Bob Miano's Blog

An Executive journal

Looking for answers? Look at your hands.

Break a finger and you'll suddenly realize how much you depend on your hands. Heck, a paper cut will tell you the same thing. The point is that most of us, perhaps with the exception of pianists and painters, take our hands for granted. We shouldn't. They hold tremendous potential for changing the world... or at the very least, our own world. That was perhaps the most important lesson I took away from the recent annual conference of CBI, the UK's premier business lobbying organization.

Held at the Grosvenor House in London, the conference brought together a C-level audience, which had the opportunity to hear from a distinguished group of politicians and business executives who included UK Prime Minister David Cameron, Economist Jim O'Neill, Fiat CEO Sergio Marchionne, and Abdullah Gul, President of Turkey. As fascinating as their remarks were, the most thought-provoking address came over lunch when we heard from Professor James Moore, Harvey Nash US group advisor and Ronald Reagan's former Assistant Secretary of Commerce for Trade Development. Jim is a storyteller, and his stories fascinated every single person in the room. As testament to how totally he captivated his audience, there was not one surreptitious check of phone or Blackberry during his talk.

The state of the world. Jim opened with an unusual observation that some of the world's greatest philosophers are cab drivers. Sharing his own private research, he told us that every cab driver he queries about life in general gives virtually the same response. In London, it's "Glum today, glum tomorrow." In New York: "Gloomy today, gloomy tomorrow."

I'm not so sure they qualify as great philosophers, but they certainly seem to serve as bellwethers for the global mood. Why? This answer is as predictable as these taxicab pronouncements. We have just come through the most difficult times we have seen since the Great Depression. Democracy, capital markets, and the free economy have been sorely tested. From Bernie Madoff to Lehman Brothers to MF Global to Goldman Sachs. How could we let all this happen? It's certainly not the first time that world events have taken us by surprise. Jim offered some observations from his diplomatic experience to underscore his point.

What's past is prologue. As a college senior, he had the rare opportunity to visit Romania as a guest of the country's then head of state, Nicolae Ceauşescu. When he returned many years later as a U.S. envoy to broker an international agreement, Jim was shocked by his youthful naiveté as he observed a society where it was commonplace to see synagogues burned to the ground and bibles used as waste paper. When Ceauşescu stubbornly refused help from both East and West for his besieged nation, it saw the worst winter in its history, when even the hearty Russians departed for home to warm up. Should the eventual collapse of the government have come as a surprise to any observer?

Similarly, a trip to Greece was punctuated by airline strikes, garbage strikes and demonstrations on every street corner. While the rich partied, taxes went uncollected, and social services bloated the national debt. Wasn't the need for a bailout preordained?

Where do we go from here? Jim's challenge to those of us privy to his words: Observe and learn! We owe it to future generations to avoid repeating the mistakes of the past.

The last story Jim shared was the most profound. It may sound familiar. It's an old proverb that has found its way into a number of modern-day motivational programs. According to Jim, it is a tale from the Bavarian woods. There once was a wise old man who lived outside a small village. Every few weeks, he traveled down the mountain to purchase provisions. While most people revered the extraordinary wisdom he had acquired over his long life, one young man resented his position and wanted to show him up, so he tucked a small bird into his hand and boasted that he would challenge the wise man. "I will say, 'Tell me old man. In my hand I hold a bird. Tell me, is it alive or is it dead?' If he tells me it is alive, I will squeeze it until it dies. If he says it is dead, I will open my hands and let it fly away, proving the old man a fool."

When the revered man next came to the village, the younger man presented his challenge. The elder's reply was that "the answer to that question lies in your hands..." just as the answer to the very difficult times we have recently experienced lies in our own hands.

Look to your hands. Despite the vast challenges we face today, things will get better. What's new is old. History repeats itself... over and over and over again. Few things in this world should truly surprise us, because the signs have all been there, if only we had paid more attention. So, be observant. Learn from the past. Don't try to solve everything on your own. Collaborate with others. Focus on what you can control right now, and know that there are solutions. They lie within your own hands.

My sincere thanks to Jim Moore for giving me much to ponder and for letting me share his profound words with you.