Donald Keough's Keynote Address at Irish America's Business 100 Luncheon



I have written a little book [The Ten Commandments for Business Failure]. I wrote it because it’s about how to fail, and I wrote it because success has always scared me, it’s always worried me, it’s always frightened me, the word — I didn’t allow it to be said any time and any place where I’ve been associated, because success flies on its own wings. And built into the DNA of success are two viruses, you can’t avoid them, they’re built into the very word success. It could happen to people, to companies, to countries, and those are viruses of complacency and arrogance, and they destroy so many successful people and successful companies and successful countries. Even now, for us in this country . . . to think about what success can do to you. Years ago I was asked to speak at a big convention, and it was how to be a winner. And I said, well, I couldn’t come speak about that because I don’t know about that, but I’ll tell you what, I can tell you how to be a loser. And that’s what the book’s about.

The Economy

What we don’t know – Bernanke doesn’t know it, Paulson doesn’t know, Bush doesn’t know, nobody knows and none of us know. We don’t know really why we got here – we’ve all got ideas. We don’t know whether we’ve found the bottom. We don’t know how wide the bottom is. We don’t know how deep it is and we don’t know how long it will take to rise from it – one year, two years, three years. But I’m an optimist, so I will tell you that it will be sooner than the pessimists think and it will probably be longer than I think.

The Way Forward

We’ll find our way out of this, and in a way it’s good for us because it lets us reset our base and revalue what life is really about. I’m very proud of this country and of its people. Whatever the politics each of us have, yours or mine – we’ve just participated in a long and historic election with a historic outcome. We have a gracious loser. We have a gracious winner. We have a gracious president, sitting president, and an orderly transition that’s happening after a long and tough campaign. No guns, no soldiers, no unrest. And the world looks at this country right now and its people with wonder after this election.

Since the Revolutionary War, since the Continental Congress, we’ve continued to enlarge and enhance the meaning of the Declaration of Independence. It hasn’t been easy or swift, but a remarkable Constitution made better with amendments – and finally 75 years later, it dealt with slavery, which took a vicious Civil War and a courageous president. And then we had to struggle for decades about the right of women to vote, and then we participated in two wars we didn’t start to protect the freedom of the world. And then we had an election to determine whether religion would be a test for the presidency and we the people decided no. But then, after a long fight to civil rights victory that went on and on until November 4, 2008, a man of color was elected president of the United States. Listen to me. This would happen nowhere else in the developed world, and we should be damned proud of it.

Survivor Genes

A hundred and sixty years ago an 18-year-old kid, my great-great-grandfather Michael arrived on this shore, having left on a dreadful ship from New Ross, Wexford – a county, which along with the rest of Ireland was devastated by the infamous famine that delivered pain and suffering and death during those tragic years, and left us with scars that still remain today. And so today, I think of my 18-year-old grandson – he’s Michael’s great-great-great-grandson. He’s a healthy, bright high school senior on the rise. He’s captain of his football team, wondering where he’s going for college, he’s just one of millions of 18-year-old boys and girls who by an accident of birth were born in this country. You know, this is a great nation. And it’s going to – believe me – it’s going to prove its greatness again through this current economic crisis, just as it has, ladies and gentlemen, for decade after decade over the last two hundred and thirty years.

Ireland & The Diaspora

Ireland, like the rest of the world, faces great challenges. But in many ways, the psychological impact of the downturn in Ireland is severe because of the recent 15/20 year period of the Celtic Tiger, when everybody was on a roll and you almost felt a sense it was going to go on forever. Nothing does. But I do know this, I do know and I have confidence that Taoiseach Brian Cowen and the cabinet can and will successfully confront these challenges, but they need to have the support of the citizenry of the country. And I believe the fact that this taoiseach has commissioned a study of the Irish Diaspora [is key]. The Irish Diaspora, we talk about it as if it’s a studied thing. It’s the millions of people in this country and around the world who left years ago, and it [the Diaspora] can’t last forever. Twenty years from now it’ll probably disappear in the mist of reality. So I believe that Cowen commissioned this study to be certain that we have closer links between Ireland and America. It’s of huge importance.