I have a conflicted history with business books. I read and review them because I believe, hypothetically, they have power to positively impact society using market forces. Also because I have entrepreneurial aspirations. Yet I keep getting frustrated because business authors invent doctrines that flatly contradict my experience doing blue-collar work. So I wish I liked the non-dogmatic Joe Plumeri better. But he’s blind to his own implications.
After 36 years working the brokerage floors at several corporations that later merged into Citigroup, Joe Plumeri became the first-ever American CEO of the British insurance firm Willis Group. He introduced working-class democratic touches, like an open-door executive policy, and helped transform a successful but stodgy firm into a global economic mover. Along the way he had ripple effects on London’s massively influential financial markets.
Plumeri insists he accomplished this sweeping transformation by remaining true to his hardscrabble Trenton, New Jersey, roots. Grandson of immigrants, his grandfather flashed cash and got Babe Ruth to play an exhibition game in Trenton. His father used Triple-A ball to reinvigorate Trenton’s failing infrastructure. Plumeri comes from a long line of people who use optimism, hard work, and the Boys of Summer to breathe pride into Trenton’s struggling economy.
Though Plumeri organizes his book into eight “principles,” he resists the common temptation to assume anyone could derive universal checklists from his success. Rather than pretending he’s an object lesson on how business gets done, he writes an inspirational memoir designed to motivate aspiring entrepreneurs like me. His fist-pumping enthusiasm is certainly contagious, and I can imagine his passion fueling others to trust their hard-won instincts.
In his introduction, Plumeri mentions his firstborn son, Christian, died following lengthy struggles with substance abuse. I’ve read substantially on addiction issues recently, particularly the writings of Dr. Gabor Maté. These authors agree that many addicts whose struggles resist straightforward treatment share backgrounds, circumstances, and behavior. Plumeri’s thumbnail of his son could’ve come from a Cognitive Psych textbook:
...if [Christian] got mad, he’d usually cry too because it bugged him so much to be mad. If you showed him love, if you were there for him, he responded. He was great fun to be around, a good friend to his friends, and, as the oldest brother, he was very caring and always there for his sister, looking after her. The kid was full of heart and eager to please, but when you disappointed him the hurt preyed on him and left him confused and directionless. He was always looking for something to fill the void but never finding it.I couldn’t better describe the psyche of a child who has never learned to control his reaction to outside influences, whether loving or stress-inducing. As Dr. Maté writes in detail, children lack ability to govern stress reactions, and require adults to provide outside guidance. The aid adults provide, or don’t, shapes their growing neural structure. Addiction, whether to substances or behaviors or whatever, results from maladaptive brain development.
Plumeri describes himself as a “workaholic” repeatedly, and with evident pride. He also describes his own father driving around Trenton, showing his kids the flashiest homes, insisting that work brings reward, and the recognition that accompanies it. Though Plumeri never says so explicitly, his father plainly made paternal acceptance dependent on accomplishment. Now Plumeri cannot stop seeking his late father’s fleeting approval.
Not even when it costs him his son.
To his credit, Plumeri acknowledges his culpability in Christian’s self-destruction. He dedicates an entire chapter to his give-and-take with Christian, conceding that his grueling work schedule, extended absences, and pursuit of external goals pushed his son away. He writes: “I have to live with that failure—but you don’t.” But then he galivants onto the next topic in his autobiography… about maintaining resilient optimism!
Does Plumeri not recognize that Christian’s suffering arose, partly, from his own inability to cope with addictive behavior? Well, yes, he does, and says so, but he doesn’t let that recognition change him. Workaholism, alcoholism, drug abuse, and OCD are all expressions of largely the same circumstances. The only difference between Plumeri’s work obsession and Christians drugs is, society treats one as admirable.
Maybe I’m being unfair. Maybe I’m projecting one book onto another where it doesn’t fit. But I doubt it. Plumeri starts well, and if Christian didn’t appear, I’d probably applaud his story. But before the halfway mark, everything transforms; Plumeri becomes a cautionary tale in the dangers of chasing public acclaim without counting the private cost.