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What One Man Can Do

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By: Jack Bobo

Some years ago, John Gardner popularized the notion that “one man can do anything.” Indeed, many, if not most of the significant events in history are associated with the name of one person.

Ordinarily, this concept is viewed as a positive and implies accomplishment through some combination of inventiveness, creativity, leadership and/or a special brand of charisma. However, such is not always the case, for those same talents can also be used in a destructive way. Certainly, the events of recent weeks demonstrate how this may come to pass.

Perhaps a better example, for purposes of this article, will require going a bit further back in history. In the last half of the 19th century, there emerged on the world scene a man with all these great qualities. Ferdinand DeLesseps possessed enormous charisma, combined with leadership and engineering skills, which he used successfully as the driving force in the building of the Suez Canal.

Against overwhelming obstacles and universal doubt, DeLesseps achieved an engineering and logistic miracle for those times. Because of this accomplishment, he received the adulation of people whenever and wherever he appeared. He became the pre-eminent “authority” on canal building, and any such project that did not meet with his approval would not have attracted a dime of support.

Quite logically then, it was DeLesseps the world turned to when the French were considering the construction of a canal on the Isthmus of Panama. He accepted the challenge, but then committed a grave error.

Because of the pre-eminence bestowed upon him, he ignored the advice of lesser lights in the engineering world and did not fully probe the problems associated with this new venture. Instead, he viewed the project as just another Suez when, in reality, the obstacles posed by this new venture were entirely different.

DeLesseps thereby led the people of France into a catastrophe. After spending 1.5 billion francs and wasting over 20,000 lives, the effort ended in failure and for the leaders, disgrace and prison.

Is there a lesson for us that may be learned from this experience? In my view, there is and a very important one at that.

Leadership, and the charisma that often goes with it, whether gratuitously bestowed or earned through prior efforts, requires rigid stewardship. It should expand the vision of the possessor rather than create an attitude of infallibility.

Too often a cause attaches itself to a “name” or personalities attach themselves to a cause to which they have nothing to contribute but noise and attention. A career in acting, for example, hardly qualifies one as a nuclear expert or foreign policy guru, yet celebrity status is a guarantee to attract the attention of the media no matter how unworthy such a persons contributions may be to the understanding of such complex issues.

The lesson to be learned from this, then, is that any triumph carries with it the seeds of future failure. Each new challenge must be viewed separately and completely and follow expert advice. The consumerist, flush with the victory of ferreting out a particular abuse in the marketplace, can succumb to the same plight as DeLesseps. By assuming one questionable market practice is like all others, they may thereby unjustly condemn an entire industry or even a whole system of enterprise.

Legislation, in particular, tends to be identified with individuals or vice versa. The lustre and past deeds of the lawmaker may outshine the legislation being considered. The current debate over campaign reform is perhaps a good example of this phenomenon.

Additionally, the debate over how best to deliver and pay for healthcare in our country has for years centered around the actions of a few high profile senators who do not seem to understand that the United States is not just another Sweden or Canada.

Today, prominent names are associated with studies that are supposed to ultimately lead to legislation to reform our Social Security system. Critics of the progress of these studies argue that the people on the study panel started with a strong bias rather than open minds. If what they allege is true, then they may well join Ferdinand DeLesseps in designing a catastrophe.

I believe that the events of the past year (even before 9/11/01) have revealed a vulnerability in the stock market that makes it an unacceptable companion to Social Security. The trillions of dollars of paper wealth that have vanished have been a disaster to many people who are currently retired or in the process of retiring. I know people who have already had to return to the workforce and others who have had to delay retirement because their 401(k) is too anemic.

The most important part of money for future delivery is: “Will it be there?” The second most important point is: “How much?” Invariably, when people reverse these two, trouble looms.

I hope the important people studying this issue will be ever mindful that Social Security is not “just another investment,” but rather the guaranteed foundation upon which financial plans may be built.

Reproduced from National Underwriter Life & Health/Financial Services Edition, November 26, 2001. Copyright 2001 by The National Underwriter Company in the serial publication. All rights reserved.Copyright in this article as an independent work may be held by the author.

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