The Lessons of Camelot

I have been trying desperately hard to stay away from politics. But the global financial crisis has made this impossible: virtually every business issue is singed, if not actually charred, by the blaze of the crisis. So, with the deepest of regrets …

Imagine President Obama, announcing at his press conference today that the US Special Forces had arrested Osama Bin Ladin. I would bet good money that the first question he’d get would be, “That’s great, but what about the AIG bonuses? Haven’t Americans been duped enough?”

Near the end Alan Jay Lerner’s musical Camelot, Guinevere and Lancelot offer to surrender and return to England to face justice. Arthur spurns them; his people no longer wanted justice, he says, they wanted revenge. Right now, the American people want revenge. They don’t want to be told about the contractual law, they want someone on Wall Street to feel real pain, just as they are feeling it. Bernie Madoff would have been a great fall guy, but he refused the part written so perfectly for him and pled guilty quickly. The people at AIG Financial Products Division, seen to be holding the country to ransom and getting away with it, have therefore become the focal point of public rage. They are making GM’s now departing Vice Chairman Robert Lutz (see my post “Marie Antoinette’s Soulmate”) look like a paragon of virtue. Which is why no one rebuked Republican Senator Grassley for calling on them to commit hara-kiri.

If President Obama does not display absolute, visceral rage – merely feeling angry won’t count – he seriously risks losing the people. Don’t believe me? Remember the effect on Michael Dukakis’s presidential campaign of his calm response to the question about what he would do if his wife and daughters were raped and murdered? His calmness, combined with his opponent’s blatantly racist campaign, doomed him. Today, similar conditions are present and the stakes are higher.

If Mr. Obama loses the people, the economy will slide into depression. This crisis in our networked world, as I have argued in earlier posts, was aggravated by a failure to manage as if the network matters. Ergo, resolving it will require tackling the ailings of the entire network, not just one of its nodes. Mr. Obama’s multi-sector bailouts and his plan to totally restructure multiple key sectors is exactly what is needed. But if the American people focus on only one node (AIG) of the network, he has no chance of succeeding. The good news is that as a master politician, he publicly repudiated Mr. Geithner’s position that the bonuses are a fait accompli. Now, he should take this repudiation to the next level and get some Hollywood types to teach him how to act furious on camera.

Substantively, Mr. Obama should outsource the work the AIG group does. These people are smart, but unlike Albert Einstein, they are not unique: The very products they used to peddle required them to work with equally smart people in other institutions. They are not unique! So, it is possible to fire them and simultaneously (this is key) introduce an outsourcing firm to take their place. The replacement firm could be one of the companies that participated in this market, but which currently have no (or minimal) such open contracts. If on top of this, the outsource firm were from a lower cost economy, so much the better: Wall Street can’t complain of being subject to the “market discipline” that they urge on others – and the American people would love the irony. (Incidentally, Wall Street already outsources a lot of work to India, albeit very quietly.)

Additionally, Mr. Obama should publicly and forcefully ask the organizations that provide the credentials job – CFAs, CPAs, NASD Series 7, JD, etc. – essential for a Wall Street to decertify (under morality clauses) those at AIG who brought disrepute to their profession. He should explain to Americans that this will deprive these people of their livelihoods in the world of high finance. Not quite Bernie Madoff’s fate, but definitely the equivalent of banishing Mordred from Camelot. Of course, if these people not only repaid this year’s bonus, but also contributed their entire last year’s bonus to charities that are working to help those who lost their jobs and homes, they might, just might, be able to retain their credentials.

I often tell executives that instead of battling a culture, they should focus on skillfully using the elements of the culture that can help them achieve their key goals. That’s what Mr. Obama must do now. In the final analysis, Arthur lost Camelot, as my teenager astutely told me the other day, because his knights saw peace as boring. He could not hold on to their passions and lost their support.

Mr. Obama must take steps that the Puritans of New England, the gun slingers of the Wild West, the Rhett Butlers and Scarlett O’Haras of the South and the flower people (yes, there are still many of them) of the two coasts appreciate. Stated differently, he must apply the lessons of why Camelot failed. Only then will he be able to fulfill his dream of taking the country back to Camelot for a sustained period of time.

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