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Too many investors treat the stock market as one big casino. But if you want to make progress over the long haul, you'll need the sort of stubborn persistence that can only be called -- to borrow from the Coen Brothers' recent big-screen remake -- "true grit." Just ask the shareholders fighting tirelessly to improve corporate governance.
A recent Fast Company article explored the psychological underpinnings of people who succeed over time. According to authors Dan and Chip Heath: "[N]ew psychological research suggests that grit -- defined as endurance in pursuit of long-term goals and an ability to persist in the face of adversity -- is a key part of what makes people successful. In a culture that values quick results -- this quarter's numbers, this week's weight loss, this month's click-throughs -- grit can be an underappreciated secret weapon."
You'll frequently find this sort of persistence among the champions of corporate reform. Many investors may not have even heard of these investing heroes, or the common-sense changes and now-standard rights they've fought for -- and in some cases, continue to advocate -- in boardrooms and shareholder meetings over the course of decades.
Don't mess with these investors
If you need proof of their struggles, consult the Manhattan Institute's Proxy Monitor database, which recently released new findings on corporate governance proposals from 2008 through 2010. Proposals for policies such as cumulative voting rules (which make it easier for minority shareholders to elect directors), shareholder actions outside annual meetings, reincorporation in shareholder-friendly North Dakota (as opposed to pro-corporation Delaware), and more have largely originated from a small group of individual investors such as Evelyn Davis and the Chevedden family.
Davis is a well-known corporate "gadfly" with no fear of voicing her opinion. At last year's annual meetings, she gave even titans such as Goldman Sachs (NYSE: GS ) and Pfizer a piece of her mind. The Wall Street Journal's liveblogging of Goldman's meeting, at which Davis told CEO and Chairman Lloyd Blankfein that he wasn't as smart as he looked, made for pretty awesome reading.
According to Moxy Vote, a site that helps investors track shareholder concerns and vote their proxies, Davis's fellow rabble-rouser John Chevedden has kept busy himself in 2011. At Walgreen (NYSE: WAG ) , where voting has already closed, he filed a proposal to grant shareholders who collectively own 10% of common stock the power to call special shareholder meetings. At Honeywell (NYSE: HON ) , where voting ends on April 21, he's pushing to let shareholders cast votes by written consent at any time, rather than waiting to do so until the annual meeting. Chevedden has also faced corporate wrath; both Apache (NYSE: APA ) and KBR (NYSE: KBR ) have filed legal action against his activism in the last several years.
Slow and steady wins the race
For decades, proposals like Chevedden's and efforts like Davis's have won little respect or notice from fellow shareholders and companies alike. But many signs suggest that shareholder efforts are now gaining traction in the mainstream. The Manhattan Institute report noted that between 2008 and 2010, 19% of corporate governance-related proposals passed at Fortune 100 corporations. The motions most likely to succeed concerned shareholder action by written consent, and simple majority voting rules -- appropriate checks and balances that will benefit every shareholder.
You don't have to be a hardened gunslinger like Rooster Cogburn to exhibit your own kind of true grit. Buy-and-hold investors who hold their ground when the market flees, entrepreneurs who doggedly pursue their ambitions, and activist shareholders who won't stop pushing for the right kind of change all deserve our thanks -- and our applause.
Check back at Fool.com every Wednesday and Friday for Alyce Lomax's columns on corporate governance.