Twin evils of obstruction

I guess it was the comment by ex-Governor Carlos Romero Barceló in an interview on WKAQ radio that set me to thinking. He made his comment following the Puerto Rico Supreme Court's ruling that former island governors have an acquired right to publicly funded security details. During the interview he said:

"El pueblo de Puerto Rico se comprometió conmigo en esas cosas" (Loosely translated, he said, "I'm a bitter old man who cries over spilled champagne and the terrible thought of facing my own self-imposed lack of importance." Or something like that...)
His comment reminded me of an old observation of mine, but it also reinforced a well explained sentiment. The sentiment is "entitlement," one which I believe that Gil the Jenius has well documented. The other evil twin to entitlement is "settling." It's the odd characteristic where people just accept their situation, and then become comfortable with it. For me, the odd combination of these traits create a formidable barrier to any possibility for change in Puerto Rico.

Proverbial career ladder

When I was young and naive, I used to believe in the illusion of building a career. The often used metaphor for this objective was climbing the rungs of a ladder. Here's my interpretation of how entitlement and settling have made this metaphor obsolete. While still working in corporate Puerto Rico, I saw two scenarios that led me to this conclusion.

Scenario #1: The top of the ladder

The first has to do with executives that rise up (or grow up) through a (with) company until they have obtained one of the senior positions, and then settle in for the long haul. As far as I know, most of the senior executives in the company where I used to work, over six years ago, are still there, in the exact same, or equivalent, jobs.

Now, in their defense, these executives "earned" their ways into those positions, and are entitled to enjoy all the fruits of their labor. However, what I see, is a group of executives which have stopped climbing. This presents two obstacles. The obvious one, is that if they stop climbing, then no one below them can move up.

However, the second obstacle, is the belief that there is only one ladder. I'm amused at how the single ladder mentality fits so well into the zero-sum, single pie analogy. Part of the belief that they've "arrived" at the top of "the" ladder, is based on the unfortunate fact, that for some executives, there aren't many (or any) companies left on the island which could offer these executives more challenge or pay.

What these executives miss is that they should keep climbing, even if that means building a new ladder and starting at the bottom once again. Let's take two examples: Romero Barcelo and Richard Carrion. With nearly thirty years of public service and nine years since he last held office, Romero Barcelo should be building new ladders. With his influence and connections, he should be working on new initiatives to solve what our inept government can not fix, and DO something to help Puerto Rico.

Moving on. Let's face it, do you think there is any reasonable explanation for why Richard Carrion should be receiving 750K a year to run Banco Popular? It's not like he needs the money. By staying put he creates a "tapon" at the top of the Banco Popular ladder. And again, with his influence, connections, and resources, he should be working on building new ladders for Puerto Rico.

A model that you frequently see in the US and around the world, is that once leaders reach the top, they exit, and then create their own foundations (or companies) to work on initiatives that were not reached during their tenure or were out of scope. Four examples come to mind, Jimmy Carter, Bill Gates, Newt Gingrich, and Bill Clinton. Two other lesser known examples are Paul Graham and Seth Godin. In each of these cases, these gentlemen have everything they need to survive, yet, they each stepped back again onto the ladder. However, this time, they were climbing into the arena of social change; each in his own way hoping to make the world a little better place.

Scenario #2: Stopping the climb

The other scenario I've seen happens well down the ladder. What I've seen there is highly qualified professionals that stop climbing. They find a comfortable job and then they hang up their learning caps. They settle for their current position, and become completely at peace with their accomplishments. There is no more continuous learning, nor is there any motivation to give back or help others in their climb. It's essentially the same problem as the senior executives, just on a smaller scale.

Who knows? Maybe they were the first one from their family to graduate college and get a white collar job. Maybe "life" gains control of their decision making and they become convinced there's no more reason to keep trying. To use a well worn metaphor, on the journey of life, these people simply decide one day to stop traveling. They settle down and wait to die. They may titillate themselves with trips to Disney and a large screen LCD television, but, in reality, they've accepted that they have arrived, even if the road (or ladder) continues on ahead of them.

When someone reaches this point in their life, they become a huge obstacle for change. Change by its' very nature brings with it the unknown. Once someone has settled, nothing is more terrifying than the unknown. Their perception of the world is no longer based on logic or reason, it is motivated by fear. Once you've settled, you will resist any change which could cause you to un-settle and continue your journey.


I try not to pass judgment on people. You never know what their life has been like, or as they say, unless you've walked in their shoes, then you can never really know what they've been through. However, I can pass judgment on their actions. I can say, this person did this, and that is the conclusion. I condemn the action not the person.

If I could sum up the differences between some of the examples I've mentioned and what we see locally it is this. In other parts of the world, when you reach the top there is an overwhelming sense of gratitude and charity. People like Bill Gates say to themselves, hey, I've had an incredibly fortunate life and I want to express my gratitude, by giving back to the world. They form a long chain of leaders before them. They join into a circle of renewal, that aims to promulgate a process they helped build and continue a system that enables future leaders to continue the process. Stephen Covey of "The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People" fame wrote another book entitled "First Things First." In this book he describes the actions I've described as leaving one's legacy on the world.

Locally, once again, we see a different pattern. We see our ugly friend zero-sum mentality motivate our leaders and workers to say something more along the lines of hey, I've got it made. Screw everyone else, because I've earned my place in this world and am entitled to keep what is my due.

To summarize, whether they stop at the top, or somewhere in the middle, they essentially break the ladder. They abandon the system they took so much juice from. In the end, instead of leaving all of the tools ready for the next person, they break them and throw them to the ground. Instead of leaving the orchard ready for the next person to come along and partake of its fruits, they leave a dried up orchard full of dead plants. That is their legacy. Can you see the difference I'm trying to illustrate?

Flickr Creative Commons Contributor: jon|k