It’s experimentation time at the Creative Capital blog! With the U.S. economy facing its worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, my thoughts have returned to the chapter I wrote on my book about that dark period in our nation’s history, “Slouching Through the Depression.”
There are many lessons to be learned from this time. And now that we’ve all suddenly become students of history, I want to share some of the ones I’ve learned. So, with the blessing of my publisher Harvard Business Press, over the next week or so I am going to serialize Chapter 5 and publish it on this blog.
My hope is that the experiment sparks a conversation about that period and gets us thinking about how we can avoid slipping into a deeper economic funk and lead the country back onto a path of prosperity.
As we pick up the story, Georges Doriot, is a 30-year-old native of France who transformed himself over the course of the last 10 years in America from a young immigrant into a distinguished professor at Harvard Business School.
“Slouching Through the Depression”
When Doriot returned to Harvard in the fall of 1931, he could look back on the past decade and smile with pride. In the relatively brief span of ten years, the young immigrant had conquered a new country.
Not only had he found a profession that brought him satisfaction and security, he had earned a reputation as one of the leading lights of the most important business school in the country; he had spearheaded the creation of a successful new business school in Paris; and he had found the love of his life and convinced her to marry him. And yet there was still a fire that burned in Doriot, a passion that kept him searching for his next mission impossible.
[Above: Doriot, the doctor of “sick businesses,” aboard the Ile de France in 1931.]
Perhaps that is why the 1930s—a time of diminished expectations for the entire nation—were probably the most frustrating period of Doriot’s life. He was always at his best when tackling an impossible job, but during the Great Depression, despite several attempts, Doriot never found a grandiose task to throw himself into as he had done so many times during the previous decade.
At times, a similar mood of discontent permeated the home of the Doriots. The 1930s would have been the ideal time for Georges and Edna to start their own family. But the Doriots never did have a child.
No doubt, Doriot’s lack of children profoundly shaped his character. Over the next forty years, he compensated for this absence by nurturing countless students and younger colleagues as if they were his own offspring. “He often said the only advantage of not having children is you choose them,” says Claude Janssen, who studied under Doriot in the 1950s. “He chose three: Arnaud de Vitry, Robert McCabe and myself. We were really his three sons.”
Nevertheless, the 1930s were hardly a lost decade. In retrospect, for the Doriots and the rest of the nation, it was a time for hunkering down, for planting seeds that could be harvested in the future. Indeed, the years of the Great Depression hold the answer to another great mystery of Doriot’s life: How did a man with hardly any experience running a business come to be such a world-class businessman?
The answer is that during those years, dozens of companies hired the professor to help guide them through the worst disaster that had ever hit the American economy. In that dark decade, Doriot gained a lifetime of experience as an officer, director, and consultant.
Between 1932 and 1941, when he was called up to join the military, Doriot served on the boards of twenty companies, while taking on executive-level positions in ten other firms. It was an astonishing volume of outside work that would never be allowed in today’s age of vigilant corporate governance.
In addition, in 1940 Doriot was elected to take over the presidency of the struggling McKeesport Tin Plate Corporation, where he promptly put the company on firmer footing by negotiating the sale of its tin plate division to steelmaker Jones & Laughlin. Tending to all these companies, Doriot was like a circus artist juggling a dozen balls while walking a tightrope. Would he pull off the balancing act or would he lose his balance and come crashing back to earth?