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Rule Breaker's Blast From the Past, Vol. 1: The Buffs vs. the Blues

By Motley Fool Staff - Updated Feb 6, 2018 at 5:10PM

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Some Foolish thoughts bear repeating, which is why David Gardner’s revisiting a commentary he gave just before the 2016 election.

Motley Fool co-founder David Gardner has been doing his Rule Breaker Investing podcast for two-and-a-half years now, and while he might wish that his fans listened religiously to every one, odds are that there are more than a few current listeners who haven't heard everything he's had to say so far

So, in this episode, he's kicking off a new occasional series: Blast from the Past. He'll pick five points to revisit that he's discussed in previous shows -- ones he views as particularly worth a listen, whether you're getting a refresher or hearing them for the first time. At the top of his list for this episode is something he discussed back in October 2016. At the time, Charles Dickens' debut novel, The Pickwick Papers, was on his mind -- and in particular, one short story in it about the perils of excessive partisanship and the inability to take responsibility for one's own actions.

A full transcript follows the video.

This video was recorded on Jan. 23, 2018.

David Gardner: Blast From The Past, No. 1: Well, the date was October 19th, 2016. It was an interesting political environment in our country at the time. One month before the most recent presidential election. And on that day, 10-19-16, we presented our non-political, pre-election special.

And in that podcast, I had the opportunity to read from one of my favorite authors and share a few paragraphs from a novel that was written in 1836. The author, Charles Dickens. It was his first novel. It's The Pickwick Papers. If you haven't read The Pickwick Papers, it's a long, rollicking novel. Again -- Dickens's first novel -- very comic. I would highly recommend The Pickwick Papers if you've not read it.

The setup with The Pickwick Papers is that there's the Pickwick Club. Some Brits get together and form the Pickwick Club, and decide that they will [over the course of the coming week or month] go out, often to the countryside or out into the world, have some experiences, and come back and share them with their fellow club members, members of the Pickwick Club which will be captured in The Pickwick Papers, which is the title of Dickens's novel.

Now, in Chapter 13, there's a classic vignette, a classic bit. Classic for me. I'm not going to say that literary scholars or maybe anybody particularly focuses on Chapter 13, set in Eatanswill of The Pickwick Papers ; but for me, and maybe for my fellow Rule Breakers, this is a classic vignette, and in case you'd forgotten it, I want to remind you of it, because it keys into something that happened in the last week that I think affords us some insight.

No, I'm not going to read the passage. I'd love for you to go back and listen to that podcast. That's part of the point of Blast From The Past, Vol. I, but I am going to explain what I was doing there and key into what's happening in our world today.

In Chapter 13, Samuel Pickwick, with his man Sam Weller, shows up in Eatanswill, which is believed to be, in modern-day terms, Sudbury [for those who are listening from Sudbury in the U.K.], but they find a town divided, in Dickens's phrase, between two parties, the Blues and the Buffs.

And in a very humorous caricature, the author conveys, in so many words, that anything that comes up in this town is instantly politicized. And if it's brought forward by the Blues then, of course, all the Buffs will disagree. Will rant, and rave, and say how the world is ending because of whatever the Blues are trying to do; and if the Buffs come up with something, guess what happens? You know what happens -- the exact opposite -- the Blues, on the other hand, start thinking, "If that ever happens, this town is over." So, it's the classic situation of extreme divide in politics, the Blues and the Buffs.

Now, fast forward from 1836 to 2018. I attended a performance at the Folger Shakespeare Library Theatre last weekend, and coming out of it, it was The Way of the World, William Congreve's play, done in a new, modern edition. If you're in the Washington, D.C. area, I would recommend it to you. But I started hearing chatter coming out from my fellow attendees as we all went out into the dark and cold of a wintry January night about, "Hey, you're not going to need to go to work on Monday."

And, as those of us in the U.S. will know, much was made of the government being unable to resolve its differences, and ultimately having to shut down for, as it turns out, I think one day, Monday, January 22nd. I think things are in the process of being resolved. I don't keep up very much with this, as I think you may know of me, but that was the conversation I was hearing outside.

A little bit later that weekend I went onto Twitter, where I spend a fair amount of time, and I saw some of the tweets coming from what I'll call the Blues and the Buffs. Now, I don't particularly affiliate with either party, and I actually enjoy not using the names of America's modern-day political parties but, instead, the Blues and the Buffs, because there is no political connotation to those colors, and so it allows me to speak freely and apolitically with a little bit of systems thinking and maybe some insights for where I think we are today.

So, I'm just going to sample a few of the tweets, and I'm going to substitute Blues and Buffs for any party mentioned, and I'm not going to source any of these, because I don't actually care so much. You're going to see it's not about who's saying it. It's about what's being said and how it's being said.

Here's one example. "Senate Blues own the Schumer Shutdown. Tonight, they put politics above our national security, military families, vulnerable children, and our country's ability to serve all Americans. We will not negotiate the status of unlawful immigrants while Blues hold our lawful citizens hostage over their reckless demands. This is the behavior of obstructionist losers, not legislators." I'll end that one right there.

Or another one. This one coming from the Blues themselves. "As President Obama said, elections do have consequences. Currently Buffs control the House, the Senate, the White House, and the Supreme Court. They have chosen to ignore Blues, policy experts, and public opinion this year and focus, instead, on gutting the ACA, rolling back environmental and consumer protections, and passing a tax break for billionaires. Now, because of their inability to govern, Buff leadership has let both chambers be held hostage by the president, etc."

And, just one more, not to belabor the point, but there were a lot of these. Another one. "Senate Blues vote to shutter down, as promised. Cheer turning backs on military, children's healthcare, and U.S. jobs. Expect more political stunts. #shameful #SchumerShutdown #HurtAmerica." And the list goes on.

Hope I didn't get your political hackles up. No matter who I'm speaking to, that's really not the point. The point is the nature of the conversation, and that's what lingers for me as I look backward to that October 19th, 2016 podcast. I'm thinking about one of my favorite business authors, Les McKeown, and his point about what happens with real leaders here in the business realm, but it's true of politics. It's true of sports. It's true of our culture.

Real leaders, as Les McKeown says, put the good of the enterprise ahead of their own ego. McKeown goes on. I'm not quoting him, here, but he talks about an enterprise mentality. The best employees at a company don't just think about their own job, or their team, or even their division. The best employees at a company are thinking about the whole of the enterprise, as they think about their place within it, and they realize that the consequences of what they do and say affect everybody, and so they put the good of the enterprise ahead of their own ego.

To read some of the tweets that I just shared with you, and others like them, what's happening, very obviously, is just constant blame. Blame of the other side. If you're a Blue, you're blaming the Buffs. If you're a Buff, you're blaming the Blues. Imagine -- imagine if you will, for a sec -- if somebody didn't just tweet that out.

Imagine if we had a politician -- a leader -- who said something like this. "I apologize, and it starts with me, and we, and our inability to get this done." How refreshing would it be in American politics today, if somebody started by saying, "It's my fault. You've elected me, and my job is to reach compromise, when necessary, and keep the government running."

I don't know the political world very well. I know some of you know it much better than I. If you know of such a politician today, if you see or saw a tweet that had what I'll call an enterprise mentality, I'd love it if you'd just drop us a note for next week's mailbag. I'd be happy to highlight the name and some of the background, including a real quote, from any politician working today [and I bet they're out there], who has an enterprise mentality and reacted that way, because that's the way we expect people to react in every other realm of our society.

I'll go to two I know really well. Let's talk about sports. Imagine if in football a team lost, and all of the offensive players blamed their defense in public. In fact, imagine if the leadership of that team, everyone on the offense said it was the defense's fault, and imagine if everyone on the defense said it was the offense's fault. Not only does that sound juvenile, and never really happens, but if it were to happen, it would be clearly an example of a failed team. The team that's not going to do so well going forward. The team you don't want to be on, or follow, when the offense is the Blues and the defense is the Buffs, and that's the way our leaders are behaving.

Or how about the corporate world, getting away from sports and going back to one we know pretty well. How many CEOs do you see just blaming, trash-talking one of their own divisions? Not that many. I can think of very few CEOs that would spend a lot of time throwing away any enterprise mentality and blaming, toxically, some aspect of their company. They wouldn't be CEO for much longer, would they?

In fact, the closest I can think of that happening in the business world is when there's a bad merger. Sometimes you'll hear the people say, "Well, those people over at HP don't know what they're doing. We, here, at Compaq, even though we're now the same company, think differently." You sometimes hear that, and those are always dysfunctional, aren't they? Those are the companies that don't do so well.

So, if our political world treats every day like a toxic merger with the offense blaming the defense and vice versa [replicating the Blues and the Buffs], well, I'm going to say two things are going to happen before we move on to our next "Blast From The Past" point. The first is that it will continue to lose relevance. And ironically, since politics presumably is all about power, [it will] ironically lose power. Instead, the good and productive forces in our society [will continue] to take us higher and forward, [and politics] will lose relevance. And the second thing is that any efforts by enterprise-thinking leaders will truly stand out the more that happens. So, I'm never going to be running for office; but if you are, or considering it one day, I would encourage you to play the Fool, take an enterprise mentality, and start showing real leadership to your constituents. A thought.

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