Living Dangerously - Issue 35

"To lead in prosperous times, you must think about things that last."

We're still feeling the effects of the '90s, which were the '60s turned upside down. Hoping to make sense of an era in which free love has become free money, I went to see Wavy Gravy — that bad boy of the '60s, who is now in his sixties. I asked him for his thoughts about leadership in an upside-down world. When I heard him say, "We are not what we eat — we are what we don't shit out," I knew that I was finally hearing the Truth.

There aren't many people who are worth nominating for a Mount Rushmore of prosperity leaders (as opposed to scarcity leaders, of whom there are many), but Wavy may be one. After visiting Wavy, I went to see a man of our own time — a survivor, a tycoon who has overcome a fall of titanic proportions and who is now making wise use of his wealth. From this man, I got a brief introduction to Winston Churchill and a more in-depth introduction to Elizabeth I — England's greatest leader, who ruled that country during nearly five decades of good times.

Wavy was a leading voice during another period of good times — one that people thought would never end. His home, in Berkeley, California, is festooned with rainbows and chimes and peace dolls and love beads — the PalmPilots and IPO plans of a once-young-and-restless generation. There are shrines to gurus who have died and taken the soul of "the revolution" with them. Did Wavy and company pin their hopes on social justice, only to present those hopes in the least sustainable packages: sex, drugs, and rock and roll? And what really persists?

Most type A people today would pull an F in "Prosperity Studies." They are the kind of people who, after they get rich, continue to work harder and harder. And after they stop working, they furiously build second homes and investment portfolios. Very few of us are smart about good times. Why? Maybe because Wavy is right: We are not what we eat — the first-class vacations, the Porsches, the multiple properties that we buy. We are whatever ends up in our belly after the big ideas and the big money have passed through our system. What remains? Can you stand to think about that?

You'd better: It's your gut, baby. What if the good times never end, and what if all that remains is a pile of receipts? Do nondeductible expenses constitute a legacy?

I wanted to look at the face of leadership, postcrap. So, the next day, I went to see the tycoon. He's one of those leaders who used to think that good things happened to him because he deserved it. In a way, he did deserve it. He is brilliant. He loves risk. He invests in his dreams. He built a huge company, and he invested in many others. Then came his humbling — bad decisions, lawsuits, bouts of bad health. What did he find at the bottom of his gut after everything else that he had taken in had passed through him?

He talked about what stayed in his mind. Knowledge persists — that and loyalty. He talked about what he no longer has time for. Yes, he takes vacations. Yes, he sees movies and reads books. What he doesn't have time for is anything that won't last. Everything that he eats has to feed him deeply and for a long, long time.

He is coming to grips with his legacy. For him, prosperity is an opportunity to think big and take big risks. He believes that it's time for business to assume responsibility for the work that government is screwing up. Big money should be invested in projects with big consequences for issues like health and education. He maps out his actions in the way that armies map out raids. An action at a local school, for example, enables him to capture knowledge about distance learning that IPO documents can't teach you. Knowledge is the one scarce resource on the planet, he argues, and distance learning is a way to spread knowledge capital. What if we have the tools to cure hunger, poverty, heart disease, stroke, and cancer — but lack the know-how to use those tools?

We were sitting in his magnificent library. That he even has a library sets him apart from most high-tech pashas. One boomtown home was built out of concrete so that it could be hosed down — for the convenience of its owner's dogs. But this man has actually built himself a mini-university.

"The leader I most admire is Churchill," he said. "Churchill had the courage to lead people in uncertain directions. He had the strength to see the future and to take action. There was one leader who had a chance to be the Churchill of our times: William Jefferson Clinton. He came to power after the Soviet threat ended and when the economy was about to boom. He could have rescued Africa and given birth to peace. But he wasted the opportunity.

"Did you see the movie 'Elizabeth'?" this man continued. "As a young girl, Elizabeth I fell out of favor with her father, Henry XIII, after he had her mother, Anne Boleyn, beheaded. But do you remember the moment when she accepted the role that would enable her to do great things? At her coronation, she took on the aspect of a nun. She whitened her face, pulled her hair back, and declared that she would never marry, because she was already wedded to England. She created what was probably the greatest peacetime empire that the world has ever seen.

"Clinton was like Elizabeth. He was threatened by an overbearing father. He took a leadership position when he was relatively young, at a time when the world was on the threshold of great prosperity. He could have done what Elizabeth did — create a great new world. Instead, he got tangled up in controversy. Even now, we could create a great new world — if we knew not only how to manage prosperity but also how to lead it. I admire Churchill. But Elizabeth is the leader I'm studying now."

Why would a man who was rich even after a major personal downfall identify with a leader like Elizabeth? Because, for one thing, examples of people who lead in good times and make things better are rare. Elizabeth wasn't content with 8 years of good times; she led England to 45 years of prosperity. And today, we think that achieving a few quarters of economic growth qualifies us for genius.

Another reason why Elizabeth offers such an attractive role model for this man is that, from her youth onward, she cared about what lasted. Alison Weir, author of The Life of Elizabeth I, the book on which the movie Elizabeth was based, writes, "Elizabeth had given her country peace and stable government — her greatest gift to her people. . . . England had risen from an impoverished nation to become one of the greatest powers in Europe." She brought unity to her people and made herself "an enduring focus for their loyalty." Few leaders have "been so loved." People grew "more confident in the belief that they were a chosen nation,... and this confidence gave rise ... to the flowering of the English Renaissance."

This is not to say that Elizabeth didn't also have a big appetite — for clothes, for pageants, for the perquisites of a large court. She was vain; she loved privilege. When she died, she was 400,000 pounds in debt. But her appetite extended to serious matters as well. Like many educated women of her day, Elizabeth was encouraged to become more than the equal of men in learning. As a woman, she could not take her position for granted. She was encouraged "to outdo 'the vaunted paragons of Greece and Rome.' " Her teachers expected her not just to study Plato, Socrates, and the Caesars, but also to surpass them in how she led her life. She took as her role models leaders who had built dynasties of knowledge and prosperity.

Elizabeth reduced herself to the essence of leadership. By proclaiming herself "married to England," she made her dedication to her work clear. Similarly, this man has trimmed down his life to include only what his gut has told him to do. Today, he focuses on two basic human aspirations: knowledge and health. Those goals drive both his investments and his personal agenda, and he vigilantly keeps at bay all opportunities that don't foster those goals.

Elizabeth constructed an image of herself as a legacy builder. When she was a young woman, Elizabeth was locked up in the tower of a palace that was controlled by her half-sister, Mary. Every day, Elizabeth wondered whether she would be summoned to execution at the gallows where her mother had been beheaded. Finally, after three months of imprisonment, she was released. Elizabeth often said — and no doubt genuinely believed — that she had been spared to do great things.

Like the tycoon, Elizabeth believed that knowledge is a superior kind of wealth. She invested a lot of time and effort in her own learning, and English culture reached a peak during her reign because she promoted it. (She brought poets into her court, and she was a noted patron of the theater.) She insisted that her courtiers and advisers invest in art and scholarship as well.

And then there is the loyalty card. Loyalty is out of fashion today, but Elizabeth insisted on it. Weir recounts the story of one of Elizabeth's managers, a man who had applied for a powerful job at court, only to be turned down. Soon afterward, Elizabeth found him sitting in a garden, staring listlessly into space. "What do you think about when you think of nothing?" she asked. "Of a woman's promise," he said. Her reply: "Anger makes dull men witty, but it keeps them poor." Then she turned away.

Elizabeth simplified everything and kept her eye on the biggest goals. England grew into an empire to beat all empires. The ideas and the culture of her time are with us still.

That which is with us still. That thought took me back to my visit with Wavy. We had been talking about ideas that really cooked (or "clicked," in modern parlance) — about ideas that lasted. Wavy said, "Have you ever read 'The Joy of Cooking'?" "Definitely," I said. "Do you know how it begins?" he asked. "With recipes on first courses," I stupidly guessed. I'd "eaten" the book, but it was just one more experience that had passed through me.

Wavy didn't need to pull the book off his shelf. He had what he was searching for in his gut. "It starts with a line from Goethe," he said. "It starts as every book that is meant to feed you should start — with a truth that you already know deep down. Goethe wrote, 'That which thy fathers have bequeathed to thee, earn it anew if thou wouldst possess it.' Strange what you'll find in a cookbook, isn't it?"

What you possess is what you can't get rid of. Try to think about what you possess and about what's worth possessing, not about what's next on a list of possible experiences or acquisitions. To lead in prosperous times, you must think about things that last. What we leave behind is what we take with us — forever.

Harriet Rubin (hrubin@aol.com) is the author of "The Princessa: Machiavelli for Women" (Doubleday, 1997) and "Soloing: Realizing Your Life's Ambitions" (HarperCollins, 1999). She is also the director of Working Diva, a Web site on iVillage (www.ivillage.com/working diva).

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