The Lexus and the Olive Tree

"Fasten your seat belts and put your seat backs and tray tables into a fixed and upright position."

- The Lexus and the Olive Tree, page 462

Thomas Friedman is not only a world renowned author but also a prolific New York Times Foreign Affairs columnist. It is largely from his travels as a columnist that Friedman brings his insightful and vivid experiences to describe the framework of the contemporary world and the tension between old world (culture, language, nationalism)  and new world influences (technology and globalized financial markets)…your Lexus or your Olive Tree.

We begin with a broad definition of globalization and its system. It is the “dynamic” integration of markets, nations and technologies that creates a foundation enabling individuals, businesses and nations to reach around the world faster and farther than ever before. At the same time, this constant movement at warp speed allows the world to tap into individuals, corporations and nations faster and farther than ever before. All at a cost that is much less expensive but more invasive than ever seen before.

Friedman is a brilliant and poignant storyteller who uses his life and professional experiences to weave pieces of history, pop culture, sports figures, political references and humorous anecdotes to create a picture of this globalization framework and the intersecting tension points of new and old. The book builds nicely upon itself progressing from one chapter to the next providing a complete picture of the challenge, opportunity and role some should feel compelled to play in maintaining and developing this system. It does adopt a pro American stance, but put in the context of this book, some of the political, social and military actions of the country can been seen in a new light. If you read closely, you can see the foreshadowing of the 9/11 tragedy and view this devastating event as the ultimate result of the eruption of tension between the Lexus and the Olive tree.

The Big Idea

The Big Idea: The biggest takeaway from the book

Culture Eats Strategy for Lunch!

"You know Tom, there are two ways to make a person feel homeless – one is to destroy his home and the other is to make his home look and feel like everybody else’s home"
- The Lexus and the Olive Tree, page 293

Recognizing the inherent tension between old and new, it is critical that we strike a balance between progress and the affluence it brings, and culture and the identify it defines. Especially so in a world where no one is in charge and where progress has empowered and enabled individuals to broadcast their vision, amass support and drive change with the simple click of a mouse. While progress brings improved access to amenities, helps countries improve medical care, cure disease and educate the masses, it is culture that gives life structure, meaning and a sense of connectedness. Unrestrained globalization has the potential to uproot cultures and environments and destroy the necessary underlying fabric of our communities. Individuals and countries and governments want progress and the comforts it brings, but the loss of their identity is sometimes too high a price to pay.

Insight #1

An actionable way to implement the Big Idea into your life

The Whole is Greater Than the Sum of its Parts

"…the lesson Alger learned from all this is that the only way to save the rain forest is the same way you save a country’s financial system – by treating it not as just an emerging market but as an emerging society. Save the society and you can save the trees."
- The Lexus and the Olive Tree, page 293

Friedman coins an interesting verb – glocalize. It is the action of assimilating aspects of globalization that fit your culture in a way that complements the growth instead of burying it beneath a bunch of debris. This point really speaks to sustainability. It is just not possible to build progress if you demolish the foundation upon which progress is built. To be effective at glocalizing, one must become educated and knowledgeable, but not in a subject matter expert kind of way. In a manner that is integrated. It reminds me a little of MBA programs that now espouse “well rounded” curriculum that stretch beyond traditional academic boundaries. It is not only sufficient to understand business principles, but it is critical to possess the skills to communicate these principles both orally and in writing in an engaging, inspiring manner. Let’s take this idea and make it a little more tactical. When introducing new technology into a workforce or acquiring an underperforming business, evaluate and seek to understand the current strengths and advantages. Don’t simply demolish everything that currently exists in favor of what appears on the surface to be more progressive. The collective “we” become better by taking what is best from the old and marrying it with the new to reach new heights that may not have seemed possible.

Insight #2

An actionable way to implement the Big Idea into your life

Boom Bust Repeat!

"The only thing we have to fear is the lack of fear itself"
- Treasury Secretary Larry Summers, The Lexus and the Olive Tree, page 378

It is pure hubris to think we all want the same thing. We may aspire to reap the advantages of progress, but we risk a backlash if we do so in the absence of any filters. Like Friedman, I support that we take this one very important step further. Those lucky few (whether they be individuals, corporations or nations) who drive so many of those Lexus should not become complacent or arrogant. Sustainable globalization requires continual monitoring, change, education, awareness, communication…and humility. In fastening our seat belts and downing the last sip of chardonnay before putting our table tray in its upright position, we accept that the pace of globalization will continue to accelerate. On the one hand, we want to keep up with this pace to ensure we are able to purchase next year’s Lexus model, on the other we should be carefully tending to our own Olive Tree. This balance is not only important for us, but sets an example to others who wish to follow in our footsteps and reinforces the importance of using advantages wisely. You may choose to look at this as a practical obligation, while Friedman prefers to view this is a moral imperative.

While I found the The Big Idea in this book so easily identifiable, limiting myself to two GEMS was near impossible. The principles and points in this book are so well crafted and interwoven into the stories and concepts that it is was often difficult to truly understand where one argument ended and another began. Quite honestly, this book took me much longer to read than I expected. I was so captured by the content and the implications of the thoughts from a patriotic, business and personal perspective, that I found myself rereading sections over and over again. While at points I was fascinated with the possibilities of what globalization could bring, on the other I was frightened by the invasive nature of technology and the amount of power individuals with an idea or a grievance could generate and mobilize. My question to you is this: As citizens of affluent countries and employees of socially responsible businesses, are we doing enough to ensure globalization is sprouting in less fortunate parts of our world in a manner that retains the most important elements of their olive trees or have we lost sight of a healthy dose of fear and wish to take our car keys and lock them away so no one else may use them?

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Erin Gordon

ABOUT Erin Gordon

I am an avid advocate of the essential role people play in delivering outstanding business results. As a career HR professional with over 10 years experience managing HR functions within the private sector, it is the identification and development of talent and collaboration of talent across all facets of a business that leads to innovation and excellence...
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