What do Taoism, tall trees, and Richard Grasso have in common? Don't know? Grasso, the former chairman of the New York Stock Exchange, didn't either. Grasso's ignorance of the connection between these three terms cost him millions of dollars and resulted in his being removed as the head of the world's première stock exchange. Never again will he be seen playing to the camera with opening bell ringers like Michael Jordan, LeBron James, Willie Mays, Tyra Banks, Rachel Hunter, and SpongeBob. That fact is one of the few positive outcomes of this big business fiasco.
All was going well for Grasso until mid-September when his golden goose became a victim of road kill. Prior to the demise of his multi-million dollar golden goose, Grasso headed the NYSE, a unique not-for-profit organization designed to regulate its members. When the news got out that he was sitting on lots of golden eggs--$187.5 million compensation package (he returned $48 million of that amount), there was a maelstrom of outrage by those not making his nine figure salary and benefits. Did he or anybody else really think that he was worth that kind of money?
Grasso's exorbitant salary was sweetened after 9/11. While rescue workers worked to find those still trapped in the wreckage of the Twin Towers immediately after 9/11, Grasso worked to restart the exchange which he did in five days. He received $5 million dollars or a million dollars a day for his effort. That is $55,000/hour assuming that he put in 18-hour days for those five days. I wonder what a firefighter was paid for the same hours worked. To add additional irony to this outrageous example of greed and chutzpa, Grasso received a $10 million severance pay package plus benefits after being forced to resign from the NYSE.
I teach a Technology and Ethics course at DeVry University. DeVry mandates this class for its Electronics and Computer Technology students, because it is essential they are taught an ethical value system before graduation. No matter how superior their technology education might be, poor ethical decisions can quickly nullify their expertise. I tell my dean that it is an easy class to teach, because the topics we research are always in the news. In addition to following their syllabus, I encourage them to watch Lou Dobbs on CNN as a supplement to their text.
Until this past month, Martha Stewart had been the poster child for the class and a great example why ethics is critical. She will have to share that dismal distinction with Richard Grasso at least until another person rivals them for greed and poor judgment.
Had Grasso taken my class, he would have learned about Taoism and the teachings of Lao Tzu. One of the basic tenets of Taoism is that "The ax falls first on the tallest tree." Lao Tzu wanted his followers to understand that if you act like a tall tree towering over all the lesser trees, you might impress yourself and others for a while, but you also are at greater risk of impressing a lumberjack who will cut you down. Grasso surely took note of the axe being wheeled against other hubris-filled executives over the past months: executives from Enron, WorldCom, AOL Time Warner, Tyco, Stanley, Arthur Anderson, Adelphia Communications, Xerox, and Rite Aid. However, he saw the problems generated by corporate greed and misconduct but didn't bother to internalize it.
All Americans need to make ethical decisions, because it is just the right thing to do. If we can't be ethical, at least we need to be wise in our dealings within business, education, or family. Give heed to Lao Tzu's admonition, "The ax falls first on the tallest tree" is an excellent example of enlightened self-interest. Taoism, tall trees, and Richard Grasso have a great deal in common. We also need to internalize this lesson, which has cost Grasso millions.