Editor's take: The perils of playing the wrong kind of politics

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Next time you feel like stabbing someone in the back, consider the case of Stan O'Neal.

O'Neal's exit, like that of Charles (Chuck) Prince, was largely attributable to incompetence: the employers of both men lost a packet on their watch and O'Neal sealed his fate with an inopportune attempt to cosy up to Wachovia. But, in O'Neal's particular case, previous nastiness may also have played a part.

After becoming Merrill's chief apparatchik in 2002, Stan O'Neal consolidated the position with a ruthlessness akin to Voldemort faced with a pre-pubescent wizard. Between 2002 and 2004, he removed 19 top executives who might otherwise have challenged his pre-eminence. As former Merrill chief exec Daniel Tully explained to Bloomberg, Stan "didn't tolerate dissension real well".

Having lived so enthusiastically by the sword, that Stan departed with steel between the shoulder blades is unsurprising. The New York Times reported that one of the main assassins was Armando Codina, a Merrill director appointed by O'Neal and an old pal from his General Motors days.

Not everyone is chief exec of a Wall Street bank, but there are lessons to be learned here. First is that it helps to have friends - and that doesn't mean automatically anyone who says the sun shines out of your nether regions.

Second is that it helps to play politics, of the right kind. Stan may have been hyperactive when it came to disposing of potential rivals, but he seems to have eschewed stuff that might have predisposed potential friends in his favour. "I think clubs have their place but not in modern commerce," The Telegraph reports him as saying of Wall Street's old boy network.

Niceness may also help banks themselves. One Wall Street analyst says Goldman's apparent out-performance could have something to do with its sense of common purpose (rather than alleged accounting tricks or insider trading): "Wall Street can be very feudal from desk to desk, but Goldman has a culture of information sharing that can offer a better picture of what's going on across the market," he says.

With things looking worse by the day, now may be therefore be a time for sharing and caring (up to a point, of course) rather than stabbing and secrecy. And if you lose your job anyway? You will at least have a few close friends to play those endless rounds of golf with.

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