Leadership in Three Acts

Posted 03.16.2009

Yesterday’s New York Times presented a leadership morality play in three acts.  Let me take a moment to connect the dots between one article that ran in the Week in Review section and two others that ran in the Business section.  There are some instructive and, in the end, some uplifting conclusions to draw about how to lead in the world today.

Bearstearns The one year anniversary of the collapse of Bear Stearns (the event that kicked off the mess we’re in), was memorialized on the back page of the Week section with a number of vignettes written by former employees on “What I Remember About Bear Stearns.”  The one that really made an impression on me was a short piece called, “Never Say Thank You".

The story was told by Doug Pugliese, a former Bear investment banker who came to the firm in 1996 fresh out of business school and promptly started working 100 hour weeks.  At the end of his first year, he received a large bonus and said to his boss, “I would just like to thank you and the firm for giving me the opportunity to work hard and to learn my job.”  His boss responded with a small, cynical laugh.  Here’s how Pugliese recalls the rest of the conversation:

“’That’s nice Doug.  But if I ever hear you say something like that again, we will…’  I can’t complete the quotation here, but let’s just say that what he threatened to do to me is better left to the imagination.  Ever mindful of that early lesson, I never said thank you again.”

Harvardbizschool Sort of makes it obvious what they were teaching at Bear Stearns.  That brings us to a feature story in the Times’ Business section, “Is It Time to Retrain B-Schools?”

Based on the culture that is exemplified by Doug Pugliese’s story, the answer would sure seem to be, “Uh, yeah.  Definitely.”  As leadership expert Warren Bennis says in the article, business schools suffer from “an overemphasis on the (analytical) rigor and an under emphasis on relevance.”   Another way of saying it comes from current candidate for a joint MBA/MPA from Harvard, James Tran, who said, “ The challenge for a lot of business schools is how to develop leaders and not managers.”  The distinction I would add here is there is too much emphasis on results and not enough (or any) on relationships.

Greg_brenneman So, let’s end on an uplifting note.  The Times also ran a Q&A yesterday with Greg Brenneman, chairman of CCMP Capital and a turnaround expert who’s been the CEO of PwC Consulting, Quiznos and Burger  King.  If you’re looking for a business leader who understands how results cannot be achieved without relationships, take a look at the interview.  Here’s how it begins:

Q. What do you consider the keys to effective leadership?

A. The most important thing is that you treat everybody incredibly well and lead with a bit of humility. I’ve found that when I go into a company to lead it’s important to have a plan and to make that plan a simple one that everybody can understand.

So, simple it’s brilliant, right?  Treat people well.  Be humble.  Have a plan.  Keep it simple.

It makes me wonder what the world would be like if all leaders had those four short sentences as reminders in front of them throughout the day.  At a minimum, there would probably be a lot more people feeling like it was safe to say thank you.