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A Meditation on Springsteen's Land of Hope and Dreams

This is a personal essay written by Matt Slepin, Founder and Managing Partner of Terra Search Partners. It in no way reflects the views of Terra Search Partners or any of the staff or other partners.

I write these words from vacation in Mexico, a few weeks after the election. I am continuing to process, process, and process, still in a fog and trying to understand our changed world of President-elect Trump, a change which challenges so many of my deep-felt values and assumptions.

I am working out on the elliptical, scrolling through the news on my iPad with music blasting through my headphones. I am reading the Times and the Journal, compulsively reading about the never-ending Trump Tweets and the latest nominees. No other news is as compelling.

I am reading the man’s insistence that he won big with a heavy mandate (really?) and the discoveries about Putin’s interference. I am reading about the selection of senior officials, most of whom represent everything-I-do-not-believe, gleefully running in to take power. I am thinking about Bannon. Terrifying. I am thinking about Pence, one heartbeat away. I am thinking about Energy and the EPA led by global warming deniers, HHS led by a leading opponent to Obamacare, Justice led by a racist, State led by Exxon (or is it Putin?), an Ambassador to Israel who wants more settlements, and on and on and on. I personally do not mind Goldman Sachs people in government, but Trump is hiring a handful right after pillorying Hillary on her associations with Wall Street. And we have not yet heard about Supreme Court nominees, nor the State of North Carolina changing its governance rules after a Democrat won the Governorship.

My blood boils. I feel gutted. I feel scared. I feel that my values and beliefs at many different levels — as a human being, a man, a father, a leader of a company and a businessman, a Jew, an optimist, a citizen and political junkie – have been trampled upon and even ridiculed by everything we have experienced from Mr. Trump, including his Tweets, his speeches, his need for affirmation, his constant lies and exaggerations, his gold-platedness, even his hair.

So while scrolling the Trump news, the third or fourth Bruce Springsteen song comes on the playlist and all of a sudden, I am listening hard. I am offered a contrast. I see the other side. As in the process of loss and grief, at some point, you start seeking places of new dawn, green shoots, and places to make a difference versus just grief and anger. You remember why you are here and who you are.

Grab your ticket and your suitcase, thunder’s rollin’ down this track

Well, you don’t know where you’re goin’ now, but you know you won’t be back

Well, darlin’ if you’re weary lay your head upon my chest

Springsteen has called out to me as he so often does. I will admit that I often tear up when I hear Springsteen songs. Sometimes it’s because I’m seeing him in concert with 15,000 folks surrounding me, who are there together for that emotional experience, but most other times are while exercising and the endorphins are out in full and one-of-those-songs comes up. Land of Hopes and Dreams is one of those songs. I am drawn into my feelings about the next four years through this different lens.

This train carries saints and sinners, this train carries losers and winners

This train carries whores and gamblers, this train carries lost souls

I said, this train carries broken-hearted, this train, thieves and sweet souls departed

This train carries fools and kings thrown, this train, all aboard

Contrast this with Trump’s messaging. Think of his dismissals of black people, Muslims, Mexicans, the not-conventionally attractive, ex-beauty queens, those in wheelchairs, even those who menstruate. Think of his bullying comments and behavior. Little Marco. Lying Ted. Ugly Carly. Crooked Hillary. Boring Jeb. Contrast this with the Boss, with open arms, welcoming everyone. Saints and sinners, whores and gamblers, fools and kings. Trump, with his anti-elite posturing, could be seen as preaching to the crowd in the same broad tent. He got the vote of Joe lunchbucket, at least White Joe lunchbucket. But it is not the same tent. Trump’s revival tent is dark and exclusionary. There are surely no blacks, and no Muslims, and no Mexicans. You know that he has a disdain for the diverse. But you also know that his appeal to Joe is insincere. You know that it is just an audience that he latched onto versus one of meaningful connection. They will not embody his agenda. They will be disappointed.

Springsteen’s tent is big, the message is universal and indeed is the embodiment of the American dream that I have been taught throughout my life — bring me your hungry, your tired, your poor, your whores and gamblers, your saints and sinners. This inclusivity is the American dream and the values of my 60 years.   

I spend time thinking about the concept of sincerity in business and in political life. What do the words of a pop star, a politician, a business leader, or a corporation mean? How do we understand words and how do we understand long term behavior? Can you make a lot of dough and be a good guy? Springsteen and Trump are each concurrently people and corporations. Both guys have made boatloads of dough and is that not just the whole story? Is there a concept of virtuousness in business or is it all just about the bottom line? The Boss/Trump contrast puts these questions in such stark relief to prove my point that there is indeed such a concept as virtue in the public or business realm.

Trump consistently, both in business and in his personal demeanor, has made a living and created a personality that is an unapologetic caricature of boorish behavior. In the Trump world, there are winners and losers and he will always have to be the winner. It is about ego and self-aggrandizement. Negotiations are a zero sum game versus a long game. Subcontractors can always be stiffed, sued, bullied, and crammed down. Lenders can always be screwed. Bankruptcy is not just a last-resort option. Lying is easy since no one checks the facts. Unfaithfulness is natural since there is always a younger, prettier woman who will not complain about the gropings of a rich man. Hypocrisy is easy since people have short memories. Suing people is easy because you have the dough to say “sue me back if you can”.  There is the empty dream of getting rich quick at Trump University, and taking government fees for development at Grand Central and Atlantic City. Paying taxes is a fool’s obligation. Look at the messaging from the long term behavior of the Trump Foundation; it is empty. It goes on and on. These are the headlines of this man. The concept of “paying it forward” and long term goodwill is not in his vocabulary. And his short political life is as a believer in the Hobbesian. It is Leviathan. I am not exaggerating or painting a one-sided picture. We all know this to be true. Words and behavior have consequence and meaning. So many of all feel so badly about Trump’s ascension because these are the opposite behaviors of how we have grown up both as citizens and for some of us, as business leaders.

Bruce has played the opposite game. You might ask how you can judge an entertainer on the same scale that you are judging a business person. Fair point, but let’s look at words and behavior over both 50 year careers. Springsteen created a career that was consciously for the long game. He wanted to last. He created an audience, a body of work, a band, a persona, a work ethic, an organization, and messaging that has a huge degree of consistency. The Boss and Trump both share the virtue of consistency.

Like Trump, the Boss is a business. Boss, Inc. serves its clients well, taking a page from the Grateful Dead. They have a consistent theme and message. When Clarence Clemons died and his nephew Jake came on board, Bruce made sure he understood the Responsibility of playing in the E Street Band and to his audience. There is no fake, no shine, no glitz, lots of sweat and hard work. Bruce recently played his longest show ever — 4 hours in New York. There is a willingness to put oneself at risk — contrast Bruce’s body surfing at age 67 with Trump’s germaphobia. Read Bruce’s no-artifice autobiography.

I have a long standing belief that the concept that words-and-behavior-matters, applies to companies as well as individuals. I believe that there is a continuum of virtue in business and corporate behavior. Businesses can come to the table with values and mission and a desire to contribute to a better world and society. Bruce Inc is full of that. Trump Inc is an empty suit.

I spend my career in the real estate business where there are all contrasts of people and companies. I have long held that some companies behave with some level of righteousness and integrity, others just to do the job, and frankly some are clearly just in it for the dough. In the pure for-profit world, all companies have a fiduciary responsibility to their investors (be it public company investors or private equity investors) to maximize returns, but within that context, there is a continuum of behavior. Think of the great, lasting companies in the real estate industry — AvalonBay, EQR, Hines, Tishman Speyer, Clarion, even Blackstone. And then think of the laggards, even those which have been profitable. Also think of Trump, Inc. What companies and what leaders do you admire? Why? There is indeed meaning to the concept of virtue, culture and behavior in the business world.

This is obviously personal for me. I run a search firm. We are a for-profit business. We spend a lot of time, in our business, talking about values and mission. We are in a transactional business, but I have tried to distinguish my career and we have tried to distinguish our business by our behavior around the non-transactional aspects, seeking to create and value relationships and help clients and candidates well beyond the confines of the deal. We are very focused on making money. But we have a set of values, we try to articulate and repeat them and we believe, over time, that such behavior becomes truth. Maybe I am trying to justify something noble to myself about a business that is maybe just about people brokerage. Maybe trying to find meaning in what you do rather than just making money or punching a clock is self-congratulation.

Trump’s success in the public arena makes me question my values and my behavior. The bully makes the mensch think he is being a chump. Maybe the world is Trumpian. Maybe it is just about the dough. Maybe underneath it all, it is just a show. There are no good guys and bad guys, just pawns and survivors making it through the world. Just go for the gold and stop the crap about mission, virtue, and values. Hillary represented to me an embodiment of Baby Boomer liberal values, which I certainly share. But maybe these are empty goals?

Or… maybe the Boss is more than just an outlier and the love — read it, love — that we experience for and about his work is representative of what we all really aspire to in our work and in our lives. Maybe Trump, Bannon, Pence and company are really just a bad dream, maybe just the last gasp of a dead old system. My hope is that this Presidency provides a negative example to my forthcoming grandchildren as behavior never to emulate, to never celebrate braggadocio, to reject misogyny and gold-plated glitz over deep quality, and reactiveness over thoughtfulness and intellectual approach.

If you have been following me or our company, you know that I write a fair amount about the business, careers, and corporate behavior. I have been advised not to put this piece out there, but I kind of have to do it. Do not read this as a diatribe about R’s and D’s. It is not. I actually hope to one day have a Republican that I can vote for as President, since I believe that a moderate Republican could possibly succeed in changing the discourse and making a difference while most Democrats, wherever they might be on the political spectrum, are dead on arrival in terms of the ability to be effective. No, this is no political diatribe, it is the sincere ruminations of a guy like me – a business owner, a father, a citizen – processing openly what to do to cope with the next four years, and then hopefully engage with others to find better options for a future with the very real challenges that are upon us.

The Trumpian and the Bruce-ian worlds coexist. Always will. We each have a choice in our personal, business, and community behavior. I choose the mensch side. I choose the Boss. I have no choice actually.

Thanks for reading.

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