book review

The 48 Laws Of Power

I recently finished reading The 48 Laws of Power by Robert Greene.

Greene on Power, and the importance of developing Emotional Intelligence:

Power is a social game. To learn and master it, you must develop the ability to study and understand people…To be a master player you must also be a master psychologist. You must recognize motivations and see through the cloud of dust with which people surround their actions. An understanding of people’s hidden motives is the single greatest piece of knowledge you can have in acquiring power… People are of infinite complexity and you can spend a lifetime watching them without ever fully understanding them. So it is all the more important, then, to begin your education now. In doing so you must also keep one principle in mind: Never discriminate as to whom you study am whom you trust. Never trust anyone completely and study everyone, including friends and loved ones. Finally, you must learn always to take the indirect route to power. Disguise your cunning. Like a billiard ball that caroms several times before it hits its target, your moves must be planned and developed in the least obvious way. By training yourself to be indirect, you can thrive in the modem court, appearing the paragon of decency while being the consummate manipulator.

The book’s main premise:

Consider The 48 Laws of Power a kind of handbook on the arts of indirection. The laws are based on the writings of men and women who have studied and mastered the game of power. These writings span a period of more than three thousand years and were created in civilizations as disparate as ancient China and Renaissance Italy; yet they share common threads and themes, together hinting at an essence of power that has yet to be fully articulated. The 48 laws of power are the distillation of this accumulated wisdom, gathered from the writings of the most illustrious strategists (Sun-tzu, Clausewitz), statesmen (Bismarck, Talleyrand), courtiers (Castighone, Gracian), seducers (Ninon de Lenclos, Casanova), and con artists (“Yellow Kid” Weil) in history. The laws have a simple premise: Certain actions almost always increase one’s power (the observance of the law), while others decrease it and even ruin us (the transgression of the law). These transgressions and observances are illustrated by historical examples. The laws are timeless and definitive.

The 48 Laws of Power:

Law 1: Never Outshine the Master

Always make those above you feel comfortably superior.  In your desire to please or impress them, do not go too far in displaying your talents or you might accomplish the opposite – inspire fear and insecurity.  Make your masters appear more brilliant than they are and you will attain the heights of power.

Law 2: Never put too Much Trust in Friends, Learn how to use Enemies

Be wary of friends-they will betray you more quickly, for they are easily aroused to envy.  They also become spoiled and tyrannical. But hire a former enemy and he will be more loyal than a friend, because he has more to prove.  In fact, you have more to fear from friends than from enemies.  If you have no enemies, find a way to make them.

Law 3: Conceal your Intentions

Keep people off-balance and in the dark by never revealing the purpose behind your actions.  If they have no clue what you are up to, they cannot prepare a defense.  Guide them far enough down the wrong path, envelope them in enough smoke, and by the time they realize your intentions, it will be too late.

Law 4: Always Say Less than Necessary

When you are trying to impress people with words, the more you say, the more common you appear, and the less in control.  Even if you are saying something banal, it will seem original if you make it vague, open-ended, and sphinxlike.  Powerful people impress and intimidate by saying less.  The more you say, the more likely you are to say something foolish.

 Law 5: So Much Depends on Reputation – Guard it with your Life

Reputation is the cornerstone of power.  Through reputation alone you can intimidate and win; once you slip, however, you are vulnerable, and will be attacked on all sides.  Make your reputation unassailable.  Always be alert to potential attacks and thwart them before they happen.  Meanwhile, learn to destroy your enemies by opening holes in their own reputations.  Then stand aside and let public opinion hang them.

 Law 6: Court Attention at all Cost

Everything is judged by its appearance; what is unseen counts for nothing.  Never let yourself get lost in the crowd, then, or buried in oblivion.  Stand out.  Be conspicuous, at all cost.  Make yourself a magnet of attention by appearing larger, more colorful, more mysterious, than the bland and timid masses.

  Law 7: Get others to do the Work for you, but Always Take the Credit

Use the wisdom, knowledge, and legwork of other people to further your own cause.  Not only will such assistance save you valuable time and energy, it will give you a godlike aura of efficiency and speed.  In the end your helpers will be forgotten and you will be remembered.  Never do yourself what others can do for you.

 Law 8: Make other People come to you – use Bait if Necessary

When you force the other person to act, you are the one in control.  It is always better to make your opponent come to you, abandoning his own plans in the process.  Lure him with fabulous gains – then attack.  You hold the cards.

 Law 9: Win through your Actions, Never through Argument

Any momentary triumph you think gained through argument is really a Pyrrhic victory:  The resentment and ill will you stir up is stronger and lasts longer than any momentary change of opinion.  It is much more powerful to get others to agree with you through your actions, without saying a word.  Demonstrate, do not explicate.

Law 10: Infection: Avoid the Unhappy and Unlucky

You can die from someone else’s misery – emotional states are as infectious as disease.  You may feel you are helping the drowning man but you are only precipitating your own disaster.  The unfortunate sometimes draw misfortune on themselves; they will also draw it on you.  Associate with the happy and fortunate instead.

Law 11: Learn to Keep People Dependent on You

To maintain your independence you must always be needed and wanted.  The more you are relied on, the more freedom you have.  Make people depend on you for their happiness and prosperity and you have nothing to fear.  Never teach them enough so that they can do without you.

 Law 12: Use Selective Honesty and Generosity to Disarm your Victim

One sincere and honest move will cover over dozens of dishonest ones.  Open-hearted gestures of honesty and generosity bring down the guard of even the most suspicious people.  Once your selective honesty opens a hole in their armor, you can deceive and manipulate them at will.  A timely gift – a Trojan horse – will serve the same purpose.

 Law 13: When Asking for Help, Appeal to People’s Self-Interest, Never to their Mercy or Gratitude

If you need to turn to an ally for help, do not bother to remind him of your past assistance and good deeds.  He will find a way to ignore you.  Instead, uncover something in your request, or in your alliance with him, that will benefit him, and emphasize it out of all proportion.  He will respond enthusiastically when he sees something to be gained for himself.

 Law 14: Pose as a Friend, Work as a Spy

Knowing about your rival is critical.  Use spies to gather valuable information that will keep you a step ahead.  Better still: Play the spy yourself.  In polite social encounters, learn to probe.  Ask indirect questions to get people to reveal their weaknesses and intentions.  There is no occasion that is not an opportunity for artful spying.

 Law 15: Crush your Enemy Totally

All great leaders since Moses have known that a feared enemy must be crushed completely.  (Sometimes they have learned this the hard way.)  If one ember is left alight, no matter how dimly it smolders, a fire will eventually break out.  More is lost through stopping halfway than through total annihilation:  The enemy will recover, and will seek revenge.  Crush him, not only in body but in spirit.

 Law 16: Use Absence to Increase Respect and Honor

Too much circulation makes the price go down:  The more you are seen and heard from, the more common you appear.  If you are already established in a group, temporary withdrawal from it will make you more talked about, even more admired.  You must learn when to leave.  Create value through scarcity.

 Law 17: Keep Others in Suspended Terror: Cultivate an Air of Unpredictability

Humans are creatures of habit with an insatiable need to see familiarity in other people’s actions.  Your predictability gives them a sense of control.  Turn the tables: Be deliberately unpredictable.  Behavior that seems to have no consistency or purpose will keep them off-balance, and they will wear themselves out trying to explain your moves.  Taken to an extreme, this strategy can intimidate and terrorize.

Law 18: Do Not Build Fortresses to Protect Yourself – Isolation is Dangerous

The world is dangerous and enemies are everywhere – everyone has to protect themselves.  A fortress seems the safest. But isolation exposes you to more dangers than it protects you from – it cuts you off from valuable information, it makes you conspicuous and an easy target.  Better to circulate among people find allies, mingle.  You are shielded from your enemies by the crowd.

Law 19: Know Who You’re Dealing with – Do Not Offend the Wrong Person

There are many different kinds of people in the world, and you can never assume that everyone will react to your strategies in the same way.  Deceive or outmaneuver some people and they will spend the rest of their lives seeking revenge.  They are wolves in lambs’ clothing.  Choose your victims and opponents carefully, then – never offend or deceive the wrong person.

Law 20: Do Not Commit to Anyone

It is the fool who always rushes to take sides.  Do not commit to any side or cause but yourself.  By maintaining your independence, you become the master of others – playing people against one another, making them pursue you.

Law 21: Play a Sucker to Catch a Sucker – Seem Dumber than your Mark

No one likes feeling stupider than the next persons.  The trick, is to make your victims feel smart – and not just smart, but smarter than you are.  Once convinced of this, they will never suspect that you may have ulterior motives.

Law 22: Use the Surrender Tactic: Transform Weakness into Power

When you are weaker, never fight for honor’s sake; choose surrender instead.  Surrender gives you time to recover, time to torment and irritate your conqueror, time to wait for his power to wane.  Do not give him the satisfaction of fighting and defeating you – surrender first.  By turning the other check you infuriate and unsettle him.  Make surrender a tool of power.

Law 23: Concentrate Your Forces

Conserve your forces and energies by keeping them concentrated at their strongest point.  You gain more by finding a rich mine and mining it deeper, than by flitting from one shallow mine to another – intensity defeats extensity every time.  When looking for sources of power to elevate you, find the one key patron, the fat cow who will give you milk for a long time to come.

Law 24: Play the Perfect Courtier

The perfect courtier thrives in a world where everything revolves around power and political dexterity.  He has mastered the art of indirection; he flatters, yields to superiors, and asserts power over others in the mot oblique and graceful manner.  Learn and apply the laws of courtiership and there will be no limit to how far you can rise in the court.

Law 25: Re-Create Yourself

Do not accept the roles that society foists on you.  Re-create yourself by forging a new identity, one that commands attention and never bores the audience.  Be the master of your own image rather than letting others define if for you.  Incorporate dramatic devices into your public gestures and actions – your power will be enhanced and your character will seem larger than life.

Law 26: Keep Your Hands Clean

You must seem a paragon of civility and efficiency: Your hands are never soiled by mistakes and nasty deeds.  Maintain such a spotless appearance by using others as scapegoats and cat’s-paws to disguise your involvement.

Law 27: Play on People’s Need to Believe to Create a Cultlike Following

People have an overwhelming desire to believe in something.  Become the focal point of such desire by offering them a cause, a new faith to follow.  Keep your words vague but full of promise; emphasize enthusiasm over rationality and clear thinking.  Give your new disciples rituals to perform, ask them to make sacrifices on your behalf.  In the absence of organized religion and grand causes, your new belief system will bring you untold power.

Law 28: Enter Action with Boldness

If you are unsure of a course of action, do not attempt it.  Your doubts and hesitations will infect your execution.  Timidity is dangerous:  Better to enter with boldness.  Any mistakes you commit through audacity are easily corrected with more audacity. Everyone admires the bold; no one honors the timid.

Law 29: Plan All the Way to the End

The ending is everything.  Plan all the way to it, taking into account all the possible consequences, obstacles, and twists of fortune that might reverse your hard work and give the glory to others.  By planning to the end you will not be overwhelmed by circumstances and you will know when to stop.  Gently guide fortune and help determine the future by thinking far ahead.

Law 30: Make your Accomplishments Seem Effortless

Your actions must seem natural and executed with ease.  All the toil and practice that go into them, and also all the clever tricks, must be concealed.  When you act, act effortlessly, as if you could do much more.  Avoid the temptation of revealing how hard you work – it only raises questions.  Teach no one your tricks or they will be used against you.

Law 31: Control the Options: Get Others to Play with the Cards you Deal

The best deceptions are the ones that seem to give the other person a choice:  Your victims feel they are in control, but are actually your puppets.  Give people options that come out in your favor whichever one they choose.  Force them to make choices between the lesser of two evils, both of which serve your purpose.  Put them on the horns of a dilemma:  They are gored wherever they turn.

Law 32: Play to People’s Fantasies

The truth is often avoided because it is ugly and unpleasant.  Never appeal to truth and reality unless you are prepared for the anger that comes for disenchantment.  Life is so harsh and distressing that people who can manufacture romance or conjure up fantasy are like oases in the desert:  Everyone flocks to them. There is great power in tapping into the fantasies of the masses.

Law 33: Discover Each Man’s Thumbscrew

Everyone has a weakness, a gap in the castle wall.  That weakness is usual y an insecurity, an uncontrollable emotion or need; it can also be a small secret pleasure.  Either way, once found, it is a thumbscrew you can turn to your advantage.

Law 34: Be Royal in your Own Fashion:  Act like a King to be treated like one

The way you carry yourself will often determine how you are treated; In the long run, appearing vulgar or common will make people disrespect you.  For a king respects himself and inspires the same sentiment in others.  By acting regally and confident of your powers, you make yourself seem destined to wear a crown.

Law 35: Master the Art of Timing

Never seem to be in a hurry – hurrying betrays a lack of control over yourself, and over time.  Always seem patient, as if you know that everything will come to you eventually.  Become a detective of the right moment; sniff out the spirit of the times, the trends that will carry you to power.  Learn to stand back when the time is not yet ripe, and to strike fiercely when it has reached fruition.

Law 36: Disdain Things you cannot have:  Ignoring them is the best Revenge

By acknowledging a petty problem you give it existence and credibility.  The more attention you pay an enemy, the stronger you make him; and a small mistake is often made worse and more visible when you try to fix it.  It is sometimes best to leave things alone.  If there is something you want but cannot have, show contempt for it.  The less interest you reveal, the more superior you seem.

Law 37: Create Compelling Spectacles

Striking imagery and grand symbolic gestures create the aura of power – everyone responds to them.  Stage spectacles for those around you, then full of arresting visuals and radiant symbols that heighten your presence.  Dazzled by appearances, no one will notice what you are really doing.

Law 38: Think as you like but Behave like others

If you make a show of going against the times, flaunting your unconventional ideas and unorthodox ways, people will think that you only want attention and that you look down upon them.  They will find a way to punish you for making them feel inferior.  It is far safer to blend in and nurture the common touch. Share your originality only with tolerant friends and those who are sure to appreciate your uniqueness.

Law 39: Stir up Waters to Catch Fish

Anger and emotion are strategically counterproductive.  You must always stay calm and objective.  But if you can make your enemies angry while staying calm yourself, you gain a decided advantage.  Put your enemies off-balance: Find the chink in their vanity through which you can rattle them and you hold the strings.

Law 40: Despise the Free Lunch

What is offered for free is dangerous – it usually involves either a trick or a hidden obligation.  What has worth is worth paying for.  By paying your own way you stay clear of gratitude, guilt, and deceit.  It is also often wise to pay the full price – there is no cutting corners with excellence.  Be lavish with your money and keep it circulating, for generosity is a sign and a magnet for power.

Law 41: Avoid Stepping into a Great Man’s Shoes

What happens first always appears better and more original than what comes after.  If you succeed a great man or have a famous parent, you will have to accomplish double their achievements to outshine them.  Do not get lost in their shadow, or stuck in a past not of your own making:  Establish your own name and identity by changing course.  Slay the overbearing father, disparage his legacy, and gain power by shining in your own way.

Law 42: Strike the Shepherd and the Sheep will Scatter

Trouble can often be traced to a single strong individual – the stirrer, the arrogant underling, the poisoned of goodwill.  If you allow such people room to operate, others will succumb to their influence.  Do not wait for the troubles they cause to multiply, do not try to negotiate with them – they are irredeemable.  Neutralize their influence by isolating or banishing them.  Strike at the source of the trouble and the sheep will scatter.

Law 43: Work on the Hearts and Minds of Others

Coercion creates a reaction that will eventually work against you.  You must seduce others into wanting to move in your direction.  A person you have seduced becomes your loyal pawn.  And the way to seduce others is to operate on their individual psychologies and weaknesses.  Soften up the resistant by working on their emotions, playing on what they hold dear and what they fear.  Ignore the hearts and minds of others and they will grow to hate you.

Law 44: Disarm and Infuriate with the Mirror Effect

The mirror reflects reality, but it is also the perfect tool for deception: When you mirror your enemies, doing exactly as they do, they cannot figure out your strategy.  The Mirror Effect mocks and humiliates them, making them overreact.  By holding up a mirror to their psyches, you seduce them with the illusion that you share their values; by holding up a mirror to their actions, you teach them a lesson.  Few can resist the power of Mirror Effect.

Law 45: Preach the Need for Change, but Never Reform too much at Once

Everyone understands the need for change in the abstract, but on the day-to-day level people are creatures of habit.  Too much innovation is traumatic, and will lead to revolt.  If you are new to a position of power, or an outsider trying to build a power base, make a show of respecting the old way of doing things.  If change is necessary, make it feel like a gentle improvement on the past.

Law 46: Never appear too Perfect

Appearing better than others is always dangerous, but most dangerous of all is to appear to have no faults or weaknesses.  Envy creates silent enemies.  It is smart to occasionally display defects, and admit to harmless vices, in order to deflect envy and appear more human and approachable.  Only gods and the dead can seem perfect with impunity.

Law 47: Do not go Past the Mark you Aimed for; In Victory, Learn when to Stop

The moment of victory is often the moment of greatest peril.  In the heat of victory, arrogance and overconfidence can push you past the goal you had aimed for, and by going too far, you make more enemies than you defeat.  Do not allow success to go to your head.  There is no substitute for strategy and careful planning.  Set a goal, and when you reach it, stop.

Law 48: Assume Formlessness

By taking a shape, by having a visible plan, you open yourself to attack.  Instead of taking a form for your enemy to grasp, keep yourself adaptable and on the move.  Accept the fact that nothing is certain and no law is fixed.  The best way to protect yourself is to be as fluid and formless as water; never bet on stability or lasting order.  Everything changes.


On a concluding note from Niccolo Machiavelli in The Prince:

Any man who tries to he good all the time is bound to come to ruin among the great number who are not good. Hence a prince who wants to keep his authority must learn how not to be good, and use that knowledge, or refrain from using it, as necessity requires.

A highly recommended read in the areas of social philosophy, and political strategy. Additional recommendations for this genre would be The Art of War – Sun Tzu and The Prince by Machiavelli.





The Selfish Gene

I recently finished reading The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins. I selected this book based on its recommendation by Charlie Munger – Vice Chairman of Berkshire Hathaway.

Richard starts out with a clarification on the premise and purpose of this book:

This book is not intended as a general advocacy of Darwinism. Instead, it will explore the consequences of the evolution theory for a particular issue. My purpose is to examine the biology of selfishness and altruism. Apart from its academic interest, the human importance of this subject is obvious. It touches every aspect of our social lives, our loving and hating, fighting and cooperating, giving and stealing, our greed and our generosity.

He then goes on to define what he means by selfishness and altruism:

Before going any further, we need a definition. An entity, such as a baboon, is said to be altruistic if it behaves in such a way as to increase another such entity’s welfare at the expense of its own. Selfish behaviour has exactly the opposite effect. ‘Welfare’ is defined as ‘chances of survival’, even if the effect on actual life and death prospects is so small as to seem negligible. One of the surprising consequences of the modem version of the Darwinian theory is that apparently trivial tiny influences on survival probability can have a ma/or impact on evolution. This is because of the enormous time available for such influences to make themselves felt. It is important to realize that the above definitions of altruism and selfishness are behavioural not subjective. I am not concerned here with the psychology of motives. I am not going to argue about whether people who behave altruistically are ‘really’ doing it for secret or subconscious selfish motives. Maybe they are and maybe they aren’t, and maybe we can never know, but in any case that is not what this book is about. My definition is concerned only with whether the effect of an act is to lower or raise the survival prospects of the presumed altruist and the survival prospects of the presumed beneficiary. 

The central premise of the book in more details:

Before that I must argue for my belief that the best way to look at evolution is in terms of selection occurring at the lowest level of all. In this belief I am heavily influenced by G. C. Williams’s great book Adaptation and Natural Selection. The central idea I shall make use of was foreshadowed by A. Weismann in pre-gene days at the turn of the century—his doctrine of the ‘continuity of the germ-plasm’. I shall argue that the fundamental unit of selection, and therefore of self-interest, is not the species, nor the group, nor even, strictly, the individual. It is the gene, the unit of heredity. To some biologists this may sound at first like an extreme view. I hope when they see in what sense I mean it they will agree that it is, in substance, orthodox, if it is expressed in an unfamiliar way. The argument takes time to develop, and we must begin at the beginning, with the very origin of life itself. 

On the basic building blocks of living creatures:

To return to the primeval soup, it must have become populated by stable varieties of molecule; stable in that either the individual molecules lasted a long time, or they replicated rapidly, or they replicated accurately. Evolutionary trends toward these three kinds of stability took place in the following sense: if you had sampled the soup at two different times, the later sample would have contained a higher proportion of varieties with high longevity/fecundity/copying-fidelity. This is essentially what a biologist means by evolution when he is speaking of living creatures, and the mechanism is the same—natural selection…The next important link in the argument, one that Darwin himself laid stress on (although he was talking about animals and plants, not molecules) is competition. The primeval soup was not capable of supporting an infinite number of replicator molecules. For one thing the earth’s size is finite, but other limiting factors must also have been important. In our picture of the replicator acting as a template or mould, we supposed it to be bathed in a soup rich in the small building block molecules necessary to make copies. But when the replicators became numerous, building blocks must have been used up at such a rate that they became a scarce and precious resource. 

On DNA, and chromosomes:

Our DNA lives inside our bodies. It is not concentrated in a particular part of the body, but is distributed among the cells. There are about a thousand million million cells making up an average human body, and, with some exceptions which we can ignore, every one of those cells contains a complete copy of that body’s DNA. This DNA can be regarded as a set of instructions for how to make a body, written in the A, T, C, G, alphabet of the nucleotides. It is as though, in every room of a gigantic building, there was a book-case containing the architect’s plans for the entire building. The ‘book-case’ in a cell is called the nucleus. The architect’s plans run to 46 volumes in man—the number is different in other species. The ‘volumes’ are called chromosomes. They are visible under a microscope as long threads, and the genes are strung out along them in order. It is not easy, indeed it may not even be meaningful, to decide where one gene ends and the next one begins. Fortunately, as this chapter will show, this does not matter for our purposes. 

On the definition of a gene as used within the book:

Gene is defined as any portion of chromosomal material that potentially lasts for enough generations to serve as a unit of natural selection. In the words of the previous chapter, a gene is a replicator with high copying-fidelity. Copying-fidelity is another way of saying longevity-in-the-form-of-copies and I shall abbreviate this simply to longevity. The definition will take some justifying. 

On the selfishness of a gene:

There might be several such universal properties, but there is one that is particularly relevant to this book: at the gene level, altruism must be bad and selfishness good. This follows inexorably from our definitions of altruism and selfishness. Genes are competing directly with their alleles for survival, since their alleles in the gene pool are rivals for their slot on the chromosomes of future generations. Any gene that behaves in such a way as to increase its own survival chances in the gene pool at the expense of its alleles will, by definition, tautologously, tend to survive. The gene is the basic unit of selfishness. 

On the genes’ main prirorities:

The genes are master programmers, and they are programming for their lives. They are judged according to the success of their programs in copying with all the hazards that life throws at their survival machines, and the judge is the ruthless judge of the court of survival. We shall come later to ways in which gene survival can be fostered by what appears to be altruistic behaviour. But the obvious first priorities of a survival machine, and of the brain that takes the decisions for it, are individual survival and reproduction. All the genes in the ‘colony’ would agree about these priorities. 

On Evolutionarily stable strategies (ESS):

An evolutionarily stable strategy or ESS is defined as a strategy which, if most members of a population adopt it, cannot be bettered by an alternative strategy. It is a subtle and important idea. Another way of putting it is to say that the best strategy for an individual depends on what the majority of the population are doing. Since the rest of the population consists of individuals, each one trying to maximize his own success, the only strategy that persists will be one which, once evolved, cannot be bettered by any deviant individual. Following a major environmental change there may be a brief period of evolutionary instability, perhaps even oscillation in the population. But once an ESS is achieved it will stay: selection will penalize deviation from it…Whenever there is strong asymmetry in a contest, ESSs are likely to be conditional strategies dependent on the asymmetry. Strategies analogous to ‘if smaller, run away; if larger, attack’ are very likely to evolve in contests between members of different species because there are so many available asymmetries. Lions and antelopes have reached a kind of stability by evolutionary divergence, which has accentuated the original asymmetry of the contest in an ever-increasing fashion. They have become highly proficient in the arts of, respectively, chasing, and running away. A mutant antelope that adopted a ‘stand and fight’ Strategy against lions would be less successful than rival antelopes disappearing over the horizon. 

On gene pools:

The gene pool is the long-term environment of the gene. ‘Good’ genes are blindly selected as those that survive m the gene pool. This is not a theory; it is not even an observed fact: it is a tautology. The interesting question is what makes a gene good. As a first approximation I said that what makes a gene good is the ability to build efficient survival machines—bodies. We must now amend that statement. The gene pool will become an evolutionary stable set of genes, defined as a gene pool that cannot be invaded by any new gene. Most new genes that arise, either by mutation or re-assortment or immigration, are quickly penalized by natural selection: the evolutionary stable set is restored. Occasionally a new gene does succeed in invading the set: it succeeds in spreading through the gene pool. There is a transitional period of instability, terminating in a new evolutionary stable set—a little bit of evolution has occurred. By analogy with the aggression strategies, a population might have more than one alternative stable point, and it might occasionally flip from one to another. Progressive evolution may be not so much a steady Upward climb as a series of discrete steps from stable plateau to stable plateau. It may look as though the population as a whole is behaving like a single self-regulating unit. But this illusion is produced by selection going on at the level of the single gene. Genes are selected on ‘merit’. But merit is judged on the basis of performance against the background of the evolutionary stable set which is the current gene pool. 

On family planning:

But any altruistic system is inherently unstable, because it is open to abuse by selfish individuals, ready to exploit it. Individual humans who have more children than they are capable of rearing are probably too ignorant in most cases to be accused of conscious malevolent exploitation. Powerful institutions and leaders who deliberately encourage them to do so seem to me less free from suspicion…Our conclusion from this chapter is that individual parents practise family planning, but in the sense that they optimize their birth-rates rather than restrict them for public good. They try to maximize the number of surviving children that they have, and this means having neither too many babies nor too few. Genes that make an individual have too many babies tend not to persist in the gene pool, because children containing such genes tend not to survive to adulthood. 

On the battle of the generations:

I am simply saying that natural selection will tend to favour children who do act in this way, and that therefore when we look at wild populations we may expect to see cheating and selfishness within families. The phrase ‘the child should cheat’ means that genes that tend to make children cheat have an advantage in the gene pool. If there is a human moral to be drawn, it is that we must teach our children altruism, for we cannot expect it to be part of their biological nature. 

On the battle of the sexes:

To sum up this chapter so far, the various different kinds of breeding system that we find among animals—monogamy, promiscuity, harems, and so on—can be understood in terms of conflicting interests between males and females. Individuals of either sex ‘want’ to maximize their total reproductive output during their lives. Because of a fundamental difference between the size and numbers of sperms and eggs, males are in general likely to be biased towards promiscuity and lack of paternal care. Females have two main available counter-ploys, which I have called the he-man and the domestic-bliss strategies. The ecological circumstances of a species will determine whether the females are biased towards one or the other of these counter-ploys, and will also determine how the males respond. In practice all intermediates between he-man and domestic-bliss are found and, as we have seen, there are cases in which the father does even more child-care than the mother. 

On reciprocation, specifically for humans:

A long memory and a capacity for individual recognition are well developed in man. We might therefore expect reciprocal altruism to have played an important part in human evolution. Trivers goes so far as to suggest that many of our psychological characteristics- envy, guilt, gratitude, sympathy etc.—have been shaped by natural selection for improved ability to cheat, to detect cheats, and to avoid being thought to be a cheat. Of particular interest are ‘subtle cheats’ who appear to be reciprocating, but who consistently pay back slightly less than they receive. It is even possible that man’s swollen brain, and his predisposition to reason mathematically, evolved as a mechanism of ever more devious cheating, and ever more penetrating detection of cheating in others. Money is a formal token of delayed reciprocal altruism. There is no end to the fascinating speculation that the idea of reciprocal altruism engenders when we apply it to our own species. Tempting as it is, I am no better at such speculation than the next man, and I leave the reader to entertain himself. 

On memes, another aspect that is passed on from generation to generation:

But do we have to go to distant worlds to find other kinds of replicator and other, consequent, kinds of evolution.? I think that a new kind of replicator has recently emerged on this very planet. It is staring us in the face, is still ill its infancy, still drifting clumsily about in its primeval soup, but already it is achieving evolutionary change at a rate that leaves the old gene panting far behind. The new soup is the soup of human culture. We need a name for the new replicator, a noun that conveys the idea of a unit of cultural transmission, or a unit of imitation. ‘Mimeme‘ comes from a suitable Greek root, but I want a monosyllable that sounds a bit like ‘gene’. I hope my classicist friends will forgive me if I abbreviate mimeme to meme. If it is any consolation, it could alternately be thought of as being related to ‘memory’, or to the French word meme. It should be pronounced to rhyme with ‘cream’. Examples of memes are tunes, ideas, catch-phrases, clothes fashions, ways of making pots or of building arches. Just as genes propagate themselves in the gene pool by leaping from body to body via sperms or eggs, so memes propagate themselves m the meme pool by leaping from brain to brain via a process which, in the broad sense, can be called imitation…Another member of the religious meme complex is called faith. It means blind trust, in the absence of evidence, even in the teeth of evidence. The story of Doubting Thomas is told, not so that we shall admire Thomas, but so that we can admire the other apostles in comparison. Thomas demanded evidence. Nothing is more lethal for certain kinds of memes than a tendency to look for evidence. The other apostles, whose faith was so strong that they did not need evidence, are held up to us as worthy of imitation. The meme for blind faith secures its own perpetuation by the simple unconscious expedient of discouraging rational inquiry. 

On the evolution of meme:

I conjecture that co-adapted meme-complexes evolve in the same kind of way as co-adapted gene-complexes. Selection favours memes that exploit their cultural environment to their own advantage. This cultural environment consists of other memes which are also being selected. The meme pool therefore comes to have the attributes of an evolutionarily stable set, which new memes find it hard to invade. I have been a bit negative about memes, but they have their cheerful side as well. When we die there are two things we can leave behind us: genes and memes. We were built as gene machines, created to pass on our genes. But that aspect of us will be forgotten in three generations. Your child, even your grandchild, may bear a resemblance to you, perhaps in facial features, in a talent for music, in the colour of her hair. But as each generation passes, the contribution of your genes is halved. It does not take long to reach negligible proportions. Our genes may be immortal but the collection of genes that is any one of us is bound to crumble away. Elizabeth II is a direct descendant of William the Conqueror. Yet it is quite probable that she bears not a single one of the old king’s genes. We should not seek immortality in reproduction. But if you contribute to the world’s culture, if you have a good idea, compose a tune, invent a sparking plug, write a poem, it may live on, intact, long after your genes have dissolved in the common pool. Socrates may or may not have a gene or two alive in the world today, as G. C. Williams has remarked, but who cares. The meme-complexes of Socrates, Leonardo, Copernicus and Marconi are still going strong. 

Despite all what is said about genetic pre-disposition, as humans we have the capacity for altruism:

It is possible that yet another unique quality of man is a capacity for genuine, disinterested, true altruism. I hope so, but I am not going to argue the case one way or the other, nor to speculate over its possible memic evolution. The point I am making now is that, even if we look on the dark side and assume that individual man is fundamentally selfish, our conscious foresight—our capacity to simulate the future in imagination—could save us from the  worst selfish excesses of the blind replicators. We have at least the mental equipment to foster our long-term selfish interests rather than merely our short-term selfish interests. We can see the long-term benefits of participating in a ‘conspiracy of doves’, and we can sit down together to discuss ways of making the conspiracy work. We have the power to defy the selfish genes of our birth and, if necessary, the selfish memes of our indoctrination. We can even discuss ways of deliberately cultivating and nurturing pure, disinterested altruism— something that has no place in nature, something that has never existed before in the whole history of the world. We are built as gene machines and cultured as meme machines, but we have the power to turn against our creators. We, alone on earth, can rebel against the tyranny of the selfish replicators.

On the Tit for Tat strategy:

So, although Tit for Tat may be only dubiously an ESS, it has a sort of higher-order stability. What can this mean.? Surely, stable is stable. Well, here we are taking a longer view. Always Defect resists invasion for a long time. But if we wait long enough, perhaps thousands of years. Tit for Tat will eventually muster the numbers required to tip it over the knife-edge, and the population will flip. But the reverse will not happen. Always Defect, as we have seen, cannot benefit from clustering, and so does not enjoy this higher-order Stability. Tit for Tat, as we have seen, is ‘nice’, meaning never the first to defect, and ‘forgiving’, meaning that it has a short memory for past misdeeds. I now introduce another of Axelrod’s evocative technical terms. Tit for Tat is also ‘not envious’.

On the Central Theorem of the Extended Phenotype:

This leads to what I have called the Central Theorem of the Extended Phenotype: An animal’s behaviour tends to maximize the survival of the genes for that behaviour, whether or not those genes happen to be in the body of the particular animal performing it. I was writing in the context of animal behaviour, but the theorem could apply, of course, to colour, size. shape—to anything.

On a concluding note, and in summary:

Let me end with a brief manifesto, a summary of the entire selfish gene/extended phenotype view of life. It is a view, I maintain, that applies to living things everywhere in the universe. The fundamental unit, the prime mover of all life, is the replicator. A replicator is anything in the universe of which copies are made. Replicators come into existence, in the first place, by chance, by the random jostling of smaller particles. Once a replicator has come into existence it is capable of generating an indefinitely large set of copies of itself No copying process is perfect, however, and the population of replicators comes to include varieties that differ from one another. Some of these varieties turn out to have lost the power of self-replication, and their kind ceases to exist when they themselves cease to exist. Others can still replicate, but less effectively. Yet other varieties happen to find themselves m possession of new tricks: they turn out to be even better self-replicators than their predecessors and contemporaries. It is their descendants that come to dominate the population. As time goes by, the world becomes filled with the most powerful and ingenious replicators.

Gradually, more and more elaborate ways of being a good replicator are discovered, replicators survive, not only by virtue of their own intrinsic properties, but by virtue of their consequences on the world. These consequences can be quite indirect. All that is necessary is that eventually the consequences, however tortuous and indirect, feedback and affect the success of the replicator at getting itself copied.

The success that a replicator has m the world will depend on what kind of a world it is—the pre-existing conditions. Among the most important of these conditions will be other replicators and their consequences. Like the English and German rowers, replicators that are mutually beneficial will come to predominate in each other’s presence. At some point in the evolution of life on our earth, this Ranging up of mutually compatible replicators began to be formalized in the creation of discrete vehicles—cells and, later, many-celled bodies. Vehicles that evolved a bottlenecked life cycle prospered, and became more discrete and vehicle-like. 

This packaging of living material into discrete vehicles became such a salient and dominant feature that, when biologists arrived on the scene and started asking questions about life, their questions were mostly about vehicles—individual organisms. The individual organism came first in the biologist’s consciousness, while the replicators—now known as genes—were seen as part of the machinery used by individual organisms. It requires a deliberate mental effort to turn biology the right way up again, and remind ourselves that the replicators come first in unimportance as well as in history. 

One way to remind ourselves is to reflect that, even today, not all the phenotypic effects of a gene are bound up in the individual body in which it sits. Certainly in principle, and also in fact, the gene reaches out through the individual body wall and manipulates objects in the world outside, some of them inanimate, some of them other living beings, some of them a long way away. With only a little imagination we can see the gene as sitting at the centre of a radiating web of extended phenotypic power. And an object m the world is the centre of a converging web of influences from many genes sitting in many organisms. The long reach of the gene knows no obvious boundaries. The whole world is crisscrossed with causal arrows joining genes to phenotypic effects, far and near. 

It is an additional fact, too important in practice to be called incidental but not necessary enough in theory to be called inevitable, that these causal arrows have become bundled up. Replicators are no longer peppered freely through the sea; they are packaged in huge colonies—individual bodies. And phenotypic consequences, instead of being evenly distributed throughout the world, have in many cases congealed into those same bodies. But the individual body, so familiar to us on our planet, did not have to exist. The only kind of entity that has to exist in order for life to arise, anywhere in the universe, is the immortal replicator. 

A highly recommended must read in the areas of science, genetics, evolution, and game theory.

When Pride Still Mattered

I recently finished reading When Pride Still Mattered – A Life of Vince Lombardi by Winner of the Pulitzer Prize author, David Maraniss. I chose to read this book for several reasons: it was recommended to me by one of my mentors, being a football fan I was always intrigued to learn about the man after which the most prized trophy is named, and last but not least this book is very highly rated in the categories of leadership, sports and biography.

It all started out with the fatherly figure of Enrico “Harry” Lombardi:

The ornamentation of his flesh is what truly announced Harry’s presence. He was covered with tattoos. They rose up from his forearms, a swirling blue and red mural of devotion to family and country, each splotch symbolizing another of his simple beliefs. He even had messages tattooed onto his hands, one letter per finger in a row above the knuckles. The letters appeared upside down and backward from his perspective, looking down, but in legible order to someone reading them from the front. On the index finger of the left hand was a W, followed by an O on the middle finger, R on the ring finger and K on the pinky. His right hand lettering began with P on the pinky, then r and A. ending with Y on the index finger. WORK and PLAY, competing for attention on the beefy digits of an immigrant meat-cutter in New York. There could be no more fitting passwords at the creation of an American myth.

Early on is his life, Vince established his life’s priorities – religion, family and sports:

The Trinity of Vince Lombardi’s early years was religion, family and sports. They seemed intertwined, as inseparable to him as Father, Son and Holy Ghost. The church was not some distant institution to be visited once a week, but part of the rhythm of daily life. When his mother baked bread, it was one for the Lombardis, one for the priests, with Vince shuttling down the block between his house and the St. Mark’s Rectory delivering food and tendering invitations.

More precisely within sports, he was fascinated by football:

“From the first contact on, football fascinated me,” he said years later. Contact, controlled violence, a game where the mission was to hit someone harder, punish him, knees up, elbows out, challenge your body, mind and spirit, exhaust yourself and seek redemption through fatigue, such were the rewards an altar boy found in his favorite game.

Being a player helped anchor his passion for the sport:

Led by the golden arm of its crackerjack quarterback, Sid Luckman, Erasmus shut out St. Francis, 13-0. Vet Lombardi, who smacked Luckman with a few good licks on defense, felt like anything but a loser when it was over. He experienced what he later described as a locker room epiphany. As he sat slumped on the bench in his grass-stained red and blue uniform, he was overcome by joy, a rare feeling for him. Nothing on the sandlots felt quite like this. He understood that he was not a great player, but he had fought hard, given his best and discovered that no one on the field intimidated him, no matter how big or fast. He was confident, convinced that he could compete, puzzled why other players did not put out as much as he had. He felt fatigue, soreness, competitive yearning, accomplishment—and all of this, he said later, left him surprisingly elated. WORK and PLAY. It was an intoxicating sensation, one that he would want to experience again and again for the rest of his life.

Through his early experience as a player he learned valuable lessons that he carried with him throughout his career both as a professional player and later coach:

From his playing days at Fordham, Lombardi learned lessons that he carried with him into a life of football. His inner steel, he said later, was forged in those bloody college games, especially the scoreless ties with Pitt. “I can’t put my finger on just what I learned playing… in those scoreless games, but it was something. A certain toughness.” While he discarded the sarcasm of Sleepy Jim Crowley and the dourness of Frank Leahy, he came to understand from those coaches the importance of precision blocking, fierce tackling and the larger “truths of the game: conditioning, spartanism, defense and violence as distinct from brutality.” He also discovered what he called football’s fourth dimension. “The first three dimensions are material, coaching and schedule. The fourth is selfless teamwork and collective pride which accumulate until they have made positive thinking and victory habitual.” But the importance of Fordham in Lombardi’s life was far greater than learning what it took to play a game. From the Jesuits he acquired a larger perspective: duty, obedience, responsibility and the exercise of free will were the basis of a philosophy that shaped the way he looked at himself and his world.

His first substantial coaching assignment came with the Saints and it was there that he built his foundational system:

Lombardi ended up staying at Saints for eight years. It was there, in the insular world of North Jersey schoolboy competition, that he developed many of the pedagogical skills that later allowed him to stand apart from the coaching multitudes. Year by year, as his reputation grew beyond Englewood, it became clearer to him that coaching was his life’s calling. Football coach was not what Harry and Matty had expected of their son, nor what his old classmates had predicted. In some ways it was a job below his own self-image. All of which worked in his favor. During his years in Englewood, Lombardi was driven by a contradiction, consumed by a sport and somewhat embarrassed that it was considered merely a game. This had two consequences: it intensified his will to win, made it overpowering in him, while simultaneously pushing him to infuse football with something more serious, to find deeper meaning in the WORK and PLAY juxtaposition tattooed above his father’s knuckles. In that mission he had much the same visionary motivation that philosopher Miguel de Unamuno, in a luminous phrase, ascribed to Ignatius Loyola, founder of the Jesuits, and other Catholic mystics—the perception of “an intolerable disparity between the hugeness of their desire and the smallness of reality.”

Ethical values were a basis of his system:

At Saints, ethical values were largely passed on not by the priests and nuns but by Vince Lombardi, who found his pulpit everywhere, on the playing field, in the classroom and at school-wide auditorium meetings.

Vince then moved to West Point which in many ways aligned very well with his beliefs and offered him a natural progression:

In many ways the philosophy at West Point was similar to a way of life that Lombardi had learned earlier at Fordham from the Jesuits. There was a direct line from one to the next, from religion to the military to football, from the spiritual exercises of St. Ignatius to the football regimen of Colonel Blaik. Both emphasized discipline, order, organization, planning, attention to detail, repetition, the ability to adjust to different situations and remain flexible in pursuit of a goal while sustaining an obsession with one big idea. Lombardi was a daily communicant at both altars, absorbing what he learned from the Jesuits and Blaik to become the leading apostle of the mystical discipline of football. As integral as religion was to his sense of self, it was not until he reached West Point and combined his spiritual discipline with Blaik’s military discipline that his coaching persona began to take its mature form. Everything he knew about organizing a team and preparing it to play its best, Lombardi said later, he learned at West Point. “It all came from Red Blaik.”

After a number of years there, Vince was growing frustrated with remaining at the assistant coach position:

Lombardi was anxious and frustrated when the 1953 season arrived. This was his fifth year at West Point, and he had the quality of a postgraduate lingering on campus after his classmates had moved on. It was indisputable that he was Blaik’s top aide and wielded more power than any previous second-in-command—the “prime minister to Blaik’s king,” as one player described the relationship—yet no matter how much influence he had, he was still an assistant coach.

After spending a few seasons with the Giants as an assistant, it was finally time for Vince to be the Head Coach of an NFL team – where he would become a legend – Green Bay:

The newspaper strike ended the next morning, and in the first days of the final year of the fifties more of the old gave way to the new. Colonel Blaik retired at West Point after a final unbeaten season. Tim Mara, the old man of the Giants, died. Toots Shor sold his old three-story sports saloon on Manhattan’s West Side and began looking for a newer spot. And Vince Lombardi left the Giants, heading west to a place that he had once called god-forsaken, where at long last he could bust out of the category in which Sports Illustrated bad placed him with its one-paragraph notice of his change of jobs. This might never have happened, a thousand flits of fate could have taken him somewhere else, yet his entire football life seemed to have readied him for this moment, when he could carry the mythology of the Four Horsemen and the Seven Blocks of Granite, the blood of the Izzos, the pragmatic discipline of the Jesuits, the faith of Saints, the order and clarity of Red Blaik, the nosubstitute-for-victory philosophy of MacArthur, the professional cool of the Giants, the cult of the modern, with his leather satchel full of diagrams, his temper and fire and fearsome grin, his mauve and white Chevy and his Struggling little family—take it all with him out to Green Bay, Wisconsin, where he had his one best chance to become more than just a face in the crowd.

He was intolerant towards racism:

During his first year in Green Bay, Lombardi called his team together on the practice field and delivered a rare lecture on racism. “If I ever hear nigger or dago or kike or anything like that around here, regardless of who you are, you’re through with me. You can’t play for me if you have any kind of prejudice.” His actions that year were more often quiet and behind the scenes, like paying Tunnell’s hotel bill when it was hard to find suitable housing, or making sure the black players had enough money to go to Milwaukee or Chicago on off-days. But as his status and power increased in his second season, his sensitivity to racial inequities intensified as well, and his responses became more overt. Before the season began, Lombardi spread the word among Green Bay’s tavern and restaurant owners that any establishment that did not welcome his black players would be declared off limits to the entire team. At Tunnell’s suggestion, he allowed the black players to leave the St. Norbert training camp twice during the preseason for quick trips down to Milwaukee, the closest city where they could find barbers who knew how to cut their hair.

Success at Green Bay wasn’t without its share of challenges:

Life was circling back on Lombardi again. The Packers had reached the top through talent and diligence. They had become the definition of first-class professionalism—and now this. The cadets of West Point were in the same position twelve years earlier, the very best, the model of collegiate prowess and class, and then it all collapsed in a cribbing scandal. A bewildered father asks his son, How could you.? It was the question Colonel Blaik had asked his son Bob when the mess- broke at West Point and the football team was about to be expelled, and now Lombardi was asking it of his boy Paul. How could he? Why did some of the Fordham Rams play illegally in semipro contests that autumn of 1936 and come back lame for the crucial NYU game and thus ruin the team’s chances of going to the Rose Bowl? Why did the cadets pass the poop and destroy one of the finest squads Red Blaik had ever built? Why did Paul Hornung place bets on the Packers and endanger Lombardi’s awesome team.? The answers are as complex and varying as human nature itself Hubris. A sense of invincibility. Reckless youth. Thrill of winning. Peer pressure. Boredom. Temptation.

What made Vince so successful?

To others, Lombardi’s brilliance was his simplicity and dependability. Straight ahead all the way. Tell everyone what you are doing and do it better. That undeniably was an important aspect of his coaching character, yet it might also be the most misleading explanation of all, according to Lombardi’s son, Vincent. “People say the only constant in life is change. I say the only constant in life is paradox. My father’s life was a paradox. Everything about him.” A paradox is something that seems self-contradictory but in reality is possibly true, and by that definition Vincent was right. It is only by looking at Lombardi as a paradox that one can fully appreciate him as a leader and coach. Was it love or hate, confidence or fear, that drove Lombardi and his players.? All—at the same time. Lombardi confessed in Look that he considered football “a game for madmen” and that he once pounded on a huge lineman with his fists to get him to “hate me enough to take it out on the opposition.” He struck the player, the coach said, because he believed that to play football well you had to have “that fire in you,” and there was “nothing that stokes that fire” like hate. Hit or be hit, that was the reality of football, Lombardi believed. He had coached much the same way since his days at Saints, when he had ordered his adolescent charges to hit him until they felt a surge of emotion that approached hate.

In his own words, what makes a great leader?

What makes a great leader.? This was Lombardi’s next theme, block six of his speech. Here again, one could hear the echoes of the Jesuits and West Point. “Leaders are made, not born,” he said. “They are made by hard effort, which is the price all of us must pay to achieve any goal that is worthwhile.” In those two sentences he combined the free will of Ignatius of Loyola and the price-paying of Colonel Blaik…Lombardi’s final theme, the seventh block of granite in his speech, concerned two inseparable qualities that he believed distinguish great leaders: character and will. All the men who took Father Cox’s ethics class in the mid-thirties had the intertwining definitions pounded into them day after day. Character is an integration of habits of conduct superimposed on temperament It IS the mil exercised on disposition, thought, emotion and action. Will is the character in action. Character in action, Lombardi asserted at the end of his speech, was the great hope of society. “The character, rather than education, is man’s greatest need and man’s greatest safeguard, because character is higher than intellect. While it is true the difference between men is in energy, in the strong will, in the settled purpose and in the invincible determination, the new leadership is in sacrifice, it is in self-denial, it is in love and loyalty, it is in fearlessness, it is in humility, and it is in the perfectly disciplined will This, gentlemen, is the distinction between great and little men.”

In memory:

Not the Green Bay Packers, perhaps, and certainly not the Old Man himself There are no roadside markers pointing to his childhood home in Sheepshead Bay, nor to his gravesite at Mount Olivet in New Jersey. He is buried next to Marie and Matty and Harry in a modest plot on the back edge of the cemetery, his gray tombstone softened by shrubs on a gentle slope a few steps from a gravel road. Men from the Knights of Columbus attend to the grave, clearing away ice in winter and weeds in summer, and there are often a few weather-worn tokens of worship left behind: seashells with shiny pennies in them, miniature statues of the saints, a green and gold plastic helmet, a felt Packers flag. The remnants of Lombardi’s world are fading, yet his legend only grows in memory: the rugged and noble face, commanding voice, flashing teeth, primordial passion, unmatched commitment. In the end it is perhaps Vincent—who had been there—who gave him the highest honor. After years of working through the contradictory feelings that he had for his father, the son found his calling. He became a motivational speaker, using for his inspirational material the life and words of Vince Lombardi.

A highly recommended read, on leadership, coaching and for any sports fan.







On Barbarians At The Gate

I recently finished reading Barbarians at the Gate – The Fall of RJR Nabisco by Bryan Burrough and John Helyar. This book has been on my reading list for quite some time, and I finally (and very gladly) was able to read it.

First on the merger of Standard Brands and Nabisco:

Nevertheless, Johnson was intrigued. He got together with Schaeberle and liked the man. In a matter of weeks the two executives agreed to merge their companies. Nabisco Brands, as the new company would be called, was formed in a $1.9 billion stock swap in 1981, at the time one of the larger mergers of consumer-product companies. Technically, it was a marriage of equals. But that was considered so much chin music. Everyone knew Nabisco, with dominant brands such as Ritz and Oreo, was the more powerful company. Everyone knew who would be in charge.

And the ascent of Ross Johnson to the top position of the combined entity:

As the smoke cleared, Johnson emerged triumphant, both inside and outside Nabisco. As far as Schaeberle and the board were concerned, he could do no wrong. That year Schaeberle rewarded Johnson by ceding him the title of chief executive. Nabisco’s huge new research center was about to be unveiled, and Johnson, in a spasm of flattery, repaid the favor by naming it the Robert M. Schaeberle Technology Center. Schaeberle was moved. The Merry Men thought it was a brilliant way to put Schaeberle out to pasture. A man who lad his name on a building, they reasoned, might as well be dead.

Despite the increased scope of responsibilities and breadth of company activities Johnson was already thinking beyond Nabisco brands:

If Johnson grew indifferent toward Nabisco, it was because he could no longer see much of a future in it. The cookie wars has changed his thinking; he regarded the battle with Frito-Lay and P&G not as a final victory, but as the successful deflection of a shot fired across his bow. There would be another giant like Procter & Gamble—maybe even P&G itself—that would come after him again. Nabisco, after all, had fatal weaknesses. No amount of work was going to revitalize its aging bakeries anytime soon. Johnson, in fact, never bothered to formulate any kind of master plan for reshaping Nabisco. Years of scrambling had soured him on long-range planning. Instead he spent his time enjoying the high life, putting out corporate fires as they flared, and waiting. Someone had once codified the Standard Brands culture into twenty Johnsonisms. Number thirteen was “Recognize that ultimate success comes from opportunistic, bold moves which, by definition, cannot be planned.” On a spring day in 1985, less than a year after being tapped Nabisco’s chief, Johnson took a call from J. Tylee Wilson, chairman and chief executive officer of RJ Reynolds Industries, the North Carolina-based tobacco giant. Would Johnson be interested in getting together for lunch? Maybe, Wilson said, they could do some business.

On a parallel, Reynolds was thriving and generating more cash than it knew what to do with:

Life was good then. Reynolds’s Winston, Salem, and Camel were three of the top four bestselling cigarette brands. Prince Albert remained the top-selling pipe tobacco, and a brand called Days Work was the top chewing tobacco. Americans were smoking like chimneys. In 1960, 58 percent of all men and 36 percent of all women smoked. It was often said that Reynolds’s only problem was how to turn out cigarettes fast enough and how to ship all that money back to Wachovia Bank. In one respect, it was true. From a corporate executive’s point of view, Reynolds had too much cash on its hands. In 1956 the company amended its charter to allow it for the first time to buy nontobacco businesses.

Thus came the idea of merging the two businesses:

The talks, in fact, rekindled within weeks. A small army of Wall Street lawyers and investment bankers were brought in, and, the directors having been convinced, Reynolds agreed in principle to acquire Nabisco for cash. The lone sticking point was the price. Then, during the negotiations, Nabisco stock began rising, a sure sign that word of the talks had leaked. Johnson took it as an opportunity to wheedle more money out of Wilson. At $80 a share, Wilson said he could go no further. “Well,” Johnson said, “you’re not gonna get a deal at eighty bucks.” The logjam broke when Wilson agreed to throw in preferred stock, which brought the price to $85 a share, or $4.9 billion, at the time the largest merger ever to take place outside the oil industry.

Despite the fact that the anti-tobacco lawsuits were being settled for lower than expected amounts, RJR Nabisco’s stock was not moving up as expected, thus further persuading Johnson of the idea that a leveraged LBO is the way to unlock the true value that exists within the company:

The case mounted by Anthony Cipollone was considered among the strongest ever brought against the tobacco industry; the plaintiff’s lawyers had unearthed a raft of damaging documents. A tobacco victory, Johnson reasoned, would give his stock a real pop. When the jury finally delivered a verdict, it broke tobacco’s unbeaten streak—but just barely, clearing the industry of conspiracy and awarding only $400,000 in damages. “A tip for Tony Cipollone,” Johnson chortled, and waited for RJR Nabisco’s stock to spike up. It didn’t. Johnson’s office became a wailing wall where everybody came to cry about the injustice of it all. Horrigan was particularly bitter; he had predicted the stock would climb at least six points. “The market never going to give us its due,” Henderson complained. “The equity markets just aren’t a suitable capital structure for some companies.” Arguing to take stock from public hands was in fact the intellectual basis for an LBO, although no one openly advocated it at the time. Horrigan thought Johnson would never go private. “The problem with the company going private,” he said to himself, “is that nobody would pay any attention to him.”

The time was ripe for LBO’s, and the reasons:

In the five years before Ross Johnson decided to pursue his buyout, LBO activity totaled $181.9 billion, compared to $11 billion in the six years before that. A number of factors combined to fan the frenzy. The Internal Revenue Code, by making interest but not dividends deductible from taxable income, in effect subsidized the trend. That got LBOs off the ground. What made them soar was junk bonds. Of the money raised for any LBO, about 60 percent, the secured debt, comes in the form of loans from commercial banks. Only about 10 percent comes from the buyer itself For years the remaining 30 percent—the meat in the sandwich—came from a handful of major insurance companies whose commitments sometimes took months to obtain. Then, in the mid-eighties, Drexel Burnham began using high-risk “junk” bonds to replace the insurance company funds. The firm’s bond czar, Michael Milken, had proven his ability to raise enormous amounts of these securities on a moment’s notice for hostile takeovers. Pumped into buyouts, Milken’s junk bonds became a high-octane fuel that transformed the LBO industry from a Volkswagen Beetle into a monstrous drag racer belching smoke and fire.

As the bankers got involved in the process, Johnson could feel that he was losing control of the company, and that everyone was in it to grab a share of profits for themselves:

Johnson remained in his office, shocked at the turn in events. He couldn’t talk to Gutfreund or Cohen; they seemed too pleased at laving shown Kravis the price of messing with them. He couldn’t talk to Kravis, who, in Johnson’s words, was “pissing fire.” Just seventeen hours earlier, he had managed to get a peace treaty. He hadn’t wanted to invite Strauss or Cohen or any of the Wall Streeters. The whole thing had fallen apart over greed—pure and simple greed. And now, the piece de resistance, his own partners were launching a $20 billion bid without even bothering to tell him. He felt like the man who entered the casino in a tuxedo one night and emerged the next morning in rags. Far worse, Johnson realized, he had lost all control of his fate…Everyone, he reflected, was out to get something for themselves. The directors, with their petty concerns about pensions and auto insurance. Kravis and his investment bankers and their fees. Salomon and its bonds. And now Frank Benevento wanted $24 million. There was no bloody way Benevento was getting anywhere near $24 million, Johnson thought. He told him to bill the company for whatever he wished. The matter would be dealt with when things returned to normal.

The media quickly paid attention to this, and this also affected the employees productivity during that time:

In an editorial headlined, “Why the RJR circus is so dangerous,” Business Week reflected the business establishment’s distress. “This spectacle is not just unseemly—it is dangerous,” it held. “It is precisely this sort of behavior that plays into the hands of those who want to shackle the free market with unnecessary regulation. LBOs, including a potential RJR deal, should stand or fall on their financial and economic merits, not on the childish behavior of the principals.” For all the high-level handwringing, few felt the effects of the escalating fight as keenly as RJR Nabisco’s employees. In Atlanta, office workers sat during lunch periods glumly reading the daily news summaries the company issued. Isolated, irritated, and uncertain of their futures, the staff spent its days consumed with following the events on Wall Street, its spare time channeled into producing anti-Johnson propaganda.

A three pronged bidding war for RJR Nabisco was on:

The public the bidding for RJR Nabisco seemed frenzied, the emergence of a third bidding group transforming it into a wide-open race. But in the subdued hallways and offices of Lazard Freres and Dillon Read, there was no such enthusiasm. To the board’s advisers, the First Boston bid was hardly good news. Few among them had any confidence that Maher’s troops would come back in eight days with a concrete proposal.

KKR was the winner at the end:

Five minutes later discussion inside the boardroom ebbed. “Time is running out,” Hugel said. “Call for a motion.” Marty Davis spoke first. “I move we award to KKR.” “Second,” said John Macomber. “All in favor,” Hugel said. Hands filled the air. “All opposed?” So hands. “The vote,” Hugel said, “is unanimous.

Johnson semi-retired a rich man:

Johnson officially resigned that day, pulling the chord on his $53 million golden parachute.* His fanciest Gulfstream jet yet, ordered before the LBO battle, flew him to Jupiter on its maiden voyage. Johnson released a final statement before leaving: “The process we commenced last October has benefited the company’s shareholders and has proven the financial strength of our varied businesses.”

The shareholders’ were also enriched through the process, although not all of them happy about the proceeding:

Yet in the world’s greatest concentration of RJR shareholders— Winston-Salem, North Carolina—they weren’t thanking Johnson even as the money gushed into town. No sooner had Kravis won than signs began popping up: “Good-bye Ross, Hello KKR.” Nearly $2 billion of checks arrived there in the late-February mail. Now, more than ever, Winston-Salem was “the city of reluctant millionaires.” The river of money had washed away the last of RJR’s stock. Local brokers and bankers who managed people’s money got calls from distraught clients. “I won’t sell my stock,” more than one sobbed. “Daddy said don’t ever sell the RJR stock.” They were patiently told they had to. They were told the world had changed. No sooner had the checks arrived than out-of-town “financial consultants” descended on Winston-Salem to advise its residents on how best to spend their new riches. In leaflets tucked under windshields in the Reynolds parking lot, in pesky phone calls, in seminars at the Holiday Inn, stockbrokers offered to help people reinvest their windfall in the market. The frequent, incredulous response: “You want me to buy stock?”

KKR may have won the battle for RJR Nabisco, but it had lost the war in its investment going sour:

To its credit, Kohlberg Kravis wriggled out of its fix. In July 1990, it announced a $6.9 billion refinancing package, enabling it to buy back the junk bonds and substitute less onerous forms of debt. The costly maneuver probably assured that, as a buyout, RJR would neither be a free-fall disaster nor a windfall profit for Kohlberg Kravis. Whatever the case, it assured big paydays for the bankers and lawyers who reconfigured the original deal: another $250 million in fees. For Kravis ultimate success, it was clear, was years away. To make matters worse, Philip Morris, sensing RJR’s vulnerability, moved in for the kill, pummeling the company in a number of key markets. It expanded its sales force, undercut Reynolds on pricing, and attacked its strong discount brand, Doral, with two new off-price brands of its own. Analysts predicted RJR’s cigarette volume could fall 7 percent to 8 percent in 1989, while Philip Morris gained volume. “Philip Morris is eating our lunch,” Cliff Robbins of Kohlberg Kravis acknowledged in October 1989. “Marlboro is an unstoppable machine. We have a lot to do.”

There are many lessons within this story that extend beyond RJR Nabisco, namely:

  1. In a sense it had. Johnson was a product of his times, as surely as R. J. Reynolds was of his. The Roaring Eighties were a new gilded age, where winning was celebrated at all costs. “The casino society” Felix Rohatyn once dubbed it. The investment bankers were part croupiers, part alchemists. They conjured up wild schemes, pounded out new and more outlandish computer runs to justify them, then twirled their temptations before executives in a “devil dance.” That, at any rate, is what Johnson took to calling it. Depending on one’s viewpoint, the “dance” Johnson initiated at RJR will go down as either the high point or the low point of an era. It wasn’t an accident that RJR Nabisco should provide that moment. In its final decade Reynolds had become less a great company than a great dream machine. Its torrent of tobacco money allowed egos to run wild and fantasies to become true. Paul Sticht could walk with kings. Ed Horrigan could live like kings. Directors could be treated like kings…The founders of both RJR and Nabisco would have utterly failed to understand what was going on here. It is not so hard, in the mind’s eye, to see R. J. Reynolds and Adolphus Green wandering through the carnage of the LBO war. They would turn to one another, occasionally so much about what came out of their computers and so little about what came out of their factories? Why were they so intent on breaking up instead of building up? And last: What did this all have to do with doing business?

  2. To some, this saga wasn’t just about the fall of RJR Nabisco but the rise of an “I’ve got mine” ethos that would permeate every corner of corporate America. Even partners at once-staid accounting firms came to see themselves more as croupiers than auditors. Paul Volcker, who was chairman of Arthur Andersen in its dying days, believes its accountants became accomplices to Enron because they were so envious of such clients’ riches. As Volcker explained it, “The accountants felt like, ‘We’re as good as they are and we’re doing all the work.’ The general atmosphere was, ‘Money is out there for the taking.'” Reverbrations from the RJR buyout would also long be felt all up and down Wall Street. The deal went so badly for KKR and was attacked so vehemently by politicians that LBO firms pulled in their horns and eschewed mega-deals for years thereafter.

  3. The ensuing period is eerily reminiscent of the early 1990s-post RJR hangover, which raises a question: does anyone on Wall Street ever really learn anything? Colin Blaydon isn’t so sure. “When there’s a situation like this and everyone comes piling into a market they don’t fully understand, the financial markets always overshoot,” he says. “There are a lot of parallels to the world of the bubble that gave us RJR Nabisco.” Be assured, however, that the Barbarians are out there just beyond the gate, licking their wounds, biding their time, waiting for their next chance to storm the gates.

One of the best business books I have read to date, both in terms of content and delivery. A must read.

The Emperor Of All Maladies

My initial intention was to read The Philadelphia Chromosome by Jessica Wapner, but as I was browsing for this book, another one grabbed my attention within the “Customers Who Bought This Item Also Bought” section at Amazon and that was The Emperor of All Maladies – A Biography of Cancer – by Siddharta Mukherjee – with its stellar reviews. So I decided to buy and read the latter and below is my summary/review of this must read “literary thriller”. I have subsequently learned that this book was awarded the Pulitzer prize in 2011 in the General Nonfiction category.

First a morbid statistical reminder about the fatality of cancer and its pervasiveness:

In 2010, about six hundred thousand Americans, and more than 7 million humans around the world, will die of cancer. In the United States, one in three women and one in two men will develop cancer during their lifetime. A quarter of all American deaths, and about 75 percent of all deaths worldwide, will be attributed to cancer. In some nations, cancer will surpass heart disease to become the most common cause of death.

The author then proceeds with outlining the premise of this book – a biography of cancer:

This book is a history of cancer. It is a chronicle of an ancient disease— a clandestine, “whispered-about” illness—that has metamorphosed into a lethal shape-shifting entity imbued with such penetrating metaphorical, medical, scientific, and political potency that cancer is often described as the defining plague of our generation. This book is a “biography” in the truest sense of the word—an attempt to enter the mind of this immortal illness, to understand its personality, to demystify its behavior. But my ultimate aim is to raise a question beyond biography: Is cancer’s end conceivable in the future? Is it possible to eradicate this disease from our bodies and societies forever?…Two characters stand at the epicenter of this story—both contemporaries, both idealists, both children of the boom in postwar science and technology in America, and both caught in the swirl of a hypnotic, obsessive quest to launch a national “War on Cancer.” The first is Sidney Farber, the father of modern chemotherapy, who accidentally discovers a powerful anti-cancer chemical in a vitamin analogue and begins to dream of a universal cure for cancer. The second is Mary Lasker, the Manhattan socialite of legendary social and political energy, who joins Farber in his decades-long journey But Lasker and Farber only exemplify the grit, imagination, inventiveness, and optimism of generations of men and women who have waged a battle against cancer for four thousand years. In a sense, this is a military history—one in which the adversary is formless, timeless, and pervasive. Here, too, there are victories and losses, campaigns upon campaigns, heroes and hubris, survival and resilience—and inevitably, the wounded, the condemned, the forgotten, the dead. In the end, cancer truly emerges, as a nineteenth-century surgeon once wrote in a books frontispiece, as “the emperor of all maladies, the king of terrors.’

So what exactly is cancer?

Roiling underneath these medical, cultural, and metaphorical interceptions of cancer over the centuries was the biological understanding of the illness—an understanding that had morphed, often radically, from decade to decade. Cancer, we now know, is a disease caused by the uncontrolled growth of a single cell. This growth is unleashed by mutations—changes in DNA that specifically affect genes that incite unlimited cell growth. In a normal cell, powerful genetic circuits regulate cell division and cell death. In a cancer cell, these circuits have been broken, unleashing a cell that cannot stop growing. That this seemingly simple mechanism—cell growth without barriers—can lie at the heart of this grotesque and multifaceted illness is a testament to the unfathomable power of cell growth. Cell division allows us as organisms to grow, to adapt, to recover, to repair—to live. And distorted and unleashed, it allows cancer cells to grow, to flourish, to adapt, to recover, and to repair—to live at the cost of our living. Cancer cells grow faster, adapt better. They are more perfect versions of ourselves. The secret to battling cancer, then, is to find means to prevent these mutations from occurring in susceptible cells, or to find means to eliminate the mutated cells without compromising normal growth.

Following the post-war medical progress man-kind presumed that all illnesses could be cured – not so:

The sweeping victories of postwar medicine illustrated the potent and transformative capacity of science and technology in American life. Hospitals proliferated—between 1945 and 1960, nearly one thousand new hospitals were launched nationwide; between 1935 and 1952, the number of patients admitted more than doubled from 7 million to 17 million per year. And with the rise in medical care came the concomitant expectation of medical cure. As one student observed, “When a doctor has to tell a patient that there is no specific remedy for his condition, [the patient] is apt to feel affronted, or to wonder whether the doctor is keeping abreast of the times.”

Farber, is the father of chemotherapy:

Farber’s paper, published on June 3, 1948, was seven pages long, jampacked with tables, figures, microscope photographs, laboratory values, and blood counts. Its language was starched, formal, detached, and scientific…The paper was received, as one scientist recalls, “with skepticism, disbelief, and outrage.”…In the summer of 1948, when one of Farber’s assistants performed a bone marrow biopsy on a leukemic child after treatment with aminopterin, the assistant could not believe the results. “The bone marrow looked so normal,” he wrote, “that one could dream of a cure.” And so Farber did dream. He dreamed of malignant cells being killed by Specific anticancer drugs, and of normal cells regenerating and reclaiming their physiological spaces; of a whole gamut of such systemic antagonists to decimate malignant cells; of curing leukemia with chemicals, then applying his experience with chemicals and leukemia to more common cancers. He was throwing down a gauntlet for cancer medicine. It was then up to an entire generation of doctors and scientists to pick it up.

A reminder however of why treating cancer is particularly difficult – it evolves:

But cancer is not simply a clonal disease; it is a clonally evolving disease. If growth occurred without evolution, cancer cells would not be imbued with their potent capacity to invade, survive, and metastasize. Every generation of cancer cells creates a small number of cells that is genetically different from its parents. When a chemotherapeutic drug or the immune system attacks cancer, mutant clones that can resist the attack grow out. The fittest cancer cell survives. This mirthless, relentless cycle of mutation, selection, and overgrowth generates cells that are more and more adapted to survival and growth. In some cases, the mutations speed up the acquisition of other mutations The genetic instability, like a perfect madness, only provides more impetus to generate mutant clones. Cancer thus exploits the fundamental logic of evolution unlike any other illness. If we, as a species, are the ultimate product of Darwinian selection, then so, too, is this incredible disease that lurks inside us.

Is cancer a new disease? Why does it seem to occur more now than it did in the past?

The most striking finding, though, is not that cancer existed in the distant past, but that it was fleetingly rare. When I asked Aufderheide about this he laughed. “The early history of cancer,” he said, “is that there is very little early history of cancer.”…There are several reasons behind this absence. Cancer is an age-related disease—sometimes exponentially so…Our capacity to detect cancer earlier and earlier, and to attribute deaths accurately to it, has also dramatically increased in the last century…Finally changes in the structure of modern life have radically shifted the spectrum of cancers—increasing the incidence of some, decreasing the incidence of others.

How radiation therapy came to be:

It would take biologists decades to fully decipher the mechanism that lay behind these effects, but the spectrum of damaged tissues—skin, lips. blood, gums, and nails—already provided an important clue: radium was attacking DNA. DNA is an inert molecule, exhaustively resistant to most chemical reactions, for its job is to maintain the stability of genetic information. But X-rays can shatter strands of DNA or generate toxic chemicals that corrode DNA. Cells respond to this damage by dying or, more often, by ceasing to divide. X-rays thus preferentially kill the most rapidly proliferating cells in the body, cells in the skin, nails, gums, and blood. This ability of X-rays to selectively kill rapidly dividing cells did not go unnoticed—especially by cancer researchers. In 1896, barely a year after Rontgen had discovered his X-rays, a twenty-one-year-old Chicago medical student, Emil Grubbe. had the inspired notion of using X-rays to treat cancer…Radiation therapy catapulted cancer medicine into its atomic age—an age replete with both promise and peril. Certainly, the vocabulary, the images, and the metaphors bore the potent symbolism of atomic power unleashed on cancer.

A key component of the war against cancer was funding for research – how was that to be unlocked?

But to measure the genius of the Jimmy campaign in dollars and cents is to miss its point. For Farber, the Jimmy Fund campaign was an early experiment—the building of another model. The campaign against cancer, Farber learned, was much like a political campaign: it needed icons, mascots, images, slogans—the strategies of advertising as much as the tools of science. For any illness to rise to political prominence, it needed to be marketed, just as a political campaign needed marketing. A disease needed to be transformed politically before it could be transformed scientifically. If Farber’s antifolates were his first discovery in oncology, then this critical truth was his second. It set off a seismic transformation in his career that would far outstrip his transformation from a pathologist to a leukemia doctor. This second transformation—from a clinician into an advocate for cancer research—reflected the transformation of cancer itself. The emergence of cancer from its basement into the glaring light of publicity would change the trajectory of this story. It is a metamorphosis that he’s at the heart of this book.

This is where Mary Lasker played an instrumental role:

“If a toothpaste … deserved advertising at the rate of two or three or four million dollars a year,” Mary Lasker reasoned, “then research against diseases maiming and crippling people in the United States and in the rest of the world deserved hundreds of millions of dollars.” Within just a few years, she transformed, as BusinessWeek magazine once put it, into “the fairy godmother of medical research.”…To Farber’s evangelistic tambourine, Lasker added her own drumbeats of enthusiasm. She spoke and wrote passionately and confidently about her cause, emphasizing her points with quotes and questions. Back in New York, she employed a retinue of assistants to scour newspapers and magazines and clip out articles containing even a passing reference to cancer— all of which she read, annotated on the margins with questions in small, precise script, and distributed to the other Laskerites every week.

While it was important from a campaigning perspective to have one enemy cancer, the reality is cancer was of many types and forms (and thus each required a different cure):

But naive or not, it was this lumping—this emphatic, unshakable faith in the underlying singularity of cancer more than its pluralities—that galvanized the Laskerites in the 1960s. Oncology was on a quest for cohesive truths—a “universal cure,” as Farber put it in 1962. And if the oncologists of the 1960s imagined a common cure for all forms of cancer, it was because they imagined a common disease called cancer. Curing one form, the belief ran, would inevitably Iead to the cure, of another, and so forth like a chain reaction, until the whole malignant edifice had crumbled like a set of dominoes. That assumption—that a monolithic hammer would eventually demolish a monolithic disease—surcharged physicians, scientists, and cancer lobbyists with vitality and energy. For the Laskerites, it was an organizing principle, a matter of faith, the only certain beacon toward which they all gravitated. Indeed, the Political consolidation of cancer that the Laskerites sought in Washington (a single institute, a single source of funds, led by a single physician or scientist) relied on a deeper notion of a medical consolidation of cancer into a single disease, a monolith, a single, central narrative. Without this grand, embracing narrative, neither Mary Lasker nor Sidney Farber could have envisioned a systematic, targeted war.

A key element of the progress of the battle against cancer was defining how that progress was to be measured:

The measurement of illness, Breslow was arguing, is an inherently subjective activity: it inevitably ends up being a measure of ourselves. Objective decisions come to rest on normative ones. Cairns or Bailar could tell us how many absolute lives were being saved or lost by cancer therapeutics. But to decide whether the investment in cancer research was “worth it,” one needed to start by questioning the notion of “worth” itself: was the life extension of a five-year-old “worth” more than the life extension of a sixty-year-old? Even Bailar and Smiths “most fundamental measure of clinical outcome”—death—was far from fundamental. Death (or at least the social meaning of death) could be counted and recounted with other gauges, often resulting in vastly different conclusions. The appraisal of diseases depends, Breslow argued, on our self-appraisal. Society and illness often encounter each other in parallel mirrors, each holding up a Rorschach test for the other.

One cannot talk about cancer and not mention smoking and the impact the tobacco industry has had on smokers developing lung cancer:

Yet the real legacy of the Cipollone case had little to do with legal victories or losses. Lampooned in court as a weak-willed, ill-informed, and dim-witted addict unaware of the “obvious” dangers of tobacco, Rose Cipollone nonetheless turned into a heroic icon of a cancer victim battling her disease—even from her grave…Yet, old sins have long shadows, and carcinogenic sins especially so. The lag time between tobacco exposure and lung cancer is nearly three decades, and the lung cancer epidemic in America will have an afterlife long after smoking incidence has dropped. Among men, the age-adjusted incidence of lung adenocarcinoma, having peaked at 102 per 100,000 in 1984, dropped to 77 in 2002. Among women, though, the epidemic still runs unabated. The stratospheric rise of smoking among women in Rose Cipollone’s generation is still playing itself out in the killing fields of lung cancer…Yet despite the evident seriousness of this addiction and its long-term consequences, tobacco consumption continues relatively unfettered even today Smoking rates, having plateaued for decades, have begun to rise again in certain demographic pockets, and lackluster antismoking campaigns have lost their grip on public imagination. The disjunction between the threat and the response is widening. It remains an astonishing, disturbing fact that in America—a nation where nearly every new drug is subjected to rigorous scrutiny as a potential carcinogen, and even the bare hint of a substances link to cancer ignites a firestorm of public hysteria and media anxiety—one of the most potent and common carcinogens known to humans can be freely bought and sold at every corner store for a few dollars.

A reminder about the realities of scientific research:

Science is often described as an iterative and cumulative process, a puzzle solved piece by piece, with each piece contributing a few hazy pixels of a much larger picture. But the arrival of a truly powerful new theory in science often feels far from iterative. Rather than explain one observation or phenomenon in a single, pixelated step, an entire field of observations suddenly seems to crystallize into a perfect whole. The effect is almost like watching a puzzle solve itself. Varmus and Bishops experiments had precisely such a crystalizing, zippering effect on cancer genetics. The crucial implication of the Varmus and Bishop experiment was that a precursor of a cancer-causing gene— the “proto-oncogene,” as Bishop and Varmus called it—was a normal cellular gene. Mutations induced by chemicals or X-rays caused cancer not by “inserting” foreign genes into cells, but by activating such endogenous proto-oncogenes.

And also, the fact that we are surrounded by an evolving list of potential carcinogens:

The landscape of carcinogens is not static either. We are chemical apes: laving discovered the capacity to extract, purify, and react molecules to produce new and wondrous molecules, we have begun to spin a new chemical universe around ourselves. Our bodies, our cells, our genes are thus being immersed and reimmersed in a changing flux of molecules—pesticides, pharmaceutical drugs, plastics, cosmetics, estrogens, food products, hormones, even novel forms of physical impulses, such as radiation and magnetism. Some of these, inevitably, will be carcinogenic. We cannot wish this world away; our task, then, is to sift through it vigilantly to discriminate bona fide carcinogens from innocent and useful bystanders.

The future might not bring a cure that eradicates cancer, but treatments that prolong the life of those affected:

Part of the unpredictability about the trajectory of cancer in the future is that we do not know the biological basis for this heterogeneity. We cannot yet fathom, for instance, what makes pancreatic cancer or gallbladder cancer so markedly different from CML or Atossas breast cancer. What is certain, however, is that even the knowledge of cancer’s biology is unlikely to eradicate cancer fully from our lives. As Doll suggests, and as Atossa epitomizes, we might as well focus on prolonging life rather than eliminating death. This War on Cancer may best be “won” by redefining victory.

On a concluding note:

Germaine seemed, that evening, to have captured something essential about our struggle against cancer: that, to keep pace with this malady, you needed to keep inventing and reinventing, learning and unlearning strategies. Germaine fought cancer obsessively, cannily, desperately, fiercely, madly, brilliantly, and zealously—as if channeling all the fierce, inventive energy of generations of men and women who had fought cancer in the past and would fight it in the future. Her quest for a cure had taken her on a strange and limitless journey, through Internet blogs and teaching hospitals, chemotherapy and clinical trials halfway across the country, through a landscape more desolate, desperate, and disquieting than she had ever imagined. She had deployed every morsel of energy to the quest, mobilizing and remobilizing the last dregs of her courage, summoning her will and wit and imagination, until, that final evening, she had stared into the vault of her resourcefulness and resilience and found it empty. In that haunted last night, hanging on to her life by no more than a tenuous thread, summoning all her strength and dignity as she wheeled herself to the privacy of her bathroom, it was as if she had encapsulated the essence of a four-thousand-year-old war.

A highly recommended read, about a subject that unfortunately touches most of us whether directly or indirectly. I dedicate this post to my grandmother, Aida, who passed away from cancer in 2000.

On Now, Discover Your Strengths

I just finished reading the book Now, Discover Your Strengths by Marcus Buckingham and the late Donald O. Clifton, Ph.D.

The main premise of this book:

We wrote this book to start a revolution, the strengths revolution. At the heart of this revolution is a simple decree: The great organization must not only accommodate the fact that each employee is different, it must capitalize on these differences. It must watch for clues to each employee’s natural talents and then position and develops each employee so that his or her talents are transformed into bona fide strengths. By changing the way it selects, measures, develops, and channels the careers of its people, this revolutionary organization must build its entire enterprise around the strengths of each person. And as it does, this revolutionary organization will be positioned to dramatically outperform its peers…To break out of this weakness spiral and to launch the strengths revolution in your own organization, you must change your assumptions about people. Start with the right assumptions, and everything else that follows from them—how you select, measure, train, and develop your people—will be right. These are the two assumptions that guide the world’s best managers: 1. Each person’s talents are enduring and unique. 2. Each person’s greatest room for growth is in the areas of his or her greatest strength.

The foundational assumptions that this book, and strength-based management is based on:

These two assumptions are the foundation for everything they do with and for their people. These two assumptions explain why great managers are careful to look for talent in every role, why they focus people’s performances on outcomes rather than forcing them into a stylistic mold, why they disobey the Golden Rule and treat each employee differently, and why they spend the most time with their best people. In short, these two assumptions explain why the world’s best managers break all the rules of conventional management wisdom. Now, following the great managers’ lead, it is time to change the rules. These two revolutionary assumptions must serve as the central tenets for a new way of working. They are the tenets for a new organization, a stronger organization, an organization designed to reveal and stretch the strengths of each employee.

On Strengths:

For the sake of clarity let’s be more precise about what we mean by a “strength.” The definition of a strength that we will use throughout this book is quite specific: consistent near perfect performance in an activity. By this definition Pam’s accurate decision-making and ability to rally people around her organization’s common purpose are strengths. Sherie’s love of diagnosing and treating skin diseases is a strength. Paula’s ability to generate and then refine article ideas that fit her magazine’s identity is a strength.

On Skills:

Skills bring structure to experiential knowledge. What does this mean? It means that, whatever the activity, at some point a smart person will sit back and formalize all the accumulated knowledge into a sequence of steps that, if followed, will lead to performance—not necessarily great performance but acceptable performance nonetheless…The bottom fine on skills is this: A skill is designed to make the secrets of the best easily transferable. If you learn a skill, it will help you get a little better, but it will not cover for a lack of talent. Instead, as you build your strengths, skills will actually prove most valuable when they are combined with genuine talent.

On Talent:

What is talent? Talent is often described as “a special natural ability or aptitude,” but for the purposes of strength building we suggest a more precise and comprehensive definition, which is derived from our studies of great managers. Talent is any recurring pattern of thought, feeling, or behavior that can be productively applied. Thus, if you are instinctively inquisitive, this is a talent. If you are competitive, this is a talent. If you are charming, this is a talent. If you are persistent, this is a talent. If you are responsible, this is a talent. Any recurring pattern of thought, feeling, or behavior is a talent if this pattern can be productively applied…Spontaneous reactions, yearnings, rapid learning, and satisfactions will all help you detect the traces of your talents. As you rush through your busy life, try to step back, quiet the wind whipping past your ears, and listen for these clues. They will help you zero in on your talents.

To recap:

Talents are your naturally recurring patterns of thought, feeling, or behavior. Your various themes of talent are what the StrengthsFinder Profile actually measures. Knowledge consists of the facts and lessons learned. Skills are the steps of an activity.

On obstacles to building strengths:


However, despite the range, this general conclusion holds true: The majority of the world’s population doesn’t think that the secret to improvement lies in a deep understanding of their strengths. (Interestingly, in every culture the group least fixated on their weaknesses was the oldest group, those fifty-five years old and above. A little older, a little wiser, this group has probably acquired a measure of self-acceptance and realized the futility of trying to paper over the persistent cracks in their personality.)

On whether you can develop new themes if you don’t like the ones revealed?

You may not be able to rewire your brain, but by acquiring new knowledge and skills you can redirect your life. You can’t develop new themes, but you can develop new strengths.

On what to do about weaknesses?

To begin with, you need to know what a weakness is. Our definition of a weakness is anything that gets in the way of excellent performance. To some this may seem to be an obvious definition, but before skipping past it, bear in mind that it is not the definition of weakness that most of us would use. Most of us would probably side with Webster’s and the Oxford English Dictionary and define a weakness as “an area where we lack proficiency.” As you strive to build your life around your strengths, we advise you to steer clear of this definition for one very practical reason: Like all of us, you have countless areas where you lack proficiency, but most of them are simply not worth bothering about. Why? Because they don’t get in the way of excellent performance. They are irrelevant. They don’t need to be managed at all, just ignored…So once you know you have a genuine weakness on your hands, a deficiency that actually gets in the way of excellent performance, how can you best deal with it? The first thing you have to do is identify whether the weakness is a skills weakness, a knowledge weakness, or a talent weakness.

On whether the themes revealed will indicate whether you are in the right career?

Our research into human strengths does not support the extreme, and extremely misleading, assertion that “you can play any role you set your mind to,” but it does lead us to this truth: Whatever you set your mind to, you will he most successful when you craft your role to play to your signature talents most of the time. We hope that by highlighting your signature themes we can help you craft such a role.

Practical implications of strengths-based management:

Since each person’s talents are enduring, you should spend a great deal of time and money selecting people properly in the first place…Since each person’s talents are unique, you should focus performance by legislating outcomes rather than forcing each person into a stylistic mold…Since the greatest room for each person’s growth is in the areas of his greatest strength, you should focus your training time and money on educating him about his strengths and figuring out ways to build on these strengths rather than on remedially trying to plug his “skill gaps.”…Lastly, since the greatest room for each person’s growth lies in his areas of greatest strength, you should devise ways to help each person grow his career without necessarily promoting him up the corporate ladder and out of his areas of strength.

Managers will continue to play a key role in the development of employees within a strengths-based organization:

Needless to say the individual manager will always be a critical catalyst in transforming each employee’s talents into bona fide strengths; consequently, much of the responsibility will lie with the manager to develop each employee’s career.

A reminder on how to keep high potential employees engaged:

If you want to keep a talented employee, show him not just that you care about him, not just that you will help him grow, but, more important, that you know him, that in the truest sense of the word you recognize him (or, at the very least, that you are trying to). In today’s increasingly anonymous and transient working world, your organization’s inquisitiveness about the strengths of its employees will set your organization apart.

On a concluding note:

With the knowledge economy gathering pace, global competition increasing, new technologies quickly commoditized, and the workforce aging, the right employees are becoming more precious with each passing year. Those of us who lead great organizations must become more sophisticated and more efficient when it comes to capitalizing on our people. We must find the best fit possible of people’s strengths and the roles we are asking them to play at work. Only then will we be as strong as we should be. Only then will we win.

This book includes access for you to take the online StrengthsFinder assessment and discover your top five themes. The material in the book will help you further develop your talents and strengths as well as how to best enable others on your team based on their strengths.

A recommended read, development and engagement tool both from a personal and management perspective.


On The Path Between The Seas

I first heard about The Path Between The Seas – The Creation of the Panama Canal 1870-1914 – by acclaimed historian author David McCullough, when Bill Gates recommended it on his reading list.

As the title indicates, this book is about the colossal that was the undertaking of the Panama Canal construction, between the years of 1870 to 1914:

The creation of the Panama Canal was far more than a vast, unprecedented feat of engineering. It was a profoundly important historic event and a sweeping human drama not unlike that of war. Apart from wars, it represented the largest, most costly single effort ever before mounted anywhere on earth. It held the world’s attention over a span of forty years. It affected the lives of tens of thousands of people at every level of society and of virtually every race and nationality. Great reputations were made and destroyed. For numbers of men and women it was the adventure of a lifetime. Because of it one nation, France, was rocked to its foundations. Another, Colombia, lost its most prized possession, the Isthmus of Panama. Nicaragua, on the verge of becoming a world crossroads, was left to wait for some future chance. The Republic of Panama was born. The United States was embarked on a role of global involvement. In the history of finance capitalism, in the history of medicine, it was an event of signal consequence. It marked a score of advances in engineering, government planning, labor relations. It was a response to Sedan, a response to the idea of sea power. It was both the crowning constructive effort, “The Great Enterprise,” of the Victorian Era and the first grandiose and assertive show of American power at the dawn of the new century. And yet the passage of the first ship through the canal in the summer of 1914—the first voyage through the American land mass—marked the resolution of a dream as old as the voyages of Columbus.

It all started with a letter from the Secretary of the Navy back in the 1870:

The letter, several pages in length and signed by Secretary of the Navy George M. Robeson, was addressed to Commander Thomas O. Selfridge. It was an eminently clear, altogether formal document, as expected, and had a certain majesty of tone that Commander Self ridge thought quite fitting…Navy Department Washington, January 10, 1870 Sir: Sir: You are appointed to the command of an expedition to make a survey of the Isthmus of Darien, to ascertain the point at which to cut a canal from the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean. The steam-sloop Nipsic and the store-ship Guard will be under your Command…

President Grant was the first one to have the vision on the value of such a canal, particularly to the US:

The President of the United States at this juncture was Ulysses S. Grant and it was he, the year before, who had instructed Admiral Ammen to organize the series of expeditions-“practicaI investigations,” he called them. Grant, despite his subsequent reputation as a President of little vision or initiative, was more keenly interested in an isthmian canal than any of his predecessors had been. He was indeed the first President to address himself seriously to the subject. If there was to be a water corridor, he wanted it in the proper place—as determined by civil engineers and naval authorities-and he wanted it under American control. “To Europeans the benefits of and advantages of the proposed canal are great,” he was to write, “to Americans they are incalculable.”

The first part of the history of the canal was dominated by one man – Ferdinand de Lesseps:

Viewed in retrospect, de Lesseps’ life stands out as one of the most extraordinary of the nineteenth century, even without the Panama venture. That he of all men of his time should have been the one to make “the miracle” happen at Suez is in itself miraculous. Suddenly there he was. Known after 1869 as “The Great Engineer,” he was no such thing. He had no technical background, no experience in finance. His skills as an administrator were modest. Routine of any kind bored him quickly.

His ambitions were altruistic:

“At any time he could have sold his precious concession and realized a fortune, but this he never did; his driving ambition throughout was to build the canal, ”pour le bien de l’humanite.”

However, neither he nor the people around him listened to the contrarian opinions who had valid concerns:

It was later that same day that another of the French delegates, one who had had nothing to say thus far, came to the front of the auditorium to deliver the most extraordinary pronouncement of the entire congress. A man of genius stepped forward then and there, in fact. although no one, not even de Lesseps, perceived this. He was Baron Godin de Lepinay—Nicholas-Joseph-Adolphe Godin de Lepinay, Baron de Brusly—a small, bearded aristocrat who was a chief engineer with the Corps des Ponts et Chaussees…His solution was what Philippe Bunau-Varilla would call the “Idea of the artificial Nicaragua.” Incredibly and tragically, the delegates paid him no attention. The Americans dismissed the plan as ridiculous. Menocal could hardly bring himself to mention de Lepninay’s name in his report on the congress. Ammen referred only to the “plan,” in quotes, as an illustration of the extremes some of the French had gone to in an effort to rescue the Panama route. Had the delegates reacted differently, had they taken de Lepinay seriously, the story of the canal could have turned out quite differently.

One of the major challenges with the work at Panama and differences between it and the work at the Suez:

The point he does seem to have stressed—the great lesson to be learned from his experience—was that everything, every them, had to be brought to Panama, including the men to do the work. The Panamanians themselves would be of no use. The poor were unused to heavy manual labor and were without ambition; the upper classes regarded physical work as beneath their dignity. There would be no home-grown labor force to count on, no armies of Egyptian fellahin this time. Labor had to be figured like freight, very expensive freight. Then every pick and shovel, every tent, blanket, mattress, every cookstove and locomotive, had to be carried by ship across thousands of miles of ocean. De Lesseps could count on Panama to provide nothing but the place to dig the canal.

And to some extent that past experience seemed to hurt the French more than it benefited them:

But at Panama the French had to improvise—or rather they had to go by. Virtually everything had to be learned by trial and error, and their chief difficulty as time went on was the fearful cost of their errors. The experience at Suez was little help. Probably they would have been better off in the long run had there been no Suez Canal in their past. For despite all de Lesseps told the press and his public, Panama had only one advantage over Suez: the distance to be covered. Everything else at Panama was infinitely more difficult. Panama was an immeasurably larger and more baffling task than Suez, just as Godin de Lepinay had warned.

Tropical diseases that was affecting workers was one of the most difficult challenges that the construction team had to deal with:

The toll in human lives was growing ever more ghastly, unlike anything anyone had foreseen, except possibly Godin de Lepinay. Eighteen eighty-five was to be the worst year. Probably more people died then than at any other time during the French regime. In the years to follow, the ravages of yellow fever, malaria, typhoid fever, smallpox, pneumonia, dysentery, beriberi, food poisoning, snakebite, sunstroke, were only a shade less appalling. Ordinarily on the Isthmus, yellow fever came and went in cycles of two to three years. Now, unaccountably, it never went away and there was not a thing anyone could do. Malaria, ever present as always, remained the deadliest killer.

The difficulties drew insurmountable and brought the French operations to its knees:

It was a reporter for Le Figaro, arriving at de Lesseps’ home just ten minutes after the vote in the Chamber, who told him how the vote had gone. De Lesseps turned dreadfully pale, the man wrote afterward, and could only whisper, “It is impossible! It is shameful!” The pallor and the loss of words were but momentary, however. Instinctively the old reflexes responded. He was in motion again. issuing statements, talking of new schemes. The company was in wreckage, the government had turned its back-, the long battle was ended and he had been crushed. It was Sedan again for France, yet he refused to accept that—he was incapable of accepting that…The official end came on February 4, 1889. In accordance with a desire formally expressed by shareholders in the original company. the Tribunal Civil appointed a liquidator. The Compagnie Universelle du Canal Interoceanique was no more.

What followed is one of the largest scandals to rock the French society:

It was nearly three years later when the Panama scandal broke wide open, rocking France to its foundations. Between times, the great Universal Exposition of 1889 had been staged beneath Gustave Eiffel’s gargantuan tower, and French political life went along little changed from year to year, one ministry succeeding another, despite the flaming oratory, despite the Boulanger crisis. General Boulanger, “the strong man,” having sat out his chance to seize power, having escaped to Brussels with his adored mistress, Madame de Bonnemains, had also, soon after her death, shot himself at her graveside. Panama, to be sure, had remained a major topic. Some 800,000 French men and women had been directly affected, the savings of entire families had utterly vanished. People who could ill afford to lose anything had lost everything. Still, no panic had been touched off when the company went under. There were no demonstrations in the streets May 15, 1889, the day the liquidator ordered that the work be halted on the Isthmus. Instead, shareholders submitted their grievances by formal petition, in polite, written pleas for redress through government action. Tempers cooled; rumors of fraud and political payoffs were denied or discounted or simply grew stale. When the liquidator established a special committee to go to Panama and estimate the cost of finishing the canal, many shareholders actually took heart, convinced that the government was about to rescue them.

It was a bitter ending for the de Lesseps family as well:

With family and friends and in all the remaining years of his life, Charles refused to speak of Panama. “He would not talk about it,” recalled an adoring nephew, “never, never, never, never.” And in the view of those who knew him best, he was regarded no less than ever as the most honest and admirable of men. The Suez company had kept him on its hoard of directors even during his time in prison. “He was a very honorable man, you know, the old-fashioned sort of thing,” the nephew would say…Charles had been with his father at the end. It happened the year following Charles’s release from the hospital. Madame de Lesseps and the rest of the family were also present and death came very quietly for the old adventurer. He died at La Chesnaye, in his second-fl-floor bedroom facing south, late in the afternoon on December 7, 1894, three weeks after his eighty-ninth birthday. The body was taken up to Paris by train for burial in Pere Lachaise Cemetery. There was no grand funeral procession; there were no crowds at the graveside services, only the family, a representative of the Societe de Geographic, one very old boyhood friend, and the directors of the Suez Canal Company. The Suez company paid all the funeral expenses. In the eulogies the word “Panama” was never mentioned.

In retrospect, the root causes of failure for de Lesseps was as follows:

The root sources of his downfall had been apparent since the Paris congress of 1879: the insistence on a sea-level passage through country he knew nothing about, the total disinterest in conceptions other than his own, the refusal to heed voices of experience, the disregard for all data that either conflicted with or that appeared to vitiate his own cherished vision; but none of these would have mattered greatly had it not been for that extraordinary ability to inspire the loyalty and affection of individual human beings at every social and intellectual level. From the technical standpoint the tragedy hung on the decision to cut through at sea level, to make another Suez Canal. Such a task at Panama was simply too overwhelming, if not impossible. The strategy did not suit the battleground. The handwriting had been on the wall a good three to four years before the money was gone. With the equipment then available, even a lock canal of modest dimensions would have been an enormously difficult and costly task. But had he and his technical advisers decided to make it a lock canal even as late as 1886. at the time of his second tour of the Isthmus, there probably would have been a French canal at  Panama, death, disease, jungle, geology, costs, and de Lesseps’ advanced age all notwithstanding. The size of the locks being contemplated would have made the canal obsolete in relatively little time, but the canal would have been built. As for any possible complicity on his part in the less-than-noble practices that went on behind the scenes, there is no real mystery. He was neither innocent nor a simpleton. He was involved in bribing the press, in the Herz compact, indeed he was the one who crossed that line at the very beginning at the time of the first successful stock issue.

However, he laid a foundation and the needed infrastructure for the future work:

It can also be said, and with certainty, that nothing whatever would have been attempted or accomplished at Panama had it not been for Ferdinand de Lesseps, a point missing from the postmortems of the 1890’s, largely since the actual work itself had been either forgotten or was assumed to be utterly without value. In France, as Andre Siegfried observed, no one seemed to recall that Panama had had anything to do with the building of a canal. “In the end one almost believed that The many had hardly done anything at all in the isthmus . .” The money, declared The Times of London, was “as clean gone” as if it had been sunk in the North Atlantic. Nobody talked of the hospitals that had been built, the offices, storehouses, and dock facilities, the living quarters and machine shops; the maps, plans, surveys, and hydrographic data that had been assembled; the land that had been acquired or the Panama Railroad. And the fact that more than 50,000,000 cubic meters of earth and rock had been removed from the path of the canal, an amount equal to two-thirds of the total excavation at Suez, was virtually forgotten. All had been in vain was the prevailing, unchallenged attitude; the defeat of the old pioneer had been total.

It was then up to Roosevelt to provide his vision for the Panama canal:

Roosevelt, however, looked upon the canal quite differently than de Lesseps had, differently, in fact, than nearly everyone. It was very well for others to talk of it as the dream of Columbus, to call it a giant step in the march of civilization, or to picture as de Lesseps so often had its immeasurable value to world commerce. Roosevelt was promoting neither a commercial venture nor a universal utility. To him, first, last, and always, the canal was the vital-the indispensable—path to a global destiny for the United States of America. He had a vision of his country as the commanding power on two oceans, and these joined by a canal built, owned, operated, policed, and fortified by his country. The canal was to be the first step to American supremacy at sea.

His approach nevertheless was not without controversy:

And Roosevelt’s ultimate response to the Panama situation was to become the most disputed act of his career largely because it appeared to be an act of such violent impulse, an expression of what even many of his strongest admirers saw as an arrogant, nearly infantile insistence on having things his way and plunging ahead heedless of obstacles or consequences. To some observers there seemed something unpleasantly appropriate about the fact that his recreational passion at Sagamore Hill that summer of 1903 was the so-called point-to-point “obstacle walk,” the one rule, the only rule, being that the participant must go up and over, or through, every obstacle, never around it. He was invariably the leader on such escapades, followed by a band of excited children, perhaps a stout-hearted guest or two.

On the role of the US, in Panama’s independence:

Without the military presence of the United States—had there been no American gunboats standing off shore at Colon and Panama City— the Republic of Panama probably would not have lasted a week. Rear Admiral Henry Glass, for example, would conclude after a careful appraisal of the republic’s capacity to defend itself that at the very most six hundred men might have been furnished with adequate arms. Taft, on his first visit to Panama a year later, would describe its army as “not much larger than the army on an opera stage.” Colombia, had it had free access from the sea, could have landed several thousand veteran troops on both sides of the Isthmus, just as the conspirators themselves had appreciated from the beginning. As it was, a Colombian selves had appreciated from the beginning. As it was, a Colombian through the Darien wilderness, but ravaged by fever, they gave up and turned back.

This intervention in international affairs did not come without some long-term impact:

The damage done to American relations with Colombia, indeed with all of Latin America, was enormous, just as John Tyler Morgan had prophesied. As an American minister at Bogota, James T. Du Bois, would write in 1912, the breach worsened as time passed: By refusing to allow Colombia to uphold her sovereign rights over a territory where she had held dominion for eighty years, the friendship of nearly a century disappeared, the indignation of every Colombian, and millions of other Latin-Americans, was aroused and is still most intensely active. The confidence and trust in the justice and fairness of the United States, so long manifested, has completely vanished, and the maleficent influence of this condition is permeating public opinion in all Latin-American countries, a condition which, if remedial measures are not invoked, will work inestimable harm throughout the Western Hemisphere.

The handover of the project between the French and the US was uneventful:

In the morning of May 4, 1904, and to the Panamanians, who adored ceremony and celebration, who remembered Cathedral Plaza festooned with palm branches and French flags, who remembered parades and banquets and Ferdinand de Lesseps prancing on horseback, it was a terrible disappointment and most unbecoming to the occasion. At 7:30 A.M. Lieutenant Mark Brooke met with half a dozen American officials and a duly authorized representative of the Compagnie Nouvelle at the company headquarters on the plaza, the old Grand Hotel…The transaction occupied no more than a few minutes. Scarcely anyone other than those present was aware of the event. Lieutenant Brooke had not even thought to invite President Amador. Having shaken hands with the Panamanians and the French officials, the young officer raised the Stars and Stripes to the top of the hotel flagpole.

A key for success for the US was the progress they made in combating the tropical diseases:

But while a drastic reduction of all disease was considered essential in the long run, yellow fever had to be the immediate objective. To rid the Isthmus of yellow fever, Gorgas remarked, would be to rid it of fear.

Also their approach to this engineering challenge was a paradigm shift to that of the French:

In more abstract terms, in terms of pure professional problem solving, Stevens’ greatest contribution was the basic vision of the excavation of the canal as a large-scale problem in railroad freight. As conceived by Stevens, the Panama project was simply one of moving unprecedented tonnage—dirt—by railroad with the least possible wasted motion.

Despite it having been completed after his era, Roosevelt is still credited as being the one the one behind its establishment:

None of this made much difference, however. Nor ought there ever be any question as to the legitimacy of the Roosevelt stamp on the canal. His own emphatic position was that it would never have been built but for him and it was a position no one tried to dispute. To Goethals, “The real builder of the Panama Canal was Theodore Roosevelt.” It could not have been more Roosevelt’s triumph, Goethals wrote, “if he had personally lifted every shovelful of earth in its construction.

The advancement in hydraulics through the Panama Canal were equally as impressive:

The fundamental element to be reckoned with and utilized in the locks—the vital factor in the whole plan and all its structural, mechanical, and electrical components—was water. Water would lift and lower the ships. The buoyancy of water would make the tremendous lock gates, gates two to three times heavier than any ever built before. virtually weightless. The power of falling water at the Gatun spillway would generate the electrical current to run all the motors to operate would generate the electrical current to run all the motors to operate canal, in other words, would supply its own energy needs. No force would be required to raise or lower the level of water in the locks (and thus to raise or lower a ship in transit) other than the force of gravity. The water would simply flow into the locks from above—from Gatun Lake or Miraflores Lake—or flow out into the sea-level channels. The water would be admitted or released through giant tunnels, or culverts, running lengthwise within the center and side walls of the locks, culverts eighteen feet in diameter, as large nearly as the Pennsylvania Railroad tubes under the Hudson River.

The historical accomplishment was short-lived due to the start of World War I:

There were editorials hailing the victory of the canal builders, but the great crescendo of popular interest had passed; a new heroic effort commanded world attention. The triumph at Panama suddenly belonged to another and very different era.

On a concluding and inspirational note:

Once, in a paper addressed “To the Young Engineers Who Must Carry On,” Stevens said something with which all of these remarkable men would assuredly have agreed-for all that had happened to the world since Panama. His faith in the human intellect and its creative capacities remained undaunted, Stevens wrote. The great works had still to come. “I believe that we are but children picking up pebbles on the shore of the boundless ocean. . . .”

If you are interested to see the Panama Canal in action, here is an excellent time lapse video on it.

A highly recommended read, whether your interests are in the area of history, politics, engineering, medicine or project management.

On The Bright IDEA BOX

This week, I have the pleasure and privilege to review Jag Randhawa’s book: The Bright Idea Box – A Proven System to Drive Employee Engagement and Innovation. Jag had approached me about his new book, having previously read Blue Ocean Strategy. Given that this book is about employee engagement and innovation, two topics I am very passionate and intimately involved with I was very much looking forward to reading and reviewing this book.

As the title indicates this is a book about innovation. Jag begins by making it clear that it is the employees within the organization that drive innovation:

It is never an idea, technology, market forces, or access to capital that makes a company innovative. What differentiates an innovative company from an average company is the people working inside the company.

Subsequently, their engagement level correlates to the level of innovation:

Researchers have long argued that a strong correlation exists between employee engagement and innovation. A highly engaged workforce can transform an average company to an innovative company, while a disengaged workforce can kill a great company.

The main premise of the book is to provide a framework for a bottom up employee driven innovation program:

This book offers a framework to create such a program, in which employees submit ideas to create operational efficiencies, improve business processes, increase customer satisfaction, and grow the business. This book mirrors the program I created at my work after years of reading, researching, and trial-and-error learning…This book is not meant to persuade anyone why he or she needs innovation, but rather to show how to get started on this journey.

Tying this back to employee engagement:

Creating such a program has an amazing effect on employee engagement. Let’s assume for a moment that you get absolutely no good ideas out of this program; then, you will still benefit from increased employee engagement. Establishing this program creates a new sense of worth among the employees, which, by itself, will increase their engagement. They will feel that you value their input— that they are intellectual human beings and their work makes a difference to their company’s bottom line. They will feel they are an integral part of the organization and not a dumb or easily replaceable component . Employee engagement increases trust between management and employees. Every job is important in an organization, and every job can be done better. You need to communicate that to employees. Ask them to look for ways to improve functions, processes, and products. If you feel there is any particular role that is not important or could not be improved, you are not thinking hard enough. Sometimes the problem lies in the definition of the role, and at other times, it is the person in that role. Take appropriate actions to make sure you address the actual problem.

The word innovation has been overused as of late, so Jag ensures he defines it and characterizes it for us:

The essence of innovation is to add value for customers. Inventions that wow people, but don’t add value, rarely survive for long, and they often end up costing more money than they add to the bottom line. For an invention to become innovation , it must add value for customers. The value can come through lowered cost, new features, aesthetics, convenience, ease of use, enhanced experience, or meeting emotional needs. Sometimes the value comes in the form of helping customers make more money , attain goals, or safeguard valuables.

Innovation = Invention + Execution + Adoption

Why is innovation so hard? And why do numerous companies don’t do well/fail in it?

Most companies fail to innovate because they are not receptive to the idea that enhancing existing products is innovative. The grass always looks greener on the other side . They cling to the notion of developing new products, which often end up costing companies more money than the new revenues they generate. This belief is further engrained in their minds by the notion that innovative ideas emerge in full form with “success” written all over them. In reality, this notion could not be farther from the truth.

What are the main areas of innovation that a company can focus on:

These areas of focus for innovation can be broadly classified into four business domains: • Revenue Generation • Cost Reduction • Business Process  • Business Model

REVENUE GENERATION The revenue-generating domain of innovation pertains to ideas that contribute to top-line growth. This focus is the most obvious for many organizations, and under this focus, creating new products is the most prevalent strategy.

COST REDUCTION As the name suggests, this domain encompasses ideas that help lower the operational costs of a business. Wal-Mart and Southwest relentlessly focus on providing value to customers through lowered cost. Therefore, ideas that help lower operational costs are given precedence over all other types of ideas.

BUSINESS PROCESS Process innovation is perhaps the most overlooked and underappreciated domain of innovation. In my view, business processes are perhaps the most important domain to innovate— especially customer facing processes.

BUSINESS MODEL Business model innovations address the “how” part of the value proposition of a business. A business model is the overarching process of an organization and explains how it transforms the input of labor, knowledge, material, means of distribution, and other resources into a product or service that customers feel is worth the money they pay for it. Business models also address how an organization acquires and serves its customers, and, at times, how it charges its customers in exchange for the value it delivers. Business model innovations entail changing one or more input resources in ways that deliver value to customers. Most business model innovations tend to be large, strategic initiatives, and you may not see many ideas in the business model innovations category from your employees.

What are the essential ingredients within a company for innovation?

As we discussed in Chapter Two, innovation has three critical components: invention, execution, and adoption. All three pieces must come together for any idea to see the light of day. All ideas face capital, intellectual, technical, and political challenges. These challenges can be overcome only if management creates the focus and employees align their efforts toward that focus and find creative solutions to make the products successful. This alignment and focus can be driven by strong management directives and processes, or it can come from employees as a passion to do great things, be part of something bigger, and make contributions toward a greater cause . The successful companies leverage both to drive continuous innovation.

Is it enough to have top-down innovation or bottom-up innovation?

A good organization is a mix of both top-down and bottom-up innovation. Top-down innovations are very important for dreaming big. Without top-down innovation, we would have never set foot on the moon, built the personal computer , or promoted personalized healthcare. It is the job of visionary leaders to push boundaries and constantly disrupt the market with new and innovative ways to add value for customers. However, leaders cannot be involved in every activity that goes on inside an organization . As the company grows, the only way to succeed is through delegation. The question then becomes: Are the delegates engaged at the same level as the leaders? Is their intent, energy, and focus aligned toward the same vision? Do they feel like part of that vision? Do they see themselves as an important piece of the puzzle in bringing that vision to reality? Creating a bottom-up innovation program can also be instrumental in bridging the gap between strategic intent and execution. When employees are more engaged, they provide superior service to customers and come up with ideas from a very diverse perspective that often gets missed in a top-down view.

Jag makes a very valid observation – and a key differentiator for this book – in that although attention has traditionally focused on product innovation it can and should also apply to services:

As I started my journey of innovation, I found that Service Industries have been largely neglected by most innovation experts and authors. A lot of books have been written on product innovation that teach how to develop new products, how to create prototypes, how to test markets, and how to build demand for novel products, but very limited literature exists on how to innovate in the Service Industry.

Subsequently, the framework for rolling out an employee-driven innovation program is introduced:

In the following chapters, I’ll introduce the Six-Step M.A.S.T.E.R. Innovation Program. Here are the steps: STEP 1: Mobilize STEP 2: Amass STEP 3: Support STEP 4: Triage STEP 5: Execute STEP 6: Recognize

On Mobilizing:

The first step in creating the Bright Idea Box program is to define and document the program’s vision and purpose. A clearly defined purpose statement will help ensure the entire workforce is marching in the same direction. The purpose statement should be a working document that captures the program’s essence, how it works, and the types of ideas you are seeking. It should be a three-part document outlining the purpose, objectives, and guidelines…This purpose statement is the overarching and simplified vision of the program that serves as a guiding beacon for employees who are thinking of new ideas, as well as those responsible for supporting and ensuring that valid ideas get implemented in a timely manner…The second part of the document should outline the area of focus and the program’s business objectives. The program’s objectives should be closely aligned with business goals and values…The last section of the purpose document should outline the guidelines for participating in the program. In this section, you can include what and who is outside the scope of this program.

On Amassing:

For this reason, at the heart of this program is an easy to use and easy to access Idea-Capturing System, which is available to all employees to capture ideas when they are fresh in their minds.

Idea Questions: 1. Name: What is the name for the idea? 2. Description: What is a brief description of the idea, including what problem it addresses and how it solves it? 3. Benefits: What value or benefits will the idea deliver to the customer or company? 4. Cost-Benefit Rationale: How much will it cost to try or implement the idea? Does the cost justify the benefits?This information is like a mini-business case for the idea. For an idea to be accepted and implemented, the employee must provide answers to all of these questions .

On Supporting:

The most important thing employees need is support and encouragement from management, and a little bit of freedom to contemplate and develop ideas. Creating an environment where management encourages employees to submit and develop ideas is the most important investment you need to make. You need to create an environment where employees feel comfortable bringing out the issues inside the company , flaws in the business processes , and weaknesses in your products.

On Triaging:

The next step in building the bottom-up employee innovation program is to create effective means for screening and prioritizing ideas…The best way to accomplish this is to form an Idea Screening Committee that meets on a regular basis to review newly submitted ideas and discuss changes to existing ideas.

On Executing:

Once an idea has been approved and financed, it must be implemented in a timely manner. Without a clearly visible process and a push from the top, an idea can easily vanish into the vast depths of corporate bureaucracy. As part of designing the program, you need to decide how you are going to test and implement ideas. You need to flush out who is responsible for implementing the ideas and what type of commitment you need from the impacted parties…There is no faster way to kill the innovation program than by not implementing good ideas.

On Recognizing:

The final step in developing the program is deciding how to recognize employees for their ideas and efforts. Recognition is the lifeline of the Bright Idea Box. Setting the right kinds of rewards is critical to the program’s longevity and ensuring that employees stay motivated to submit new ideas . Recognition is an opportunity to encourage desired behaviors and reward employees for thinking and acting in ways that add value for customers and the company.

What are some key leadership principles to help develop employees into innovators?

Below are the four leadership principles that play a vital role in developing and transforming employees into innovators. DRIVERS OF HIGHER ENGAGEMENT 1. Ownership: Give people responsibility and ownership. 2. Personal Growth: Grow people on a personal level so they can grow professionally. 3. Solution Mindset: Foster a Solution Mindset that promotes progress. 4. Partnership: Treat employees like partners so they will act like partners.

Ownership—Ownership instills a feeling of pride. Nothing motivates people to do more than pride. People work a lot harder for pride and often go to extremes to prove themselves. How can you take advantage of this human condition? Make employees the boss. Give them responsibility.

Personal Growth—Growth is the fuel of the soul. Without growth, even the masters can lose interest.

Solution Mindset—A solution mindset is a problem-solving approach that recommends that, no matter what the problem is, your first response should always be how to solve or get around the problem…A solution mindset, on the other hand, encourages progress. The goal is to keep moving forward. No matter what the problem is, focus on how to get around it and make progress…A solution mindset, on the other hand, encourages progress. The goal is to keep moving forward. No matter what the problem is, focus on how to get around it and make progress…To foster a solution mindset, tell employees that you are not interested in who or what caused the problem. You are only interested in hearing how we plan to go beyond the problem.

When launching the innovation program it’s important to sell it to all stakeholders:

To launch the Bright Idea Box program, you need to appeal to the rational and emotional brains of three distinct stakeholders. First, the top management, the executive leadership team in the company. Second, the middle management layers, and third, the front-line employees. I recommend that you create distinct sales pitches for each group to address their functional needs.

What are skills that we can all work on to further enable our innovative thinking abilities?

I have compiled a short list of skills that you can share with employees when you roll out the program . This is by no mean a comprehensive list of skills or techniques, but rather a starting point and enough to jump-start employees’ innovative thinking abilities. It is a short list that employees can easily understand and put to use immediately.

CURIOSITY Curiosity is perhaps the most imperative trait of all innovators. Being curious about what is on the other side and why things are the way they are is a great tool for making breakthrough discoveries.

LISTENING Customers are always telling us what they want, but employees on the other end are often not listening. There is no incentive for them to put up with customer complaints all day.

MINING Every frustration presents an opportunity. Instead of getting frustrated and blaming others for incompetence, mine your frustrations to look for ways to solve the problem…1. Not stopping at the first obstacle 2. Keeping a positive attitude 3. Always learning 4. Collaborate— share and ask for help 5. Solution finding rather than complaining.

BORROWING We like to believe that our problems are unique, but more often they are not. Often the problems we are wrestling with have been solved by others in different industries and in different products. Steve

NETWORKING The most innovative ideas often lie at the intersection of two different paths. We get some of the best ideas when we network with people from different disciplines .

WRITING Ideas often come when we are not looking. This is because of how our brain works. Our cognitive brain, which is responsible for decision making, has a limited capacity to process information, but our intuitive brain, which works in the background, can process a lot more information and make new associations that trigger aha moments…ideas. The second limitation of our cognitive brain is its ability to convert short-term memory into long-term memory. Often we get ideas, but they get lost in the rush of a million other things to do and remember. For this reason, recording problems and thoughts is essential to generating ideas.


Getting a flywheel started takes a lot of energy— you push, and you push, and you push. Then with every turn, it becomes easier and easier to turn the wheel . And finally, it starts to generate its own momentum and what once took an enormous amount of energy becomes almost self-sustaining. It is the same for starting a bottom-up innovation program . It is a cultural shift and you will need to make a really strong push in the beginning and keep pushing until it gains momentum. With time, the recognition and the buzz created by this program will create a desire among employees to submit ideas. Pretty soon, you will have ideas pouring in at a speed faster than you can handle. The key is not to stop pushing.

What sets this book apart is its high degree of practicality – Jag has thought through and included the material not only to introduce the framework itself but how to operationalize it successfully – which is typically the harder part.

A recommended read in the area of innovation and employee engagement.

The Advantage

A few years ago, I read The Five Dysfunctions of a Team and it remains to be, for me, one of the most practical and applicable management books. Patrick Lencioni, the author of that book, has published a number of other books which have received high reviews as well, and I decided to read one of his more recent ones The Advantage – Why Organizational Health Trumps Everything Else in Business.

The main premise of this book is that:

The single greatest advantage any company can achieve is organizational health. Yet it is ignored by most leaders even though it is simply free, and available to anyone who wants it.

Sounds simple, so why is it that difficult?

But before leaders can tap into the power of organizational health, they must humble themselves enough to overcome the three biases that prevent them from embracing it. The Sophistication Bias: Organizational health is so simple and accessible that many leaders have a hard time seeing it as a real opportunity for meaningful advantage…The Adrenaline Bias: Becoming a healthy organization takes a little time. Unfortunately, many of the leaders I’ve worked with suffer from a chronic case of adrenaline addiction, seemingly hooked on the daily rush of activity and firefighting within their organizations…The Quantification Bias: The benefits of becoming a healthy organization, as powerful as they are, are difficult to accurately quantify.

What exactly is organizational health and how do I recognize it?

A good way to recognize health is to look for the signs that indicate an organization has it. These include minimal politics and confusion, high degrees of morale and productivity, and very low turnover among good employees…And so a good way to look at organizational health -and one that executives seem to respond to readily— is to see it as the multiplier of intelligence. The healthier an organization is, the more of its intelligence it is able to tap into and use. Most organizations exploit only a fraction of the knowledge. experience, and intellectual capital that is available to them. But the healthy ones tap into almost all of it. That, as much as anything else, is why they have such an advantage over their unhealthy competitors.

How do we create it, or get there?

An organization doesn’t become healthy in a linear, tidy fashion. Like building a strong marriage or family, it’s a messy process that involves doing a few things at once, and it must be maintained on an ongoing basis in order to be preserved. Still, that messy process can be broken down into four simple disciplines: Discipline 1: Build a cohesive leadership team…Discipline 2: Create Clarity…Discipline 3…Overcommunicate Clarity…Discipline 4: Reinforce Clarity.

On the first discipline – building a leadership team, let us start with the fundamentals, with the definition:

A leadership team is a small group of people who are collectively responsible for achieving a common objective for their organization…This is perhaps the most important distinction between a working group and a real leadership team. Collective responsibility implies, more than anything else, selflessness and shared sacrifices from team members.

What are the key behaviors of a leadership team:

On building trust:

Members of a truly cohesive team must trust one another. I realize that sounds like the most patently obvious statement ever made, something that every organization understands and values. As a result, you’d think that most leadership teams would be pretty good at building trust. As it turns out, they aren’t, and I think a big part of it is that they have the wrong idea about what trust is…The kind of trust that is necessary to build a great team is what I call vulnerability-based trust. This is what happens when members get to a point where they are completely comfortable being transparent. honest, and naked with one another, where they say and genuinely mean things like “I screwed up,” “I need help,” “Your idea is better than mine,” ‘T wish I could learn to do that as well as you do,” and even, “I’m sorry”…Trust is just one of five behaviors that cohesive teams must establish to build a healthy organization. However, it is by far the most important of the five because it is the foundation for the others. Simply stated, it makes teamwork possible. Only when teams build vulnerability-based trust do they put themselves in a position to embrace the other four behaviors, the next of which is the mastery of conflict.

On mastering conflict:

Contrary to popular wisdom and behavior, conflict is not a bad thing for a team. In fact, the fear of conflict is almost always a sign of problems. Of course, the kind of conflict I’m referring to here is not the nasty kind that centers around people or personalities. Rather, it is what I call productive ideological conflict, the willingness to disagree, even passionately when necessary, around important issues and decisions that must be made. But this can only happen when there is trust…When leadership team members fail to disagree around issues, not only are they increasing the likelihood of losing respect for one another and encountering destructive conflict later when people start griping in the hallways, they’re also making bad decisions and letting down the people they’re supposed to be serving. And they do this all in the name of being “nice.”

On achieving commitment:

The reason that conflict is so important is that a team cannot achieve commitment without it. People will not actively commit to a decision if they have not had the opportunity to provide input, ask questions, and understand the rationale behind it. Another way to say this is, “If people don’t weigh in, they can’t buy in.”

On embracing accountability:

Even well-intentioned members of a team need to be held accountable if a team is going to stick to its decisions and accomplish its goals. In some cases, people will deviate from a plan or a decision knowingly, tempted to do something that is in their individual best interest but not that of the team. In other cases, people will stray without realizing it, getting distracted or caught up in the pushes and pulls of daily work. In either case, it’s the job of the team to call those people out and keep them in line…At its core, accountability is about having the courage to confront someone about their deficiencies and then to stand in the moment and deal with their reaction, which may not be pleasant. It is a selfless act, one rooted in a word that I don’t use lightly in a business book: love. To hold someone accountable is to care about them enough to risk having them blame you for pointing out their deficiencies.

On focusing on results:

The ultimate point of building greater trust, conflict, commitment, and accountability is one thing: the achievement of results. That certainly seems obvious, but as it turns out, one of the greatest challenges to team success is the inattention to results. What would members of an executive team be focused on if not the results of their organization? Well, for one, the results of their department. Too many leaders seem to have a greater affinity for and loyalty to the department they lead rather than the team they’re a member of and the organization they are supposed to be collectively serving. Other distractions include a concern for individual career development, budget allocations, status, and ego, all of them common distractions that prevent teams from being obsessed with achieving results…The only way for a team to really be a team and to maximize its output is to ensure that everyone is focused on the same priorities— rowing in the same direction, if you will.

The second discipline is about Creating Clarity:

The second requirement for building a healthy organization—creating clarity—is all about achieving alignment. This is a word that is used incessantly by leaders, consultants, and organizational theorists, and yet for all the attention it gets, real alignment remains frustratingly rare. Most executives who run organizations—and certainly the employees who work for them—will readily this.

This is done by answering six fundamental questions:

1. Why do we exist? 2. How do we behave? 3. What do we do? 4. How will we succeed? 5. What is most important, right now? 6. Who must do what?

On what do we do:

If an organization’s reason for existence answers the Question, Why?, then its business definition answers the question. What? It’s critical that it be clear and straightforward. It should not be crafted so that it also be used in marketing material. The point is just to make sure that the leadership team is crystal clear about, and can accurately describe, the nature of the organization’s business so that they don’t create confusion within the rest of the company or, for that matter, in the market. It’s as simple as that.

On how we will succeed:

We came to realize that the best way for an organization to make strategy practical is to boil it down to three strategic anchors that will be used to inform every decision the organization makes and provide the filter or lens through which decisions must be evaluated to ensure consistency. Strategic anchors provide the context for all decision making and help companies avoid the temptation to make purely pragmatic and opportunistic decisions that so often end up diminishing a company’s plan for success.

On who must do that:

There is not a great deal to be said about this particular question, aside from warning leadership teams not to take it for granted. Although there is often clarity among executives in most organizations about who does what on the team, making assumptions about that clarity can lead to surprising and unnecessary problems.

The third discipline is Overcommunicating Clarity:

What those leaders fail to realize is that employees understand the need for repetition. They know that messaging is not so much an Intellectual process as an emotional one. Employees are not analyzing what leaders are saying based solely on whether it is intellectually novel or compelling, but more than anything else on whether they believe the leaders are serious, authentic, and committed to what they are saying. Again, that means repetition is a must.

The fourth and last discipline is Reinforcing Clarity:

As important as overcommunication is, leaders of a healthy organization cannot always be around to remind employees about the company’s reason for existing, its values, and so on. In order to ensure that the answers to the six critical questions become embedded in the fabric of the organization, leaders must do everything they can to reinforce them structurally as well. The way to do that is to make sure that every human system every process that involves people—from hiring and people management to training and compensation, is designed to reinforce the answers to those questions. The challenge is to do this without adding too much structure.

A concluding reminder that success in creating healthy organization rests on the leaders of the organization:

There is just no escaping the fact that the single biggest factor determining whether an organization is going to get healthier—or not—is the genuine commitment and active involvement of the person in charge. For a company, that’s the CEO. For a small business, it’s the owner. For a school, it’s the principal. For a church, it’s the pastor. For a department within a company, it’s the department head. At every step in the process, the leader must be out front, not as a cheerleader or a figurehead, but as an active, tenacious driver.

While there is a considerable effort involved, there is also a substantial reward:

At the end of the day, at the end of our careers, when we look back at the many initiatives that we poured ourselves into, few other activities will seem more worthy of our effort and more impactful on the lives of others, than making our organizations healthy.

A recommended read in the area of organizational leadership and management. If you have not read The Five Dysfunctions of a Team, I highly recommend you read that one first.


The Black Jacobins

Earlier this year, Shane Parrish author of the blog Farnam Street wrote an article in Business Insider through which he shared The 5 Books Mega Investor Ben Horowitz  Says You Need to Read. One of the books on that list that caught my attention, is The Black Jacobins – Toussaint L’Ouverture and the San Domingo Revolution by C.L.R. James. Why after all was Ben recommending a history book?

As Cyril states in the preface, the backdrop of The Black Jacobins is as follows:

In 1789 the French West Indian colony of San Domingo supplied two-thirds of the overseas trade of France and was the greatest individual market for the European slave-trade. It was an integral part of the economic life of the age, the greatest colony in the world, the pride of France, and the envy of every other imperialist nation. The whole structure rested on the labour of half-a-million slaves.

This was too good to be true for the French, and in late 1791 a revolution from within the colony emerged:

In August 1791, after two years of the French Revolution and its repercussions in San Domingo, the slaves revolted. The struggle lasted for 12 years. The slaves defeated in turn the local whites and the soldiers of the French monarchy, a Spanish invasion, a British expedition of some 60,000 men, and a French expedition of similar size under Bonaparte’s brother-in-law. The defeat of Bonaparte’s expedition in 1803 resulted in the establishment of the Negro state of Haiti which has lasted to this day. 

Why is this revolution such a big deal?

The revolt is the only successful slave revolt in history, and the odds it had to overcome is evidence of the magnitude of the interests that were involved. The transformation of slaves, trembling in hundreds before a single white man, into a people able to organise themselves and defeat the most powerful European nations of their day is one of the great epics of revolutionary struggle and achievement. Why and how this happened is the theme of this book.

While this historical achievement had many actors, it had a primary leader protagonist and that man was Toussaint L’Ouverture:

By a phenomenon often observed, the individual leadership responsible for this unique achievement was almost entirely the work of a single man—Toussaint L’Ouverture. Beauchamp in the Biographic Universelle calls Toussaint L’Ouverture one of the most remarkable men of a period rich in remarkable men. He dominated from his entry until circumstances removed him from the scene. The history of the San Domingo revolution will therefore largely be a record of his achievements and his political personality. The writer believes, and is confident the narrative will prove, that between 1789 and 1815, with the single exception of Bonaparte himself, no single figure appeared on the historical stage more greatly gifted than this Negro, a slave till he was 45- Yet Toussaint did not make the revolution. It was the revolution that made Toussaint and even that is not the whole truth. 

Below I will share excerpts from the book that I found particularly insightful:

Early on Toussaint was inspired by some of the literary work being developed at the time:

Philosophical and Political History of the Establishments and Commerce of the Europeans in the Two Indies by Abbe Raynal: “If self-interest alone prevails with nations and their masters, there is another power. Nature speaks in louder tones than philosophy or self-interest. Already are there established two colonies of fugitive negroes, whom treaties and power protect from assault. Those lightnings announce the thunder. A courageous chief only is wanted. Where is he, that great man whom Nature owes to her vexed, oppressed and tormented children? Where is he? He will appear, doubt it not: he will come forth and raise the sacred standard of liberty. This venerable signal will gather around him the companions of his misfortune. More impetuous than the torrents, they will everywhere leave the indelible traces of their just resentment. Everywhere people will bless the name of the hero who shall have reestablished the rights of the human race; everywhere will they raise trophies in his honour.”

San Domingo had a strategic importance for France, but internal and external forces were converging to loosen their control over this important colony:

These then were the forces which in the decade preceding the French Revolution linked San Domingo to the economic destiny of three continents and the social and political conflicts of that pregnant age. A trade and method of production so cruel and so immoral that it would wilt before the publicity which a great revolution throws upon the sources of wealth: the powerful British Government determined to wreck French commerce in the Antilles, agitating at home and intriguing in France among men who, unbeknown to themselves, would soon have power in their hands; the colonial world (itself divided) and the French bourgeoisie, each intent on its own purposes and, unaware of the approaching danger, drawing apart instead of closer together. Not one courageous leader, many courageous leaders were needed, but the science of history was not what it is to-day and no man living then could foresee, as we can foresee to-day, the coming upheavals. Mirabeau indeed said that the colonists slept on the edge of Vesuvius, but for centuries the same thing had been said and the slaves had never done anything.

While revolutions were happening in Europe, they did not translate equally in the colonies:

And meanwhile, what of the slaves? They had heard of the revolution and had construed it in their own image: the white slaves in France had risen, and killed their masters, and were now enjoying the fruits of the earth. It was gravely inaccurate in fact, but they had caught the spirit of the thing. Liberty, Equality, Fraternity. Before the end of 1789 there were risings in Guadeloupe and Martinique. As early as October, in Fort Dauphin, one of die future centres of the San Domingo insurrection, the slaves were stirring and holding mass meetings in the forests at night. In the South Province, watching the fight between their masters for and against the revolution, they had shown signs of unrest. In isolated plantations there were movements. All were bloodily repressed. Revolutionary literature was circulating among them. But the colonists were themselves giving a better example than all the revolutionary tracts which found their way to the colony.

On Toussaint’s upbringing and character:

An important thing for his future was that his character was quite unwarped. Since his childhood he had probably never been whipped as so many slaves had been whipped. He himself tells us that he and his wife were among the fortunate few who had acquired a modest competence and used to go hand in hand and very happy to work on the little plot of land which some of the slaves cultivated for themselves. Besides his knowledge and experience, through natural strength of character he had acquired a formidable mastery over himself, both mind and body. As a boy he was so frail and delicate that his parents had not expected him to live, and he was nicknamed “Little Stick”. While still a child he determined to acquire not only knowledge but a strong body, and he strengthened himself by the severest exercises, so that by the time he was 12 he had surpassed all the boys of his age on the plantation in athletic feats. He could swim across a dangerous river, j jump on a horse at full speed and do what he liked with it.

Toussaint soon realized that the enslaved will have to fight for their liberty:

Then and only then did Toussaint come to an unalterable decision from which he never wavered and for which he died. Complete liberty for all, to be attained and held by their own strength. The most extreme revolutionaries are formed by circumstances. It is probable that, looking at the wild hordes of blacks who surrounded him, his heart sank at the prospect of the war and the barbarism which would follow freedom even if it were achieved. He was ready to go a long way to meet the colonists. He probably honed for some attempt at better treatment. But having been driven to take his decision, as was his way, he never looked back…Henceforth it was war, and war needed trained soldiers. Toussaint dropped his post of Physician to the Armies of the King, and assuming the title of Brigadier-General started to train an army. Once only in his political life did he ever fail to meet an emergency with action bold and correct.

He would have to overcome challenges in training his forces:

It was from these men “unable to speak two words of French” that an army had to be made. Toussaint could have had thousands following him. It is characteristic of him that he began with a few hundred picked men, devoted to himself, who learnt the art of war with him from the beginning, as they fought side by side against the French troops and the colonists…Feuillants and Jacobins in France whites and Mulattoes in San Domingo, were still looking upon the slave revolt as a huge riot which would be put down in time, once the division between the slave-owners was closed.

Popular support was on his side:

If the army was the instrument of Toussaint’s power, the masses were its foundation and his power grew with his influence over them. Just out of the degradation of slavery they had come into a world of indiscriminate murder and violence…Fear of the restoration of slavery was always the cause of the trouble. The British had no intention of abolishing slavery, neither had the Spaniards. 

Toussaint steadily started his rise as a leader, at times directly helped by the French:

On August 17th, four months after Sonthonax landed, the Directory confirmed Toussaint’s promotion by Laveaux to the rank of general of division, and that of Pierre Michel and other ex-slaves as generals of brigade. France, still engaged in a life and death struggle in Europe, was leaning on the blacks, not only against the British, but against the threat of Mulatto independence. Thus the stock of Toussaint as leader of the blacks was rising steadily. 

He was very conscious that economic prosperity was key to a strong independent nation:

But he worked also at the restoration of the colony. Le Cap was partially rebuilt, and cultivation began a to flourish…”The guarantee of the liberty of the blacks is the prosperity of agriculture” was another saying always on his lips which spread among the blacks.

As the French were getting ready to re-instate slavery, he eloquently addressed them to reconsider:

On November 5th he addressed a letter to the Directory which is a milestone in his career…Do they think that men who have been able to enjoy the blessing of liberty will calmly see it snatched away? They supported their chains only so long as they did not know any condition of life more happy than that of slavery. But to-day when they have left it, if they had a thousand lives they would sacrifice them all rather than be forced into slavery again. But no, the same hand which has broken our chains will not enslave us anew. France will not revoke her principles, she will not withdraw from us the greatest of her benefits. She will protect us against all our enemies; she will not permit her sublime morality to be perverted, those principles which do her most honour to be destroyed, her most beautiful achievement to be degraded, and her Decree of 16 Pluviose which so honours humanity to be revoked. But if, to re-establish slavery in San Domingo, this was done, then I declare to you it would be to attempt the impossible: we have known how to face dangers to obtain our liberty, we shall know how to brave death to maintain it.

His address to them is nothing short of a literary masterpiece, displaying his mastery of communication, a key leadership skill:

Pericles on Democracy, Paine on the Rights of Man, the Declaration of Independence, the Communist Manifesto, these are some of the political documents which, whatever the wisdom or weaknesses of their analysis, have moved men and will always move them, for the writers, some of them in spite of themselves, strike chords and awaken aspirations that sleep in the hearts of the majority in every age. But Pericles, Tom Paine, Jefferson, Marx and Engels, were men of a liberal education, formed in the traditions of ethics, philosophy and history. Toussaint was a slave, not six years out of slavery, bearing alone the unaccustomed burden of war and government, dictating his thoughts in the crude words of a broken dialect, written and rewritten by his secretaries until their devotion and his will had hammered them into adequate shape. Superficial people have read his career in terms of personal ambition. This letter is their answer. Personal ambition he had. But he accomplished what he did because, superbly gifted- he incarnated the determination of his people never, never to be slaves again. Soldier and administrator above all, yet his declaration is a masterpiece of prose excelled by no other writer of the revolution. Leader of a backward and ignorant mass, he of his time. The blacks were taking their part in \ the destruction of European feudalism begun by the French Revolution, and liberty and equality, the slogans of the ‘evolution, meant far more to them than to any Frenchman. That was why in the hour of danger Toussaint, uninstructed as he was, could find the language and accent of Diderot, Rousseau, and Raynal, of Mirabeau, Robespierre, and Danton. And in one respect he excelled them all. For even these masters of the spoken and written word, owing to the class complications of their society, too often had to pause, to hesitate, to qualify. Toussaint could defend the freedom of the blacks without reservation, and this gave to his declaration a strength and a single-mindedness rare in the great documents of the time. The French bourgeoisie could not understand it. Rivers of blood were to flow before they understood that elevated as was his tone Toussaint had written neither bombast nor rhetoric but the simple and sober truth. 

Further details on his character and behavior as a leader, which inspired his followers:

It was his prodigious activity which so astonished men. Nobody ever knew what he was doing: if he was leaving, if he was staying, whither he was going, whence he was coming…He was as completely master of his body as of his mind. He slept but two hours every night, and for days would be satisfied with two bananas and a glass of water. Physically without fear, he had to guard against being poisoned…He seemed to bear a charmed life…Despite his awkwardness of build and ugliness of feature he managed in the end to make a strong impression upon all with whom he came in contact. He had in the last years an unusual distinction of carriage. His step was martial, his manner commanding. Simple in his private life, he wore resplendent uniforms on state occasions, and his aides-de-camp followed his example in elegance and display…In a community where so many were still primitive and simple-minded, the personal character and conduct of the leader, sprung from the people, was not without social significance. Despite Toussaint’s despotism, his ruthlessness, his impenetrability, his unsleeping suspicion of all around him, his skill in large-scale diplomacy and petty intrigue, to the end of his life he remained a man of simple and kindly feelings, his humanity never drowned by the rivers of blood which flowed so plentifully and so long. His “no reprisals” sprang from a genuine horror of useless bloodshed. Women and children in particular he hated to see suffer.

His Achilles heal was his attachment to the French:

If he was convinced that San Domingo would decay without the benefits of the French connection, he was equally certain that slavery could never be restored. Between these two certainties, he, in whom penetrating vision and prompt decision had become second nature, became the embodiment of vacillation. His allegiance to the French Revolution and all it opened out to mankind in general made him what he was. But this in the end ruined him.

Another weakness was that he did not constantly communicate and update his followers as to his vision, what has been achieved and what he was thinking – which overtime erodes trust:

In nothing does his genius stand out so much as in refusing to trust the liberties of the blacks to the promises of French or British Imperialism. His error was his neglect of his own people. They did not understand what he was doing or where he was going. He took no trouble to explain. It was dangerous to explain. but still more dangerous not to explain. His s temperament. close and self-contained, was one that kept its own counsel. Thus the masses thought he had taken Spanish San Domingo to stop the slave traffic, and not as a safeguard against the French. His silence confused them and did not deceive Bonaparte…and it is no accident that Dessalines and not Toussaint finally led the island to independence. Toussaint, shut up within himself, immersed in diplomacy, went his tortuous way, overconfident that he had only to speak and the masses would follow.

As he was being deported from San Domingo, his final triumphant words were:

As Toussaint stepped on board the boat he spoke to Savary the captain some words which he had doubtless carefully prepared, his last legacy to his people. “In overthrowing me, you have cut down in San Domingo only the trunk of the tree of liberty. It will spring up again by the roots for they are numerous and deep.”

Toussaint’s life ended in a French prison, but as history has it at a time when San Domingo was getting ready to declare independence – the cause of his life:

There is no drama like the drama of history. Toussaint died on April 7th, 1803 and Bonaparte must have thought that half the battle against San Domingo was now won. But in Toussaint’s last hours his comrades in arms, ignorant of his fate, were drafting the declaration of independence.

The will of the people for freedom overcame all the military power of the invaders:

The records are there. For self-sacrifice and heroism, the men, women and children who drove out the French stand second to no fighters for independence in any place or time. And the reason was simple. They had seen at last that without independence they could not maintain their liberty, and liberty was far more concrete for former slaves than the elusive forms of political democracy in France.

On a concluding note, how the San Domingo revolution served as a platform for wider revolutions in the developing world in general but Africa in particular:

Such men as Loveway are symbols of the future. Others will arise, and others. From the people heaving in action will arise, will come the leaders; not the isolated blacks at Guys’ Hospital or the Sorbonne, the dabblers in surrealisme or the lawyers, but the quiet recruits in a black police force, the sergeant in the French native army or British force, the sergeant in the French native army or British police, reading a stray pamphlet of Lenin or Trotsky as Toussaint read the Abbe Raynal. Nor will success result in the isolation of Africa. The blacks will demand skilled workmen and teachers. International socialism will need the products of a free Africa far more than the French bourgeoisie needed slavery and the slave-trade. Imperialism vaunts its exploitation of the slave-trade. Imperialism vaunts its exploitation of the from the very nature of its system of production for profit it strangles the real wealth of the continent—the creative capacity of the African people. The African faces a long and difficult road and he will need guidance. But he will tread it fast because he will walk upright.

A highly recommended read, in the area of history, politics, leadership, and human-rights.