Arthur W. Page Society

A Few Thoughts About Influence

I spent an interesting morning last week with David Walker, former Comptroller General of the United States and head of the GAO. He served in those positions for ten years under both Democratic and Republican administrations, acting as a non-partisan watchdog over federal spending and entitlement programs. Now that he’s Chairman and CEO of the Peterson Foundation, headquartered in New York, he’s free to do what he wasn’t able to do in the Government Accountability Office: advocate for specific solutions, work pro-actively with grantees and other partners to build strong coalitions, and encourage the public through grassroots efforts to bring pressure on Washington to act.

Action is going to be important, if I understand his arguments correctly. Walker sees the need for debt and deficit spending during wartime, recessions, and genuine national emergency (we may have all three going at the moment), and he’s optimistic that something like a third of the Housing and Economic Recovery Act of 2008 may actually provide a stimulus for economic activity and create (or save) some jobs.

His real concern is for the long term (despite what Lord Keynes said about us all being dead in the long term). “It’s not the level of national debt and autopilot growth in entitlement programs,” he said, “it’s the off-budget issues and debt-financed solutions that will affect our children and their children.” Today, he meets with President Obama and a select few members of the House and Senate to talk about a long-term plan for fiscal responsibility and economic recovery. What influence he has on the President and the politically charged atmosphere surrounding fiscal and economic decisions just ahead will be interesting to watch.

Walker is not the only one whose work seems important to my faculty and students these days. Harvard University’s Howard Gardner, who has written dozens of thoughtful, interesting books on the human mind, has lately turned his attention to the subject of “influence.” His latest work, Changing Minds (Harvard Business School Press), focuses on the art and science of changing our own as well as other people’s minds. There are very specific reasons why we come to believe as we do, and why we might abandon a position to adopt a new one. More to the point for most of us, he’s interested in probing how we can get others to see how cooperating with us is in their best interest. Gardner, who is the father of the theory of multiple intelligences, has clearly given more thought to this subject than most other theoreticians and virtually all of us who practice this for a living.

The last of the folks who’ve been on my mind lately is a fellow named Vijay Vaitheeswaran, an editor and investigative writer for The Economist. He’s of the view that we cannot spend nor can we save our way out of the current economic mess we’re in. Despite the fact that personal savings have risen from .3% to 2.9% of GDP since Q4 of 2008, and despite the fact that the current federal stimulus package will dump three-quarters of a trillion dollars into the economy, Vaitheeswaran (among others) believes it will not be enough. We need innovation. What savings and spending won’t do, innovation just may.

Most companies talk about innovation, want to be seen as innovative (it’s one of the eight categories in Fortune magazine’s “Most Admired” survey), but they’re just not getting it done. They’re following the lead of a few, revisiting old (and often failed) approaches, and failing to see how departures in thinking can lead to enormous gains in productivity and profitability.

How can we influence the executives of the firms we work for? How can we help position them for the economic turbulence that lies ahead? How can we get others to cooperate with us to do what must be done for the good of the private sector, the good of our industries, and the benefit of the Republic? Good questions. My advice would be for you who are Page members (and your guests) to attend the Page Society Spring Seminar (April 2-3, Jumeriah Essex House, New York) and hear each of these men personally. Get to meet them, ask questions of them, plumb the depths of their thinking and gain some measure of insight into the direction, velocity and shape of the economy.

I’ll be there. Hope to catch up with you and share a moment together.

James S. O’Rourke, IV
Professor of Management
Arthur F. and Mary J. O’Neil Director
The Fanning Center for Business Communication
Mendoza College of Business
University of Notre Dame

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