Legacies, Left Tackles and Investment Banking

Three cool books to tell you about.

Looking Back – The Power of Legacy

First is Your Leadership Legacy, by Robert M. Galford and Regina Fazio Maruca. [Disclosure: Rob was my co-author, along with David Maister, on The Trusted Advisor].

It’s built around one of those ideas that can sound fluffy and vague—until you grasp it firmly. Galford & Maruca have discovered a powerful application for the notion of looking backward from the vantage point of the future. (We called it “envisioning” in Trusted Advisor). The subject matter they apply it to is one’s own leadership.

Now, for my money, the literature on “leadership” has staked out more than its fair share of vacuity in the pantheon of business books. But this approach has power. By asking people to look back at their own careers and think of the legacy they are leaving, a lot of remarkable things happen—which the authors document. It actually gets people to think differently—no small feat.

I think the power of this simple but clean idea was tapped by Mark Twain years ago in Tom Sawyer: the vision of sitting up in the back of the church, watching an entire town deliver your eulogy. That same power was invoked by Dickens in A Christmas Carol. And yet again in Frank Capra’s cult-for-the-masses Christmas movie, It’s a Wonderful Life.

Looking backward from the future, focused on the meaning we will have left the world, focuses the mind wonderfully, and is an antidote to cynicism and short-term focus. You can’t help but think about your own legacy as you read it. Which, of course, is their point.

The Blind Side: Evolution of a Game

Second is Michael Lewis’s The Blind Side: Evolution of a Game. You may know Lewis as the author of Liar’s Poker, or as the sports-oriented author of Moneyball and Coach: Lessons on the Game of Life. It’s one of those multi-level books: it’s about football, and the evolution of the left tackle position in particular. It’ll let you second-guess John Madden in any jock argument and look like you know what you’re talking about.

But it’s also about the hard edges in our society—the enormous gaps between the various American sub-cultures—and about how hard it is to reach escape velocity from any of them.

Finally, it’s a ripping good read about the decency of some people, and the hard-won, big-yet-small gains that their efforts yielded. It reminds me of that story about the kid on the beach throwing back starfish into the ocean after a storm. An adult comes along and says, "Kid, there are millions of starfish who were beached here; it’s not going to make any difference." The kid throws back another starfish and says, "It did to that one."

The Accidental Investment Banker: Inside the Decade that Transformed Wall Street

Third is The Accidental Investment Banker: Inside the Decade that Transformed Wall Street, by Jonathan Knee. Knee was an investment banker at Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley in the go-go years 1998 – 2003, so he certainly had a good seat at the feast. What sets Knee apart from his fellows is the ability to be in it and yet—at least in his telling—not of it.

He does a job I’ve not seen anyone else do well—articulate the higher aspirations and social good that can come out of the role of investment banker, properly done. In this regard, it’s quite the opposite of Liar’s Poker and most expose-type books about the wild and woolly excesses of Wall Street.

Which makes the contrast all the more telling when Knee does get to talking about those excesses. The most vivid of all, to me, is his acronym IBG YBG. It’s what one investment banker would whisper to another when the most absurd of deals were getting cut, when propped up hype was about to be packaged and sold down the line to the next greatest fool.

It stands for “I’ll be gone, you’ll be gone,” and it aptly reflects the cynicism and greed that characterized the dissolution of those good intentions, especially in the later years of the boom.

And all three are about trust—trust me.