The power brokers, the plutocrats, and the prognosticators are struggling to assign credit for the nine-year U.S. economic boom. President Clinton, with god-like modesty, believes he created it. Vice President Al Gore believes he invented it. Some credit Alan Greenspan with nurturing it. Others applaud Paul Volcker for inspiring it. And still others boldly suggest that Ronald Reagan fathered it.
Those who seek to credit one individual for this remarkable feat need to be reminded that this is not a one-person accomplishment. They also should know that it is the first major expansion since the 1920s driven entirely by private sector spending and not by government interference.
The business bonanza of the 1990s is the creation of American business ingenuity. It's the "boomer boom" created by men and women who, in Christopher Morley's words, became "big shots because they were little shots who kept shooting."
These executives were innovators instead of imitators. They were entrepreneurs with the talent and perseverance to create opportunities where none existed. They succeeded in finding nontraditional solutions to problems that defied conventional solutions. They freed their minds to challenge, question, dare, and invent.
During earlier booms and busts, executives were looking for structured solutions to what were often complex, crazy-quilt problems.
New-age managers, by trial and error, learned the wisdom of monkey management, which led to our current business boom. Here's how monkey management works: Three monkeys sit on a seesaw. Overhead is an arbor with clusters of succulent grapes hanging just out of reach. In their combined wisdom, the moneys all run to the highest end of the seesaw to clutch the grapes. Their weight causes the seesaw to tilt downward and the grapes are out of reach. So they scramble back to the high end of the seesaw, and once again it tilts downward and out of reach of the grapes.
After several attempts, one of the monkeys uses his entrepreneurial savvy. He decides to sit on the low end of the board when his stubborn buddies run to the high end. Sure enough, their weight is enough to raise him high enough to reach the grapes. By going counter to conventional thought, he achieves success. He becomes, in fact, the consummate executive in that he achieves the desired result by managing the efforts of others.
The wise old monkey was quoted as saying: "Problems make managers out of people, and sometimes monkeys out of managers."
I have known a lot of chief executives in my day. They come in all shapes, sizes, ages, and temperaments. Most of the successful ones would have been successful without their corner offices, or their special perks, or their handsome salaries, or their outlandish options. Most of the successful ones were self-motivated. Their need to do better came from a conviction that good enough is never good enough.
Robert Frost offers the key to why this crop of entrepreneurs succeeded in achieving what those who came before them could not. In his poem "The Road Not Taken," he reveals their secret: "Two roads diverged in a wood, and I -- I took the one less traveled by, and that has made all the difference."
You've asked for it, so it will continue -- more lessons you can learn from my mistakes as a CEO:
Sal F. Marino is chairman emeritus of Penton Media Inc., an IW contributing editor, and the author of the recently published book Management Rhymes and Reason. His e-mail address is [email protected].