Instant Karma’s Gonna’ Get You

Posted 01.23.2009

Thain_john When I read the news of former Merrill Lynch CEO John Thain’s sudden “resignation” from the top ranks of Bank of America, my first thought was,  “Wow, what a great example of instant karma.”  Here’s a guy, who, a couple of years ago, was perceived as a straight arrow, buttoned down hero of Wall Street.  From a top job at Goldman Sachs to chairman of the New York Stock Exchange (following the whole Dick Grasso controversy) to savior of “Mother Merrill,”  Thain was viewed a few months ago as a potential CEO of Bank of America, the company that acquired Merrill last fall.  Now, he is out on his butt.  What in the heck happened?

John Lennon summed it up pretty well in his song, Instant Karma:

Instant karma’s gonna’ get you
Gonna’ knock you right on the head
You better get yourself together
Pretty soon you’re gonna’ be dead. defines karma as an “action, seen as bringing upon oneself inevitable results, good or bad… “  That seems to do a pretty good job of summing up what happened to Thain.  Since the B of A deal was announced, Thain lobbied the Merrill board for a $40 million bonus (he was turned down), went skiing in Vail as Merrill’s losses piled up in December, spent over $1 million redecorating his office and rushed through $4 billion in bonuses before the B of A deal closed.  Last week, B of A had to go back to the Feds for an additional $20 billion in TARP funds to cover unexpected losses at Merrill.   As the New York Times reports this morning,  all of that caused Bank of America CEO Ken Lewis to question Thain’s  judgment.  (Gee, you think?)  Yesterday, Lewis flew up to New York and, in a 15 minute meeting, fired Thain.

 How did this guy run off the rails so quickly?  Again, I turn to the wisdom of John Lennon:

Who in the hell do you think you are?
A super star?
Well, right you are.

That’s pretty much it, isn’t it?  Coming off like an entitled superstar in an era when the zeitgeist has shifted from superstardom to survival is not the best strategy for enhancing your long term leadership prospects.  I’m an aficionado of examples of how karma plays out in the business world.   One of my favorite examples for the past few years has been Jeff Skilling, the jailed CEO of Enron, who was well known for telling smart people how stupid they were.

But, let’s end on a positive note.  I take great comfort from the karmic idea that action brings on oneself inevitable results, good or bad.  Leaders take heed.  To quote the title of a more recent tune by the New Radicals, “You Get What You Give.”