Jogging your way to the top of the universe

March 16, 1998|By Ronald Dworkin

IT USED to be that the model of the successful male was the portly business executive with two chins and a fancy cigar. His type is perhaps best exemplified in the short, bald and mustached banker whose picture graces the yellow and orange cards in the game Monopoly. But over the past 20 years, the model of the successful businessman has changed. Now, he is slim and well-toned, like Gordon Gekko in the movie "Wall Street." His body is fit, and his company has a gym.

The old executive proved his worth by clasping his belly and bragging about all the rich food and drink he had consumed. The new executive does something very different. He displays to the world the physical qualities that have traditionally helped men get ahead -- energy and vitality, balance, ever-readiness-- and then lets the world infer from that presentation how successful he is.

Thus, the new business executive tries to project an "image." He tries to convey a message about himself in a subtle, almost secretive, way. This is a mystery that needs to be explained.

In the past, the personality of the successful businessman was fairly uniform. He was provident, methodical, extra-rational and disciplined. This is what was meant to be a "man of business." An array of pressures shaped this mentality, especially religious conviction. Early American Christianity invested the daily conduct of business with a holy purpose. It made certain well-respected patterns of businessmanship -- taking the long view of things, caution, self-control, steadiness and perseverance in the pursuit of some goal -- almost moral.

Businessmen of an earlier era recognized that a certain kind of personality went with religious observance. This is why they would take church membership into account when surveying potential business partners. Businessmen could get a fix on another man's character by carefully scrutinizing his religious background. When men moved into town and went looking for work, their history of membership in a church congregation was extremely helpful in establishing a kind of moral credit. It was, for all practical purposes, a passport to decent society.

Today, church membership is not the most important indicator of character. Rather, good character is inferred from the size and shape of one's stomach. This is because the older pressures -- social, religious, familial and traditional -- have either ceased as methods of instilling virtue or simply been banished from polite discussion. It is unclear whether church membership is going up or down in contemporary America, but either way, you can't ask someone about his or her church affiliation when interviewing them for a job.

The number of broken families is certainly going up but, again, in regard to the person to whom you want to hand over a chunk of your company's savings, you can't ask about family background.

Nor is it possible to glean much information from military service or whether one has gone to college, for now, fewer people serve in the military and most Americans go to college. The threshold for military service is too high, that for college too low. Thus the traditional methods of getting a fix on another person's character have either been banned, made imprecise or simply disappeared.

This is why the world of business has come to embrace the cult of physical fitness. Character can now be communicated to a prospective client or a new employer by the relative fitness of one's body. A lean, hardened body suggests discipline, control and personal responsibility. Great stamina suggests dedication. The qualities that businessmen have always admired -- commitment, steadfastness and forbearance -- are just as important today as they were a century ago. But now they are communicated differently. They are expressed directly through one's physique. The interpretation of character is now a completely visual process.

Today's image-conscious executives are not being secretive at all. They are simply using the few tools left available to them by government and society to prove the disposition of others. It is not yet illegal in the United States to look a person up and down -- no questions have to be asked, and one doesn't have to get into delicate issues of religious belief or family history.

This is one reason so many business people exercise regularly. Their success in business literally depends on it. As one Wall Street banker told me, "Why would anyone trust their money to someone who is flabby and out of shape? If they are so lacking in discipline and self-esteem that they let themselves go, how are they going to behave responsibly with your money?"

Another said, "You can tell a lot about a person by the way he works out. If he gives 100 percent at the gym, he will probably give 100 percent at work."

A secular world

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