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If you missed it, there was an extraordinary showcase of Traits of the most admirable, creative and joyous people on television this past Sunday morning (Nov. 28, 2010). ABC’s Christiane Amanpour spent an hour with five of the best human beings in America, talking about tackling some of our most vexing global problems.
The show was This Week, which is typically dedicated to political discussion and debate. But this episode focused on billionaires who have pledged to give more than half of their many billions to tackle the toughest problems we face. Four of the five are familiar faces: Warren Buffett, Bill and Melinda Gates and Ted Turner. The fifth was Tom Steyer, a hedge fund mogul and founder of San Francisco–based Farallon Capital.
Many things were striking about this show—how upbeat it was in the face of all our current gloom and doom, how practical and noncombative these accomplished souls were, how Amanpour seemed perplexed again and again by the generosity and responsibility these five feel for others, and perhaps most striking of all was the contrast in the quality of thought and intention between these leaders and so many of our elected officials.
Amanpour opened the show by focusing on the current squabble over whether to keep or abandon George W. Bush’s tax cuts. And surprise number one: all five said they thought the tax cuts ought to go. Their reasoning was simple. They said that they and the economy can afford it. Buffett said that right now, he pays the lowest tax rate (combined income and payroll) among all the people in his office—less than 17 percent.
Each of these value creators had surprisingly similar opinions on inherited wealth as well. All five self-made billionaires reject passing great wealth to their children. Bill Gates said children ought to “develop their own” identities. Steyer said that he and his wife, Kat, “want to leave our kids a different kind of inheritance, an example of at least trying to lead a worthy life.” Ted Turner said that his offspring are “not necessarily more worthy than anyone else.”
Paradoxically , these highly talented and accomplished individuals are egalitarians—one of the Traits of the most admirable people. All talked about trying to help the most people they can, regardless of race, sex and location.
As the late, great psychologist Abraham Maslow wrote, the best among us “feel kinship and connection, as if all people were members of a single family.” Because of this sense of connection, these people “have a genuine desire to help the human race.” Dutiful is the second of the 19 Traits that Amanpour’s guests share. Their sense of obligation, even duty, to the wider community is what really exposed them as good souls among great achievers.
Each is using his or her clout to tackle immense problems: nuclear disarmament, vaccines for poor children all over the world, improved education standards across America and more. Tom Steyer said simply that he wanted to be “a good citizen.” He said, “I take a lot of pride in being part of my community.”
Bug-eyed and fast talking, Steyer was evidently nervous. A private man, his exposure was uncomfortable for him. Steyer was a clear example of the third Trait I discuss in my book—he is private. The good among the great prize their privacy. For many reasons, they do not often seek the spotlight and do so only to accomplish a specific goal.
One reason they avoid media attention is that they are more integrated, the fourth Trait. They tend to be more spontaneous and less guarded than the rest of us as well; this is the fifth Trait—exuberant. Because of this exuberance, they sometimes expose more about themselves than they would prefer. Steyer did just that on Christiane Amanpour’s program.
When Amanpour recited the argument, made by many Republicans, that the rich have earned their money and should not have to give up the Bush tax cuts, Steyer countered that the rich owe something to a society that fosters their wealth. “I think anyone who doesn’t give credit to the system that they are born into is taking an awful lot onto themselves. I mean I really think that people have sacrificed a lot more than a little tax money to make that system available for all of us. And I would be ashamed of myself if I didn’t give some credit to them.” At this point, Steyer, who is known as a cool and controlled business leader, choked up. His emotion was evident in his eyes and his voice.
Perhaps the most inspiring aspect of these interviews was the upbeat determination of these five strong people. They are chipping away at some of the biggest problems that face us today. Ted Turner gave money when even the U.S. government couldn’t afford to have dangerous nuclear fuel removed from Serbia. Bill and Melinda Gates have bypassed the education reform standoff among politicians by giving teachers the tools they need to improve their skills. Warren Buffett and his children are tackling the toughest problems in family planning and the environment. Tom Steyer and his wife have launched a not-for-profit community bank to lend to those who would not otherwise get loans.
Sunday’s show was an incredibly revealing look at these five great and good Americans. Amanpour is without a doubt an excellent journalist. Yet it was striking to me how little even our best reporters understand why the good among the great are busy accomplishing selfless goals, even now. Amanpour ended her program by asking the elder leaders, Buffett and Turner, about their desired legacies. Each shrugged her off with answers that were short, practical and obvious. “I want to do the most intelligent job I can . . . that has the greatest impact on improving the most people’s lives,” said Buffett. “I’m hungry for success of the human race and America and all my friends all over the world,” said Turner.
Good and great!
Cheers from Sonoma,
Donald Van de Mark