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Dispatch from Davos: 'The Global Con'

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No, I am not saying that Davos is a "con." Truth in fact, participating in the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum in Davos is one of my top impact experiences of the year (the 2010 annual meeting was my 5th consecutive Davos experience as a Young Global Leader). Furthermore, I genuinely believe that Forum founder and chairman Klaus Schwab is a visionary that has pursued the power of his own ideas with a character and consistency not dissimilar to other thought leaders that had added to our larger society and our world, and referred to later in this piece. That said, this Davos experience did get me thinking about how we all got ourselves into this grand global mess, we now call a global economic crisis.

I am indeed suggesting though that to a degree we all participated in a shared con of sorts, and we need to "get our storyline" back. Let me explain.

What would you say if I told you that the very core, the very basis of this entire global economic mess, was a crisis of virtues and values?

After being here in Davos for one of the busiest weeks of my life, I was reminded of a great quote from my political hero, partner through his foundation in good works and friend President Bill Clinton, also featured in my new book Love Leadership: The New Way to Lead in a Fear-Based World. Former President Clinton, here this week in Davos and gracious enough to spend time and to speak with members of the Forum of Young Global Leaders in attendance, once said, "It is hard to get someone to agree with the truth, when the lie is financing their lifestyle."

In the context of this unprecedented global economic crisis, this in many ways describes all of us, and how we have behaved over the past 5-10 years. In many ways, and in large part because we all benefited, we all played large and small roles in a global shift in culture -- away from what defines our true essence. Let me explain further.

During an interactive Davos dinner session Thursday night on the "impact of crisis on human behavior" where I was scheduled to be one of four or five experts offering views, then leading to an interactive discussion over dinner, I was struck with something as powerful as it was obvious. Putting aside that I generally agreed with the basic analysis given by my fellow speakers, I was struck how each one, to the person, were what I would call "left brain" in their approach. In other words, they were almost completely analytical. Now, this is fine and indeed important, but I have found that whenever you leave out the human condition you will subsequently lead yourself to the wrong conclusions. We are human beings, and not human doings. My friend Jim Clifton, CEO of Gallup, realizes this, which is why he and Gallup are now assessing and tracking the power and connection of hope, motivation and aspiration to overall success in life.

In response to these left brain report outs at dinner, I responded, well, right brain; or what I would call "contextualized."

I said this crisis was and is not an economic crisis, but rather a crisis of virtues and values. When you sneeze that is not the cold, but rather the "indication" of the underlying virus which must be attached and eradicated from your body.

I said that this crisis was not about the failure of capitalism and free enterprise, but rather the failure of greed.

I said that for at least 100 years visionary leaders here in America and the world over have moved our world forward by passionately focusing on and advancing the "power of the idea;" whether it be Henry Ford innovating the automobile and paying his workers enough to purchase the vehicle they were building, or Bill Gates and Microsoft, or Steve Job and Apple, and that iPhone that most of us can barely use.

In the last decade alone we have seen the powerful emergence of big ideas that have radicalized how we live, socialize and organize life and work; from Facebook to Twitter. Google was innovated last than 15 years ago and who would not agree the modern world has effectively been "Google-ized." Former President Clinton also said, "Every country must create a new set of jobs every 10 years or so." Have we done that? Respectfully, is that the legacy of say our automotive industry over the past 40 years?

And so, while there has been both good and bad news in the marketplace of ideas and money over the past decade or so, and while those who in fact succeeded in bringing their passionate ideas forward (creating real value for people and society and business) were rightly so rewarded with money, wealth and in some cases even power, today and certainly over the past 5-10 years the main obsession has not been the "power of the idea," but rather the ultimate drug -- money itself. In other words, we have made the bi-product (money, wealth and power), the product. And this my friends is the problem facing us today.

Our culture (with it our virtues and values) has been effectively hi-jacked by anything and almost everything that could help us "get paid." It has been said that to rationalize is to tell rational lies, and we have been doing a lot of rationalizing capitalism over the past 5-10 years. Basically, it was good if it worked and we all got paid.

For a time this virus was everywhere, and in most cases we simply gave into it because "everyone else was doing it," and it also seemed they were prospering too. No one wanted the party to end, and no one wanted to get left behind. I admit to being tempted myself from time to time. But tell me something, would you really want to live in the (materialized, me-obsessed) world we lived in say 5 years ago? I don't think.

Don't take my word for it. Take your own personal culture test and let me know what you came up with, reporting back right here at the Huffington Post, for the world to see.

  • Ask someone in business today why they do what they do and more times than not they will tell you they want to make money.
  • Ask a Wall Street investment banker why they do what they do and they will show you their income and deferred compensation statement for 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, and so on and so forth. The joy came when the check was cashed.
  • Ask mainstream college students why they are pursuing business studies and somewhere in most of their responses will be a reference to "getting paid."
  • Ask an urban rapper why he pursues his craft and unlike my entertainment mentor Quincy Jones, they will most likely tell you "I want to get paid." Interestingly enough, for a man worth hundreds of millions of dollars, I have never once heard Mr. Jones actually "talk about his money." Every time we talk, he is on fire with some wild-eyed idea, and most of the time it is about doing good, and healing this world of ours. He has not done bad, doing good.

It is interesting to me that any and all of these general responses are essentially no different than the response I got from the corner drug dealers who preyed on my childhood neighborhood of South Central Los Angeles and Compton, California. They just wanted to "get paid" too, and didn't really care how they did it.

Over the past 5-10 years we have all basically accepted as an absolute article of faith in capitalism that "the principle role of business, and certainly publicly traded companies, was and is to maximize shareholder value." Really?

What if I told you that the best way to maximize shareholder value in financial services was to screw the pants off your own financially illiterate clients, providing predatory subprime loans that would implode within 24-36 months, or that the shortest route to "maximizing profits" and making a fortune was to short the stock of an otherwise perfectly healthy company, employing say 10,000 decent, hard working, taxpaying people (all consumers too, all adding in their own way to the overall economy)? As I have said in Love Leadership, "In the subprime mortgage crisis, if we had treated borrowers and clients like relationships, instead of transactions, we would not have had a subprime mortgage crisis to begin with."

I mentioned at the Davos dinner that Quincy Jones, one of my life mentors, told me that it takes 20 years to "change a culture," and in my opinion in the last 20 years we have made dumb sexy. We have dumbed down, and we even celebrated it. And I am not talking about the urban poor; I am talking about you and me.

Just look at the decades-long successful run of the hit television show Friends; they all lived in a $10,000 a month walk-up in Manhattan, wore the best of clothes and had the best of fun, and yet no one had what I would call a "real job." What message was that sending, not to poor kids, but mainstream, middle class kids? Does growing up in "that culture" have anything to do with a generation of some middle class kids with an attitude of entitlement; expecting that they will go to an Ivey League school, assuming they would get a BMW upon graduation, sending their parking tickets to their parents to be paid, and taking it for granted that their parents would bail them out of trouble if they got into any, and further that their first corporate job would "start" at the vice president level?

Or let's look at the high school dropout rate in America. According to my friends at America's Promise Alliance, our Operation HOPE partner in our 5 MILLION KIDS Initiative, 30% of all kids in America drop out of high school, approximately 50% of urban kids drop out of high school, close to 60% of Latino men are dropping out of high school, and -- this breaks my heart -- approximately 70% of young black men are dropping out of high school. That is one child dropping out of high school every 26 seconds on average. Ladies and gentlemen, this is not just a social problem, it is a problem of future American competitiveness if we don't solve it, and personally let me say, it is an economic death sentence for black men. To quote my friend Marguerite Kondracke, CEO of America's Promise, "if we are not careful, the next group of underperforming assets will be our children."

When did we accept that high school dropout rates of 30-70% were okay, acceptable? Isn't this the very definition of a national emergency? In the police vernacular, where is the radio dispatcher screaming "calling all cars, calling all cars!"

And if we don't call this an emergency requiring a full-court response, then what precisely does qualify? When it is YOUR child? With this sort of erosion of values, not to worry my friend -- intractable problems will soon be coming your way too.

And this is the core of the con, as I call it, and the very premise for my new book Love Leadership.

In Love Leadership I say that there are two things in the world; there is love and there is fear, and what you don't love, you fear.

I go on to say that fear is a lazy bastard that loves immediate gratification, and feeds on questions that start with "what do I get," in a world where we should all be asking "what do I have to give?"

Fear loves shorter-ism, and a focus on me rather than we. Fear loves greed. Fear buys off our values with the lure of the quick buck. But, at what cost. What if I told you we had bet the whole farm on a fairly bad idea.

And so, yes, predatory mortgage lenders took advantage of many, but too many people wanted that house at whatever the price, or cost. Others speculated as caution and prudence-to-the-wind investors, conning themselves into believing as one friend once told me, "don't worry John, real estate values can only go up." We asked the lender what the payment was, but never asked what that interest rate was. Or worse, we never asked anything at all, and just bought too much house. We were played, and we also played along. We need to get our storyline back.

And so, yes, many if not most of us were and are genuinely concerned about our own family and our own children, but not nearly enough of us treated our neighbor -- or our colleagues, our clients, our customers, or the total strangers dressed as investors, trusting us with their life savings halfway around the world -- as members of our own global family.

As President Kennedy once famously said, "We all inhabit this same small planet." In other words, we are in this thing together.

We must get our storyline back, and we must once again rediscover what made us great to begin with.

We must stop the global con where it began -- with each and every one of us. Let's stop the finger pointing too, unless we want to also look in the mirror as we do it.

I don't need my leaders to channel my pain, I need my leaders to help me see my way forward. Leaders should be focused on what we are for, and not simply what we are against. Even the Bible says, "where there is no vision the people perish."

Let us re-imagine the world we would want our children and grandchildren to grow up in, and then let's make that world real for all of God's children. It now seems obvious that it is in all of our enlightened self-interest "to do onto others as we would have them do unto ourselves."

Rainbows only follow storms. You can only have a rainbow after you have a storm first.

We can become the greatest generation yet again, and in so doing, quoting a Young Global Leader at the World Economic Forum annual meeting in Davos, "make the next 30 years the most amazing in modern history," instead of the set up for 100 years of pure pain.

Let's get on with it.

John Hope Bryant is the founder, chairman and CEO of Operation HOPE, vice chairman of the U.S. President's Advisory Council on Financial Literacy as well as chairman of the Council Committee on the Under-Served, financial literacy advisor to the World Economic Forum Global Agenda Council, a Young Global Leaders for the World Economic Forum, and author of LOVE LEADERSHIP; A New Way to Lead in a Fear-Based World (Jossey-Bass), which debuted in August, 2009, on the CEO Reads Top 10 Best Seller List, and was published in November, 2009 in digital audio book format on Audible.com, iTunes.com and other audio book retailers.