US Catholic Faith in Real Life

COMMENTARY: When giants fall

Tom Ehrich | Print this pagePrint | Email this pageShare

c. 2013 Religion News Service

(RNS) Businesses fail every day. So do films, industrial parks, hospitals, churches, and marriages.

Dreams and hard work don’t always win the gold. But when giants fall, the earth trembles.

The agonizing travails of an arrogant auto industry that was determined not to learn from experience took its largest victim last week, when the Motor City itself filed for bankruptcy.

Watch for other cities to follow suit. Big Auto isn’t the only large industry to lose its way through hubris and mismanagement, and Detroit isn’t the only city held captive — and rendered dysfunctional — by greed in high places.

The earth shook in Seattle, too, as longtime tech giant Microsoft showed how difficult it is for a successful enterprise to question the ground of its success and to adapt nimbly to changing conditions. It’s so much easier to wring another quarter of profits from an old paradigm — until that paradigm is bone-dry.

Microsoft isn’t the first tech giant to implode and it won’t be the last. The symptoms of earnings tanking, new products failing and the innovation instinct made cautious are not unique to one of the world’s biggest computer companies. Still, the passing of an era is disconcerting to those who grew that era and, no less, to those who are riding newer waves. Their days also could be numbered and for the same reasons: Innovation and reliable profits rarely share the sandbox. Dreamer-builders and “suits” don’t get along. Google had a bad quarter, too.

The “young and restless” inevitably become the “mature and settled.” It isn’t an erosion of capability — some say older innovators accomplish more than youth — but rather an aversion to further risk, a visceral need for a steady paycheck, a desire to enjoy the harvest of success rather than save it for seed.

Hierarchies of power replace loose teams of energized collaborators. Fresh ideas collide with committees and, as at Microsoft, massive overmanagement.

Leaders in the growth spurt conclude (quite wrongly) that growth was about them and not about luck, convergence and an entrepreneurial spirit that mixed hard work, high risk and delayed gratification.

On the one hand, the problem of maturing is nothing new. Count the casualties, from the men’s hat industry to corner hardware stores. You could add in the so-called “founder’s dilemma,” when the builder of an enterprise realizes his children have no “fire in the belly,” just an appetite for the good life.

Yet on the other hand, the withering of a Microsoft seems surprising and dreadful because of what it says about any permanence of success. I see this in churches, where even the healthiest congregation is one avoided risk from decline.

It doesn’t take much to stifle momentum: All it takes is one caving to settledness, one older cadre denouncing further change, one pastor who chooses to be a manager and not an entrepreneur.

When a startup is young, pioneers fear nothing. Hard work — bring it on. Lack of resources — we’ll make do. Failure — great learning opportunity.

In time, settlers take over. They deal with danger, not by embracing it, but by minimizing risk. No more delayed paydays. I want my $1 million wedding now, or, as Detroit found, my never-ending pension untethered from funding.

In their aversion to risk, they cease rigorous self-examination, but prefer to see today continuing forever, or at least until they get their due.

No enterprise can survive getting too comfortable. Serenity comes from living on the edge, in constant transformation, not from eating well.

(Tom Ehrich is a writer, church consultant and Episcopal priest based in New York. He is the author of “Just Wondering, Jesus” and founder of the Church Wellness Project. His website is Follow Tom on Twitter @tomehrich.)

This commentary piece reflects the opinion of the author and does not necessarily represent the position of U.S. Catholic, its editors, or the Claretians.