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Vol. 49-Sinful Excess – Greed, Gluttony, Lust

The North Bay Business Journal, a publication of the New York Times, is a weekly business newspaper which covers the North Bay area of San Francisco – from the Golden Gate bridge north, including the Wine Country of Sonoma and Napa counties.

This page provides the Print-Friendly Version of the article, as published.

Any related materials or articles referenced in the column, or otherwise applicable, will also be referenced below:

The electronic version of the article, as published, may be found here.

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Article published -September 14, 2009larykirchenbauerhdr

Gluttony, greed, lust not the ingredients for principled organization

Temperance and labor are the two best physicians of man; labor sharpens the appetite, and temperance prevents from indulging to excess.”

– Jean-Jaques Rosseau

You’ll recall that last time, we catalogued the perils of pride and envy in the pursuit of business success, but alas, we’ve barely dented the list of Seven Deadly Sins.

During this economic tumult, we’ve seen excesses like never before in our lifetimes … excessive credit card and mortgage debt, inflated housing prices, financial malfeasance, Ponzi schemes, egregious compensation plans and much more. It’s no surprise, then, that three of these seven misdeeds are offenses of excess in various incarnations.

Gluttony appears on the list and is defined as the “inordinate desire to consume more than you require,” which originated with concerns for wasting food in the midst of poverty. Thomas Aquinas, a medieval religious thinker, even identified six ways to commit gluttony, including consuming too much, too soon, too eagerly or too expressively – maybe the perfect expression of the runaway consumer spending that brought our economy to its knees.

“Qu’ils mangent de la brioche,” famously translated as “Let them eat cake,” is arguably attributed to Marie Antoinette on the eve of the French Revolution, hailing the ignominious end to another age of excess.

Gluttony is also understood to extend beyond the consumption of food and drink to an excess of anything, e.g., toys, TV or tennis rackets, I suppose. One variation is demanding too much from people, “an excessive desire for other people’s time or presence.” In this sputtering economy, where everyone is expected to do more with less, the relentless push for more can be both exhausting and enervating to our team members.

Usually, this occurs because we haven’t set clear expectations, making it hard to tell when anyone’s work is done, particularly when it seems to come from an endless stockpile of to-do items. If the work never ends, it’s easy to continually demand more.

Yet, there’s a limit to the level of effort we can sustain, even from a strong and loyal work force. When we recognize that gluttony is a sin against the virtue of temperance, we’re reminded that an even-handed approach energizes greater productivity than the relentless pace of “do more.”

Greed is differentiated from its spiritual cousin of gluttony by its focus on material wealth rather than consumption. Gordon Gekko in the landmark 1987 movie, “Wall Street,” infamously claimed that “greed is good”. (BTW, Oliver Stone is already filming WS2.) The litany of recent events in the financial marketplace, however, validates for many the painful results of that imperative.

The traditional punishment for greed is being boiled in oil, but even a luxurious bath essence won’t spare the party guilty against the virtue of generosity. Most of us can identify individuals, and even companies, that we consider generous even if their bounty is not overwhelming. It’s a reflection of their attitude, I think, a deep-seated commitment to fairly share the wealth among all members of their corporate family.

In a widely reported move to advance the financial security of all of its employee families, Ben and Jerry’s in 1990 established a 5:1 compensation differential between the top and bottom of the organization. While their anti-establishment culture might be too exacting for some, it reinforces the spirit of generosity that is the cultural bedrock of many successful companies.

Finally, there’s the kissing cousin lust, the third member of the triumvirate of the Seven Deadly Sins related to excess, in this case, a self-destructive desire for pleasure, or a sin against the virtue of self-control whose traditional punishment is to be smothered in fire and brimstone.

This third form of excess might be seen as a growing obsession with the instant gratification that fosters antipathy toward the long-term goals that seasoned executives recognize as the hallmark of successful companies.

Business, like life, is a marathon not a sprint, and while there are powerful moments along the way, the road is also paved with the discarded bones of also-rans whose excesses caused their downfall. Witness that only 71 of the companies on the Fortune 500 list in 1955 are still there.

Excess by any measure is rarely rewarded (unless it’s in charity, knowledge or cash, I suppose), but the current economic travails that surround our lives these days were born from a sea of excess that has touched all generations.

A culture built on a spirit of generosity, temperance and a long-term perspective are more likely to help us build lasting and accomplished families and organizations.

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Lary Kirchenbauer is the president of Exkalibur Advisors Inc., providing practical business strategies for family and other privately owned businesses in the middle market. He works closely with senior executives and their businesses to accelerate their growth and improve personal and professional performance and hosts a CEO Round Table for middle market companies in the North Bay. Please visit www.exkalibur.com for additional information.

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