When it comes to real twistedness – I mean deeds that are
way out in the tails of the normal distribution of human behavior – the
old-school Greek tragedies are heard to beat.
Loathsome cunning and guile?
Check. Outlandish interpersonal
relationships? Check. Unbridled greed and lust for power? Check.
Of course, the tragedies were morality plays that showed the
audiences of Epidaurus
what vices arose when virtues were taken to their extreme. Remember that the Tragic Hero was a hero
first and tragic second. And what made
these stories so compelling and spectacular and gut-wrenching was just this
journey from mortal to casualty of the gods.
A wise man once said that there were only a few dozen
archetypes in all fact and fiction.
Lately, I’ve been wondering if some private equity pros might not fit
the Tragic Hero archetype. Now don’t get
me wrong, there are a ton of virtuous and honorable people in private
equity. I invest in people that are – to
a man (and woman) – decent and upright.
That said, I sometimes think there are a handful of PE investors out
there that have fallen victim to the ancient unraveling . . .
The cycle goes like this: first you have arete, which is some kind of
excellence. Occasionally, this is known
as an outstanding Fund I or II or even VI (or even maybe a single headline
exit). Once in a while, arete mutates into its sinister cousin: hubris.
Things get really dicey when the excessive pride of this second step
leads to ate, an unruliness marked by
a loss of sense of human limitations and reckless behavior that offends the
gods. Now the gods tolerate a lot of
horseplay, but mortals should act like mortals and those that get really out of
hand provoke nemesis, the vengeful
justice of Olympus.
The genius of the tragedies arose from the fact that the
behavior was so outrageous and the punishment so ghastly that the stories
offered powerful warnings of what might happen if folks got too far out of
line. Of course, I never root against
anyone, but I do sometimes wonder if we’re not getting off too easy
nowadays. Nemesis used to be pretty badass: offend the gods and you get your
liver pecked out by eagles. Every
Today, the PE Tragic Heroes who have incurred the wrath of
the gods (or their bankers) are simply consigned to slow their pace of
investment, toggle their PIKs, and maybe get an askance mention in the Wall
Enquirer Journal. If
the fates are particularly unkind, the Journal’s ink dot hedcut of the
Fallen Hero transforms from cheerful and affable to frowning and consternated, a la Dick Grasso. Not quite the kind of
metamorphosis that Ovid would write about, but I guess that’s the best we can
hope for in a modern world where all the options seem free (but someone else is
paying the price.)