Perspective by Kevin Fahy
Tales From the Crypt
by Kevin Fahy
This may sound morbid to you, but as I get older I find myself more interested in reading obituaries. Other people must find them intriguing as well, because my local newspaper gives them very prominent space on page 2. Classified advertising may have migrated to the Internet, but newspapers are still doing a bang-up business in death notices.
I don’t read all of them, but kind of browse through and find the ones that interest me for whatever reason. Those always include men of the right age to have served in some capacity during the Second World War, and sadly such men are passing rapidly away. The collective wisdom of these guys amounts to a precious resource that is running through our fingers, and I feel as though we have to drink in as much as we can before it’s gone.
Take this one, for example. Last week The New York Times ran the obituary of a man named Benjamin Kaplan, who passed away from pneumonia at the age of 99. Mr. Kaplan was a former law professor at Harvard and a judge on the Massachusetts Supreme Court, but noteworthy as that may be, it was his role in the war that I wanted to know about.
Graduating from high school in 1925 at the age of 14, he had then gone through City College of New York and Columbia Law School, and left a major law firm to join the army in 1942. During the war, Mr. Kaplan worked in procurement at the Pentagon, but it was after the shooting stopped that he had his real brush with destiny.
In April of 1945, President Truman appointed Supreme Court Justice Robert Jackson as chief prosecutor for the proposed trial of Nazi war criminals, and Colonel Kaplan was assigned to Jackson’s staff. Their task was monumental, to gather and analyze a vast amount of evidence, figure out whom to charge with crimes that had never even been defined before, and actually conduct a prosecution for something as huge and horrible as the Holocaust.
Colonel Kaplan worked for several months in Washington, supervising the legal staff that was collecting the evidence, then moved to London where he became one of the chief architects of the indictment. Although he would leave the service before the actual trial, his work resulted in the conviction of 19 out of 22 high-ranking Nazis on charges of “crimes against humanity.”
On the 50th anniversary of the trials, Judge Kaplan remarked that the task they faced at Nuremberg seemed impossible, and he gave all the credit for their success to Justice Jackson. He said that the lesson to be learned at Nuremberg was that “Vision conquers all. Vision conquers all, and Jackson had the vision.”
So that is my takeaway from the life of Benjamin Kaplan, but what exactly is this all-powerful force? When George H.W. Bush was running for president in 1988, he was asked by a reporter about his broad goals for America, as opposed to individual policy initiatives, and he is said to have replied, “Oh, the vision thing.”
Some people live in the moment, and some businesspeople (and politicians) deal with problems as they arise, rather than thinking about the company they want to create. As Robert Kennedy famously said, “Some men see things as they are and ask ‘Why,’ I dream things that never were and ask ‘Why not?’”
Kennedy was actually paraphrasing a line in a play by George Bernard Shaw, but if you prefer your philosophical quotations a bit less erudite you can always turn to Yogi Berra. “If you don’t know where you are going, you will wind up somewhere else.”
My favorite book about running a business is Up the Organization, which was written by Robert Townsend 40 years ago and remains one of the most accessible, most practical, and funniest management guides ever assembled. I read it when I was a junior executive with a Fortune 500 Company in my mid-20s and have relied on its pithy wisdom through 30 years of running companies large and small.
One of Townsend’s central tenets was that an individual should not run the same business for more than a few years. He believed that anyone who takes over an organization must have a vision of what that firm should become, which would include a reasonable timetable for getting there. Once that vision is realized, it would be very difficult for that person to come up with a new vision that involves changing his creation. Therefore he or she should move on, and someone else should come in with a new set of eyes.
That’s all well and good in the corporate world of hired guns, but I don’t live in that world anymore. Like most of you, I am one of the owners of a small business and it’s not that easy to leave. We need to find some way to create a vision that endures through the years.
As you may have guessed from the Berra reference, I’m a lifelong Yankee fan, a fact which I often keep to myself in business circles due to the polarizing effect that it has on a group of people. At any rate, one of the obituaries I read this past summer was that of George M. Steinbrenner, principal owner of the team since 1973. I was never particularly fond of Steinbrenner, whom I considered to be meddlesome and overbearing.
Looking back on his tenure, however, I couldn’t help but admire his tenacious, single-minded pursuit of victory at any cost. The Boss had a vision all right, but it was not something so simple as to win a championship. He wanted to win every championship, and more than that really, to win every game.
I’m not sure that pursuit of perfection is a model that works for all of us, but we have to pursue something, and we have to know what it is. Otherwise, as Yogi would say, it could get late early.