Look Me in the Eye, Dan Gilbert
For the purpose of not getting sued by Metro Detroit's richest and most powerful man, please consider this satire, or at the very least completely unsubstantiated, which it is. I'm sure Dan Gilbert is a really great guy who has no eye contact issues.
I heard from a colleague who formerly worked at a venue in downtown Detroit that when Dan Gilbert comes to an event, the staff of the venue receives a set of specific instructions to be followed while in the company of their esteemed guest. While there were a couple specifics rattled off that had to do considerations of security etc, the one that was the most surprising to me was that Mr. Gilbert does not want anyone staring at, or making eye contact with him.
One must keep in mind before jumping to conclusions about such a snippet (which again is completely unsubstantiated 2nd or 3rd hand hearsay) that Dan Gilbert something of a Billionaire celebrity in the same vein as Bloomburg, Branson or those shark tank people, but on a more localized level. On any given day he probably has to fend off an enormous number of inconsiderate people trying to talk to him, pitch ideas to him, or just plain harass him. He owns the Cleveland Cavaliers among other teams and is a well known philanthropist and employer of tens of thousands. Dude's busy and I'm sure he's a cool good guy. Whatever.
Having myself worked hard for the past decade to establish businesses and work ethically and transparently in my community I just can't get past the idea that a local figure would refuse to make eye contact with the people around him. In an age where big business is basically given the keys to the government, the local people who might vie for his ocular attention are sort of his informal constituents. If that goes too far, which it probably does, they are at the very least his customers, his community, his tenants.
My thought in writing this actually has less to do with Dan Gilbert specifically than with this whole weird (and unsubstantiated) story as a metaphor for the increased anonymity and decreased accountability of business in the digital age.
I remember from a history class that the royal and old money aristocratic class looked down upon the emerging industrial class even as they rose to match and exceed their wealth and power. In a similar way the Carnegies and Rockefellers of last century are being replaced by the Zuckerburgs and Gilberts, whose mode of wealth and power accumulation are far less tangible than a sprawling steel factory or oil refinery. The divide between the rich and poor has never been so great, both in terms of real wealth, and the ability of normal people to simply interact with the wealthy. There was something to this whole eye contact thing that was reminiscent of the strict etiquette rules in the presence of European Royalty (watchers of prestige historical drama know what I'm talking about). I just can't shake the similarity between not making eye contact in 21st century Detroit, and having to bow continuously while simultaneously walking out of the room backwards in the presence of 18th century King George.
Again I don't really want to pick on Dan Gilbert, I really don't know that much about him as a person or a leader. I just wanted to share this story that for some reason resonated with me. I am not alone in striving to be an exception to this increasingly disconnected way of doing business. For me business is and has always been personal. When one starts a business as a normal non-billionaire person I think it is conducive to being personal, because you have to ask favors of your employees and customers to trust you to go forward, and to take concessions related to the fact that you are just starting out. When a billionaire starts a business they throw a ball of money at it, it is an object to be used to get more money, the employees and the customers are objectified, a means to an end.
I think frequently about the morality of business and commerce. There are tons of small businesses out there that are setting an example for community involvement and accountability that the big businesses could stand to learn a thing or two from. Anyone who is curious about what the decorum of a truly great business leader looks like should head to a farmers market, where you can shake the hand and yes even make eye contact with someone who has nothing to hide, and no one to hide from.