before returning home to their multimillion-dollar apartments, whilst hundreds of thousands affected by their decisions go to bed at night wondering if they are going to keep their home, feed their children or just keep them warm this winter.
With spleen well and truly vented, I can bring this rant to an end. And how better to do so, than with the words of Bob Dylan from his prophetic “The Times they are a changing.”
Come writers and critics
Who prophesize with your pen
The chance won’t come again
And don’t speak too soon
For the wheel’s still in spin
And there’s no tellin’ who
That it’s namin’.
For the loser now
Will be later to win
For the times they are a-changin’.
Keith Bellamy, former lead futurist for Barclay’s Bank, is a transplanted Brit living near new York. He is a member of the Management Review Board of Integral Leadership Review.