T.S. Eliot once said "Humankind cannot bear very much reality". The year 2004 has tested all of us on the reality dimension.
Of greatest import, of course, was the Red Sox improbable path to the World Series. As one who spent many summer days of my youth in Fenway Park when the Yanks were in, this year's Sox triumph was as sweet as it was improbable. Just when I had counted them out once again, just when I had steeled myself to another winter of futile maneuvering against the Evil Empire, Dave Roberts stole second base. The rest is history, glorious history.
Following the World Series there was a Presidential election. To my mind John Kerry lost the election one night in September when he was interviewed on Monday Night Baseball at Fenway. This son of Boston was so lame and so obviously clueless about the great American pastime that he lost a good chunk of the male vote right there. George Bush may be a little weak on who Osama Bin Laden is (and where he is), but I'll bet he knows the pitch count on all of David Ortiz's key hits.
Back to reality, the economy this year had just enough oomph to keep Bush in office. Nonetheless, as I reported last year, his insistence on making tax cuts permanent while escalating spending is not sound policy. This brings to mind economist Herb Stein's comment "That which can't go on forever, won't." We are already seeing the effects of this policy on the dollar. Frankly, we may muddle through, but a significant collapse of the dollar is more likely.
This was not a notable year for business books. I found nothing very illuminating except, perhaps, Martin Wolf's excellent defense of globalization: "Why Globalization Works". This was a good year for notable biographies: Nelson, Alexander Hamilton, and even Ulysses S. Grant were all well-treated and, in the case of Hamilton and Grant, resurrected. Of the three I enjoyed Nelson the most because of my interest in British Naval history and in leadership. Hamilton is excellent in reminding one that the process that brought us a Constitution was no pre-ordained event. Men like Hamilton and Madison literally turned the unlikely to the probable in the Federalist Papers. Ulysses S. Grant has brevity on its side.
I would like to close by commenting on a theme Peter Drucker has been sounding for several years, the importance, in a knowledge economy, of personal learning and development. I had the occasion this year to look back at remarks on this subject by John Gardner, former Secretary of H.E.W. in the Johnson administration and founder of Common Cause. Gardner, then in his eighties, was speaking to a group of McKinsey colleagues.
"Learn all your life. Learn from your failures. Learn from your successes. When you hit a spell of trouble, ask "What is it trying to teach me?". The lessons aren't always happy ones, but they keep coming. It isn't a bad idea to pause occasionally for an inward look. By mid-life, most of us are accomplished fugitives from ourselves."
"Accomplished fugitives from ourselves" is a powerful phrase that resonates with me. Often the best advice I give my clients is to do a reality check on themselves and their approach. Talk to those you trust about your effectiveness and be prepared to listen without prejudice. Then ask the question "What is this trying to teach me?"
Leadership lesson for the year: "Listen first and speak last."