Nice guys finish last — or do they?
A new book challenges this long-standing misconception
Nice guys finish last…or do they? David Bodanis thinks they don’t – or at least, in the long term, it’s more often the bad guys bringing up the rear. In his new book ‘The Art of Fairness: The Power of Decency in a World Turned Mean,’ the writer argues that there are two ways to succeed.
Firstly, as we’re all too familiar with: by a will to power, through division and fear. Bodanis’s extended essay on Josef Goebbels unpacks this path, though readers will think of contemporary examples.
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Secondly, through fairness, exemplified by three characteristics of listening to those around you, giving generously, and defending the good (i.e. being savvy enough not to be taken for a ride). Franklin D. Roosevelt is the extended case study for this approach, not least because he and Goebbels were contemporaries.
Bodanis spells out why Goebbels’s unfairness (not to mention his inhuman indecency) eventually sowed the seeds of his downfall; for example, by driving Jewish and Polish scientists, and therefore key breakthroughs like penicillin, into the arms of the Allies. By contrast, Roosevelt’s legacy lives on to this day and he is widely regarded as one of America’s greatest presidents.
Other stories of fairness-driven success in the book, from heroic pilots to debutante-turned militia leaders, show that fairness isn’t the same as niceness. Many were personally gruff or grumpy, though civil, and none were naïve. Neither were they saints, and Bodanis is careful to point out where they failed to live up the standards of fairness — like Roosevelt interning Japanese citizens during World War II.
What they share is character, borne out of repeatedly choosing the more virtuous path.
Bodanis is careful not to push too hard on the causes behind these choices. In the main, he lets the stories speak for themselves. My guess, however, is that Bodanis (perhaps reluctantly) has concluded that our great religious traditions hold at least part of the answer for living a fair life.
But here we come to a familiar conundrum, because most people in the West now don’t believe in the metaphysics underlying these traditions, or the authority of the books they rest on. If you don’t believe there is a transcendent justice, a source of fairness (who listens, gives and defends the good) behind the universe, then you need to pursue fairness and decency for its own sake.
That’s a praiseworthy, noble and difficult path. On the other hand, Bodanis implies, though never quite says, that you might have a better shot if you believe, like Roosevelt did, that all that lasts is “Faith, hope and charity…” and see them as ”constraints no mortal should dare to break”.
In an increasingly chaotic and uncertain world, it’s more important than ever that we, at the very least, bear this message in mind and keep faith in the power of fairness.
“…driving Jewish and Polish scientists, and therefore key breakthroughs like penicillin, into the arms of the Allies.”
Penicillin was discovered by Alexander Fleming in 1928…
Maybe discuss Operation Paperclip and the spiriting of Wernher Von Braun to the USA?
Ever met a CEO that’s a “nice guy?” The overwhelming majority I’ve met (and some I’ve worked for) are psychopaths.
I have met many nice guy CEOs. They tend to be the guy who started the company, not the guy that got hired after IPO.
Bill Gates was not a psychopath
Multi national CEO’s tend to be psychopaths. The exception from personal experience would be Paul Polman.
I think it depends on the size of the organisation. Working in small organisations, most of the bosses I’ve met have been decent. The one real, certifiable pychopath came close to totally wrecking the organisation and had to be sacked. I think it depends how long the promotion ladder is – the longer, the more it encourages the ruthless and dishonest.
And there is always the question: if the ceo were not a psychopath, would the company do better? Check out Collins and Poras book “From good to great” for an answer.
The big boss at my company is fairly genial, for what it’s worth. I think he would nod along with this article and say that fair dealings and good relations with clients and employees make for good business. But this is, to be sure, a fairly small company with 50-odd employees that he started himself, so he’s not a ruthless corporate climber or anything.
I’ve previously worked in the world of corporate and have set up and run my own companies for the last 20 years.
The hindsight I now have of corporate climbing to the top shows that the ones who did it most successfully concentrated entirely on their own progress to the exclusion of doing a sustainable job. Usually looking for an attention grabbing piece of corporate bravura, and then moving rapidly on, leaving others to clean up after them.
The first company I set up failed after ten years, one of the many reasons for this was the bringing in of successful corporate operators, who once installed tried the techniques that had made them successful in large companies, which were disastrous in an SME. All their concentration was on power grabs without thinking about the long-term success of the business.
My current company is very successful indeed. After almost ten years of operation we are still growing at a phenomenal rate. I have a small team of people, including family, who concentrate on doing their jobs and making the company work. They tell me that they really enjoy their jobs.
My take on this is that corporates under perform because their leaders tend to be people who are good at getting to the top rather than good at doing their job.
In all my corporate career I only met one nice CEO, he was ruthless when he had to be but did not make it his stock in trade.
The rest were awful people.
Agree. I know a bloke who actually got divorced to progress his progress up the greasy pole and trod on everyone on the way! SME’s tend to be lean, agile and good to deal with. Large corporates tend to be quite the other and full of power struggles and politics which never end well.
Sunshine and rain are “fair” – they fall on the just and unjust alike. I think the term required is not fairness, but goodness
But more upon the unjust fella.
Not if he nicked an umbrella
Or maybe that’s the point? People can respect consistent and even-handed harshness. It’s arbitrary tyranny and playing favourites that makes someone truly hated.
Sadly we’re not living in an ” increasingly chaotic and uncertain world” at least here in Britain.
Our political masters seem to have our futures mapped out precisely and even if we have anther general election nothing much will change. As for this outside world, unless you are daring and move to somewhere of the beaten track our futures are pretty much planned out there as well.
But history proves that no matter how carefully the Klaus Schwabs and Bill Gates of this world plan our destiny somebody else will inevitably come along and change that.
Changing tack to “Ethics, hope and charity” might bear more fruit in the modern world ….
Thank you Elizabeth
The materialist Marxists and their fellow travelers are seeking to dominate and destroy our wonderful culture and it’s founding religion.
In the words of Jesus Christ, from the sublime Sermon on the Mount:
“But seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you”
So; make goodness, truth and beauty your priorities and your (and your society’s) material needs will naturally follow.
And “Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof.”
So; don’t curse fate, don’t carry resentment and hate in your heart. Forgive.
The SJWs, the various rights activists and cultivators of resentment have inverted that wisdom to our very great danger.
“most people in the West now don’t believe in the metaphysics underlying these traditions, or the authority of the books they rest on”
That’s a very great shame, throwing the baby out with the bathwater.
Perhaps if folk didn’t get too caught up in the idea of God as a being and instead recognised the underlying nature of reality as uncorruptible, true, good and beautiful the rest would be easier for them to accept.
The foolish idea that reality is entirely subjective doesn’t help either and allows for all sorts of ugliness.
I agree with a respondent that goodness is a better term than fairness which should in fact be one of its fruits. You can sense genuine goodness in people, and as you get to know them and see that their good deeds and actions match their good intentions and words your feeling about them is confirmed.
President Jimmy Carter is the best example by far of goodness in a prominent politician in the past 100 years. He has not ceased to exercise that goodness in works of philanthropy and justice. He is still going strong into his 90s. The American people recognised that goodness in 1976, and it was just what they wanted after the Nixon debacle.
President Carter achieved some good things such as the peace accord between Israel and Egypt, and the nuclear test ban treaty with the Soviet Union. He also tried to get the American people to accept restraint in petrol consumption and so help a failure economy, but this was not popular. He also found it difficult to get legislation through Congress and had to deal with major problems like the Iran hostage crisis, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the political treachery of Edward Kennedy. In the 1981 election he faced a very popular opponent – Ronald Reagan – and lost. In this instance “the nice guy lost”. But if we want an example of a good man inspired by the spiritual presence and profound teaching of Jesus Christ seeking genuinely to put some of it into practice as President of the United States of America, Jimmy Carter is a winner.
“By contrast, Roosevelt’s legacy lives on to this day and he is widely regarded as one of America’s greatest presidents.”
Only by those who are ingorant of FDR’s racism, fascism, and egoism. These have been papered over by the press. In truth FDR was only good at getting the US involved in WW2. His domestic policies were all failures and/or collectivist problems that haunt us to this very day. FDR spoke in calming tones, but forced harmful policies down the throats of the ignorant masses.
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