Weekends with Hank

Posted 09.15.2008

U.S. Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson You have to hope that U.S. Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson has some vacation time scheduled for himself later this year.  Lord knows he’s not getting much of a break on the weekends.

Think about it.  A few months ago he spent a weekend arranging for the sale of Bear Stearns to J.P. Morgan Chase.  Last weekend, the agenda was letting the executives of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac know that their institutions were being taken over by the Federal Housing Finance Administration (for a savvy take on the thinking behind that one, check out Jack Flack’s Business Spin blog).   And, while everyone sort of expected that Paulson and company would spend their weekend engineering the euthanization of Lehman Brothers, the kicker this morning was to learn that as part of their weekend with Hank, the top execs of Bank of America made a deal to buy Merrill Lynch.  Wow.

Let’s acknowledge the obvious point that nobody knows how all of this is going to turn out.  One thing I think we all have to feel good about, though, is that Hank Paulson is in the middle of it.  As a former CEO of Goldman Sachs (which looks like a long term winner in the industry), it feels like Paulson is the classic case of the right person in the right place at the right time.  Clearly, the man is very experienced and very smart.  Those aren’t the only attributes that make him so invaluable right now.  Here’s a quick list of things I’ve noticed about Paulson that are both comforting and great examples for other leaders under great pressure:

  • Openness and Honesty:  In his interviews and press conferences (in this CNBC interview the day after Fan and Fred for example), Paulson acknowledges what he knows and doesn’t know.  That builds trust.
  • Bias for Action:  Someone had to step into the breech of the markets mess and lead.  Paulson has had the credibility and footprint to do that.
  • Steadying Presence:  By consistently showing up as calm and together, Paulson establishes a “work through it” presence that influences others to keep it together.
  • Point of View:  According to an account in this morning’s Wall Street Journal, Paulson faced great pressure this past weekend to bail out Lehman Brothers.  He came into the discussions, however, with the point of view that it was time to reestablish the concept of moral hazard and stuck to his guns.  In doing so, he’s probably sent the message that executives in lots of different industries cannot expect a save from the Feds.
  • Collaborative Leadership:  Obviously, Hank Paulson isn’t doing all of this by himself.  The Federal Reserve, other federal agencies, overseas investors and many other entities are all playing a role in this ongoing restructuring.  Paulson is the point person who is bringing all the parties together to solve the problem.

If you’ve been watching Paulson with interest, what would you add to the list?  What stories about executive presence under pressure do you have that you’d like to share with the Next Level community?