Fred Goodwin was a start of the banking world. His risks failed, the market turned and he’s been stripped of his knighthood. The worldly winds are blowing again: Weekend Word (Good Morning Wales, 03/02/12)
I wonder what it’s like to be Fred Goodwin right now? An electrician’s son, he rose quickly and became a leading figure in the financial world. In his first five years as CEO the Royal Bank of Scotland transformed from a solid provincial institution into a leading player in global finance, notching up huge profits. Goodwin was consulted by governments, showered with money and the boy from Paisley became a Knight of the Realm. Then came the crash. Goodwin rose during the worldwide financial boom and he fell when the markets failed. We know the rest.
It’s understandable that a knighthood awarded for services to banking is withdrawn if the bank fails at huge public expense. But as the story played out this week, I found myself thinking about Goodwin himself. He’s reviled for the self-belief, ruthlessness and willingness to take risks that once brought him praise. He’s cited as a symbol of an entire system that’s larger than any individual and seemed, at the time, so amazingly successful. You’d understand if Goodwin felt hurt and bewildered by the turn of events.
But I feel the story shows a larger pattern than the rights and wrongs of bankers and their rewards. The Buddha said that our lives are affected by what he called ‘the Worldly Winds’. There are four pairs: gain and loss, status and disgrace, praise and censure, pleasure and pain. If things go well we think our success will continue for ever. But the winds that bring success can also bring failure and reproach, as Goodwin has discovered.
The only truth we can be sure of is that everything is impermanent. We speak of the financial bubble, and Shakespeare spoke of ‘the bubble, reputation’. We suffer, the Buddha said, because we are beguiled by the apparent solidity of our good fortune. It goes to our heads, and only when the bubble bursts do we understand its insubstantiality.
Maturity, then, means not being intoxicated by success or attached to what we gain. Taken further, that even-mindedness is the root of what Buddhists call wisdom. It’s a tall order, but the consequences of not doing so are daily played out before us in stories such as Fred Goodwin’s, and in our own lives as well.