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Despite the financial crisis, I know we have not come to the end of the age of the high flyers. We admire them too much. We have invested too much in them. We don't remember how to function without them.
You know what I mean by high flyers: The smart, free-agent daredevils who leap from the tops of tall companies, one to the next across the skylines of great cities. Who restructure things in the flash of an eye. Who invent six new ways of making money before breakfast and lay off whole departments before lunch. I mean the men who make millions building companies up, and millions tumbling them down…and yes, then make millions more when they finally agree to step through the rubble to the exit door. I mean the joyful maverick gods of America, the buff Icaruses who spread their dark suit jackets like wings and soar so remarkably close to the sun.
Believe me, we will always run to catch these guys when they fall. We will take the clothes off our own backs to weave them nets. We will celebrate their very recklessness and destruction and spend our hard-earned taxes to send them back into the sky again. You see, the whole poetry of our tall cities and satellite dishes depends on their adventures. At this point, we believe we ourselves can only rise from the ground by holding on to their coattails and capes.
Once, when I was a corporate VP, I worked directly for a High Flyer. The CEO had recruited him from a competitor, where he had supposedly restructured and re-invented and revamped. And sure enough, he busted into our company like CGI. He performed wild trial and mostly error, but they were wonderfully bold errors. "We have to be bold," he would say, rolling up his sleeves and dipping his hands in red ink.
And of course he was right. I mean, what do you get without being bold? Like, what's the point of working in a tall building, otherwise?
Like many high flyers, he lasted less than a year. I learned the end was near when I sat in my office, late one night. We had just lost a major contract, and I was looking down at the lowly snaking traffic of working stiffs, wondering how long I could maintain my own sweet altitude. I heard the high flyer enter my door, but before I could turn, he laughed:
"Well," he said. "I figure I have another three months. If I don't come up with something big in three months, I'm outta here."
When I swiveled to look into his boyish, untroubled grin, I realized that he was not talking about getting fired, but quitting. If he didn't figure out how to turn our division around in three months, he would leave—not because the company was disappointed in him, but because he was disappointed in us.
And of course, like all Americans, I only admired his giddy self-interest. His pure, cavalier, free-agent amusement. I mean, why should he be loyal to us if he couldn't make a go of it in nine months? Why should he care what happened to thousands of people in remote offices he had never met?
Me, I replied, "The important thing is to be bold!"
Last week, when I learned that the CEO of Lehman brothers had been earning $45 million a year, I posed the philosophical question: Why should any CEO care about the fate of a company that was paying him $45 million a year? I mean, why should he care, when at any moment he could fashion all that cash into wings and leap magnificently from the top of one crumbling skyscraper to the next?
In fact, isn't that what just we want to see him do? Look, up in the sky! It's a bird! Is it a plane! Fear not, America, we will live to see Icarus fly again.
Copyright © 2008 Marc Porter Zasada. All Rights Reserved.
Image from Icarus by Jonathan Weiner
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