One of my weekend pleasures is reading Peggy Noonan’s column in the Wall Street Journal (WSJ). Each week is filled with wit and insight and some of the finest writing around. This past week, in an article entitled “Why History Will Repay Your Love, Noonan shared some “thoughts on historical memory” and explored the new American “dumbness”. As part of her piece she cited to historian David McCullough and his book The American Spirit for some observations on history that I have adapted for the compliance practitioner.

  • It is a story.Compliance, like history, is a story. Noonan cited to McCullough, who, paraphrasing E.M. Forster, observed: “If I say to you the king died and then the queen died, that’s a sequence of events. If I say the king died and the queen died of grief, that’s a story.” Likewise, compliance has a story to tell about not only protecting a company but making it more efficient and at the end of the day, more profitable. Compliance is also one of the reasons American businesses are the best in the world.
  • What’s past to us was the present to them.The founding fathers did not walk around proclaiming, “‘Isn’t this fascinating, living in the past?’ It was the present, their present.” They were acting in real time and didn’t know how things would turn out. Use all of the information available to you both on a historical and real time basis to put into your compliance process.
  • They were never certain of success. “Had they taken a poll in Philadelphia in 1776, [the founders] would have scrapped the whole idea of independence. A third of the country was for it, a third of the country was against it, and the remaining third, in the old human way, was waiting to see who came out on top.” Chief Compliance Officers (CCOs) also do not know how things will turn about but by using compliance as a process, you stand the best chance of coming out ahead.
  • Nothing had to happen the way it happened.“History could have gone off in any number of different directions in any number of different ways at almost any point, just as your own life can.” “One thing leads to another. Nothing happens in a vacuum. Actions have consequences.” These things sound obvious, many in the business world seem to forget this and do not realize that mid-course adjustments and fine tuning are not simply appropriate but useful techniques to employ.
  • We make more of the wicked than the great.“The most-written about senator of the 20th century is Joe McCarthy”; the least is Margaret Chase Smith, the first Senator to stand up to McCarthy. The history of compliance is not written when it all goes the way it is supposed to smoothly. It is most usually considered only when there is a failure, and the bigger it is the more it is written about it.
  • America came far through trial and error. McCullough told the story of iron workers who had been devising a new machine to produce steel. When it was ready, the engineer in charge said, “All right boys, let’s start it up and see why it doesn’t work.” Progress has come to us largely through empirical methods and the same is true of compliance. Indeed, the next cutting edge for compliance will be around data and data analytics.
  • History is an antidote to the hubris of the present.Noonan noted, “we think everything we have, do and think is the ultimate, the best. “We should never look down on those of the past and say they should have known better. What do you think they will be saving about us in the future? They’re going to be saying we should have known better.”” If there is one constant in compliance, it is that the profession and the process is ever evolving. From the legal perspective, many lawyers do not understand this is the nature of a business process but for the compliance practitioner, doing compliance smarter, faster and better is a clear mantra.
  • Knowing history will make you a better person. Noonan wrote, “McCullough endorsed Samuel Eliot Morison’s observation that reading history improves behavior by giving examples to emulate. He quotes John Adams: “We can’t guarantee success [in the Revolutionary War], but we can do something better. We can deserve it.” She believes this insight contrasts with current attitudes, in which success is all. For the compliance practitioner understanding compliance is not enough, as you must understand the business you are servicing. It begins with the ability to read a spreadsheet and moves forward from there.

As a history buff, I read voraciously anything that McCullough writes. These thoughts cribbed by Noonan for her piece clearly illustrate why I think the compliance profession is the most exciting to be in at this point in time. Not only do you need to read and understand how we all got to this place through the history of legislation, such as the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA), but as a compliance professional you have the ability to carry ideals of this law as it enters its 40th year of existence. Perhaps someday, someone will write a book entitled The Compliance Spirit.


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© Thomas R. Fox, 2017