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Politics & Current Affairs

Vanderbilt Biographer T.J. Stiles: CEOs Could Learn From Robber Barons

Are CEOs rewarded more for their perceived success or the success of their companies? In his recent Big Think interview, biographer T.J. Stiles says robber barons like Cornelius Vanderbilt may have been ruthless in their business dealings, but were never compensated based upon anything but the underlying financial outlook of their companies. “Vanderbilt took no salary and no bonuses as a chief executive of his corporations,” says Stiles, “The only remonetization he got was in dividends.”

Stiles’ suggestion of what today’s CEOs could learn from Cornelius Vanderbilt is just one example of how leaders and policy makers could use the lessons of the past to not only to inform their decision making process, but to simply appreciate the complexity of some of the largest issues we face. Sometimes, Stiles explains, issues that seem new or pertinent in the moment are actually re-hatched anxieties that run deep in America’s past.

“In today’s world we have the Tea Party Movement and people are often flummoxed that there’s this kind of populism outrage at the government when in fact the great mass of people actually benefit from a lot of so-called government programs like Medicare and Social Security,” says Stiles, “But in fact, a kind of fear of a large central government started off in life in American history as a very radical idea because government originally would have intervened in the economy intended to grant favors to wealthy and patrician men.”

Although biography is a literary form most often focused on individuals, Stiles says the best biographies explore the larger historical trends that provide context for a person’s life. Perhaps the likes of former Big Think guests Congressman Barney Frank and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who are now championing financial reform on the Hill, could find some perspective on taming Wall Street’s wizards by reading Stiles’ latest book, “The Last Tycoon.” 


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