Entitlement Jumps the Shark

Posted 02.06.2009

Sharkjumper1 This was the week when conspicuous consumption and the entitlement mindset that drives it officially jumped the shark. (If you haven’t heard that phrase before, check out this entry on Wikipedia.)  Leaders everywhere need to take heed.

How much things have changed hit home for me yesterday when the Washington Post, a left of center organization, and the Wall Street Journal editorial page, definitely right of center, both ran columns  echoing the famous Howard Beale scene from the movie, Network, “We’re mad as hell and we’re not going to take it anymore!”

First up was Post business columnist Steve Pearlstein who opened his column this way:

“Tom Daschle still doesn't get it.

John Thain never did.

Barack Obama gets it sometimes, Nancy Pelosi and John Boehner not so much.

Corporate executives think they get it but aren't even close.

College presidents, governors and union leaders, for the most part, don't have a clue.

"It" is an understanding of how fundamentally the political and economic environment has been transformed with the bursting of the bubble economy and how that has jeopardized basic assumptions and expectations and the way we do what we do.”

Then, I took a look at the Wall Street Journal and found a column by Thomas Frank with the headline, “Wall Street Bonuses Are An Outrage.”  That really gets your attention when you’re reading the Wall Street Journal.  Here, with pun slightly intended, was the money quote for me in Frank’s column:

“Maybe, in its fury at the millions doled out to bankers who drove their institutions into the ground, the public understands something about moral hazard that the Treasury Department doesn't. Maybe, in its rage for fairness, the public is on to something that the banking industry's remaining defenders need to acknowledge.”

It’s fascinating to me how the public outrage has slowly built over the past three or four months from an indifferent simmer to a rolling boil.  It started with AIG executives taking a $400,000 spa retreat a few days after their company got a multi-billion bailout from the TARP.  The fact that Bernie Madoff is still hanging out in his Park Avenue apartment after admitting that he scammed his investors out of $50 billion raised the temperature a bit more.  John Thain’s Extreme Makeover: Office Edition  turned up the heat even further.  The tipping point, though, was the Tom Daschle story.  Sure, not paying his taxes was a problem, but I think what really sent the public over the edge was the two years of free car service and the reports of how he made $5 million in two years worth of “consulting.”

Apparently, it hit Daschle and President Obama at roughly the same time that Americans have had it with the idea that leaders are entitled to a different set of rules and standards.  Unfortunately, not every leader gets it.  Following a speech in New England yesterday,  I had a conversation with an audience member who is a partner with a major law firm.  We were talking about how the expectations of leaders have shifted so dramatically and he told me how he’s trying to convince one of his clients to drop the fractional ownership of the corporate jet.  We both agreed that, as cool as they are, this isn’t the time to be flying around on them. 

Now more than ever, people are watching their leaders for signs that they get it.  What signals are you sending?