Greed: Devouring Ourselves in the Pursuit of More23-Dec-2013
A client company requested I attend a dinner meeting that included the CEO, the COO and the CFO of a company known as the oldest, largest and most successful enterprise in its industry. The rich mahogany wainscoting, heavy beamed ceiling, lavish art, and opulent window treatments all contributed to the power atmosphere of an elite men’s club in a northeastern US city. The staff of attentive but professionally discrete waiters responded to every whim, including a lavish array of expensive Cabernets that flowed freely that night. Wine took over more of the conversation, and at one point, the CEO and COO leaned in and enjoyed a private laugh. A moment later, the COO turned to me and asked if I knew a particular senior manager, a stunningly beautiful woman who ran the company’s operation on another continent. With a sly grin, he said, “Now you know why Pete requested to have that division report directly to him and why he goes over there so much!” A year later, the board fired the CEO after quietly settling several sexual harassment suits.
All Pete ever wanted was more—the cash that flowed so freely into the coffers of the company, stock options, perks, regular TV appearances on the business cable shows, and the women drawn to his apparent power and wealth. He bought plenty of the stuff that many believe makes us happy, but mainly he bought the lie that more makes our hearts glad. While it’s our first impulse to attach greed to money, it’s really about more of anything that we believe will make our hearts glad…money, power, time, houses, toys, great food, trips, etc.
Greed controls us because it takes over our volition. It misshapes our wants, thoughts and intentions, and most insidiously, makes us feel justified in our pursuit. A woman whose husband was out of work told me recently that she was going to the mall to buy a new outfit because, “I deserve it.” She was paying the mortgage and was entitled to do something “nice” for herself. She appeared to actually believe what she was telling me. Entitlement and a host of other rationalizations give us the right to be greedy…whether it’s a new outfit or as when Tyco’s Kozlowski bought a $6000.00 shower curtain paid for with company money for his Manhattan apartment.
In the now infamous 1987 classic, "Wall Street,” Gordon Gekko wows the stockholders of an underperforming paper company with a powerful rationalization we might call “expedient efficiency.”
The point is, ladies and gentleman, that greed -- for lack of a better word -- is good. Greed is right. Greed works. Greed clarifies, cuts through, and captures the essence of the evolutionary spirit. Greed, in all of its forms -- greed for life, for money, for love, knowledge -- has marked the upward surge of mankind. And greed -- you mark my words -- will not only save Teldar Paper, but that other malfunctioning corporation called the USA.
Is greed really good? Does it really clarify? Most of what we know about greed results from personal experience rather than being a titan of industry. A lot of us like to play the mental game “Threshold.” The basic tenant holds that, if I can just get to that threshold (often financial), I will be happy, spend quality time with my kids, or have more to be generous to the less fortunate. Rationalize might best be described as “rational lies.”
At the root of greed’s corrosive toxicity lies the flawed assumption that a “threshold” exists—that there really is a point of satiation. Solomon, who many perceive to be the wisest person in history, said, “Whoever loves money never has money enough; whoever loves wealth is never satisfied with his income.” A point of satisfaction really doesn’t exist, and if we feed that beast for which satiation is not possible, we become overwhelmed with the demand of feeding it. Paul wrote,
People who want to get rich fall into temptation and a trap and into many foolish and harmful desires that plunge men into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil. Some people, eager for money, have wandered from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs. 1 Timothy 6:9-10 (NIV)
Always powered by self-interest, greed ends up devouring us and those in our sphere of influence. Solomon said, “A greedy man brings trouble to his family…and a greedy man stirs up dissension.” Greed becomes our controlling emotion, without regard to the consequences to others. We see every opportunity through the lens of how it brings us closer to the object of our desire. Given full expression, we end up in a vortex of self-serving pursuits, mindlessly attempting to fulfill a vacuous purpose.