Hail to the Chiefs

By DAVID MOON, Moon Capital Management
September 19, 2004

Years ago, a relatively unknown actor played a small part in a Broadway play. He had no speaking role, but his presence on stage was supposed to connote power and wisdom. The actor was playing the President of the United States. He had to project presidential-ness and exude power, all without saying a word.

Interestingly, this unknown actor, the one with no speaking lines, was given the largest dressing room on the set. The presidential seal adorned the door. During and between rehearsals, every other actor and stagehand referred to him as 'Mr. President.'

The director knew that to play the most powerful man on earth, the actor needed to be treated like the most powerful man in the play.

In any business, how people perceive themselves goes a long way in determining their performance.

I thought about this after spending a day with Julie Thompson, principal at Carter Elementary School. Teaching, whether it is done in a classroom or at the dinner table, is about the respectful, disciplined mentoring relationship between individuals. I saw a group of women (and three men) dedicated to teaching and inspiring young kids. The walls were full of provocative messages about enthusiasm, responsibility and performance. These placards were the type that typically found in a football locker room.

If the Knox County school system budget increased from $310 million to $330 million would the teachers work harder or care more deeply? Of course not. But how differently would those teachers feel about themselves if the community made a collective statement that we highly value their work? An extra $20 million dollars might buy little more than a few more computers or construction paper. In the big scheme of things, those marginal benefits are minimal and short-lived. But imagine the impact on the people ' and eventually the children ' if we did the equivalent of placing every teacher in the star's dressing room and referred to them in hollowed, reverent terms? What if we said, 'we highly value your work and this objective?'

There are all sorts of power plays and political wrangling between the county taxing and school spending authorities. I am far removed from those struggles and do not profess to understand those dynamics. But I do know how people react when you tell them that they are important, skilled, effective and deserving of support and admiration. There are multiple ways to do that on an
individual level, but as a community, about the only way we can do that is with money. If you constantly tell a child or a teacher that he is deficient, underperforming, undeserving and a second-class priority, he will eventually believe you. It is a self-fulfilling prophecy. Imagine if football coaches tried to inspire players, while at the same time they had to beg for adequate practice facilities or had to buy their own whistles.

The Sermon on the Mount, as recorded in the book of Matthew, makes an interesting observation: for where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.

David Moon is president of Moon Capital Management, a Knoxville-based investment management firm. This article originally appeared in the News Sentinel (Knoxville, TN).

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