By A. A. (Tad) La Fountain, III

La Fountain, of Penhook, is a retired investment professional who worked as a portfolio manager and as a technology stock analyst on Wall Street.

In 1985, the International Business Machines Corporation was a global powerhouse. IBM — in both its technological significance and business prominence — was then a more potent and imposing force than Apple or Google or any other company is today. Not content to rest on its considerable laurels, IBM set in motion that fall a program that identified 90 future engineering and software leaders of the corporation from around the world, took them offline for several weeks and brought them to its Corporate Technical Institute north of New York City. The participants engaged in Foundations for the Future — a program that would provide a common background and skill set for those selected. Over an intensive three weeks, these identified “change agents” were immersed in courses, lectures and projects.

As a Wall Street technology stock analyst, I was asked to give a lecture as part of one of the courses. When I reached out to the program coordinator and asked the obvious question — “What would you like me to tell the class?” — the reply left me stunned: “If we knew what we wanted you to tell them, we would have told them already.” Here was the organization that was the epitome of corporate excellence exhibiting a humility that blew me away. It was providing products and services that literally determined how global business did and would operate, and yet had no problem acknowledging that it didn’t know everything (and was keenly interested in learning more).

Over my career, I spent untold hours analyzing companies and industries, always trying to discern what could serve as predictors of success. Of course, there are many such factors, and business schools have become adept at teaching what these factors are and what their relative significance is. But in my experience, the most important markers for continuing success distill to two attributes: humility and empathy. Whether we’re talking about a company, a university, a religion, a government or a person, these factors reign supreme. Sure, in the short run, other things can suffice — arrogance, self-promotion, sheer good fortune. But for sustainable and long-lived well-being, the combination of humility and empathy is unmatched.

When Plutarch compared the Athens of Pericles to Rome of Fabius Maximus, he concluded that Fabius — leading Rome when it was under attack by the Carthaginians — actually had an easier job. Despite the posturing of his more aggressive and self-aggrandizing Roman critics, Fabius saved Rome by avoiding direct confrontation with Hannibal and thus paved the way for eventual success. The Athenians, by contrast, were so self-impressed that they built monuments to themselves and their victories. Instead of viewing the Parthenon as a symbol of Athens’ glory, we should see it for the signal of demise that it was.

Self-interest paves the way to internal (and eventual external) weakness. As history has shown, this dynamic is inexorable. It is understandable that those who offer chest-beating appear to offer hope. But their path is an inevitable doom, and we need to recognize that the shortcuts of bluster and false bravado are misguided and inevitably self-defeating. Our Founding Fathers were that rare blend of optimism and realism. If we are to truly make America great and build on their legacy, we need to resurrect a national sense of humility and empathy. It will have to start with each and every one of us, and then permeate our institutions and our collective efforts. Easy? Hardly. But worth the effort? Of course. Most importantly, it is what we have been bequeathed, and we owe it to those who came before to honor them and the ideals they established. To do otherwise would be the worst form of corruption, and our place in history would be assured — a place that is best avoided.

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