At first glance, I thought that Alan Deutschman's new book, Walk the Walk: The #1 Rule for Real Leaders, was an exercise in belaboring the obvious. Just as Malcolm Gladwell's book Blink can be reduced to "trust your gut," I thought Deutschman's premise that top CEOs and leaders need to "walk the walk, not just talk the talk," was too obvious to warrant repeating, let alone spend 176 pages discussing at length. But after reading both the book and the business section pages over the past few days, I've decided I was wrong. On two fronts.
First, it appears that Deutschman's premise about the importance of management being authentic, honest, and not asking anyone beneath them to meet any standard or make any sacrifice they're not prepared to meet or make themselves is clearly not as obvious or widely understood as I once might have thought. Take yesterday's column by David Carr of the New York Times about the management at the Tribune Company arguing to a bankruptcy court--after leading the company into bankruptcy (in no small part because of a badly-conceived, heavily-leveraged purchase that left the company saddled with debt) and depriving more than 2,000 employees of jobs-- that the managers should be awarded between 45 to 60 million dollars in performance bonuses. The bonuses are necessary, the company's lawyers argued, because getting a company out of bankruptcy is hard work, and "not being rewarded for hard work and hard effort is demotivating."
No kidding. As Carr says, tell that to the 2,000 journalists and other Tribune personnel whose reward for hard work and hard effort was the elimination of their jobs.
The stunning obliviousness of the Tribune management reminds me of a definition I heard a long time ago for "chutzpah": someone who kills his or her parents and then pleads mercy from the court because he or she is an orphan. Run a company into bankruptcy, and then plead with the court that running a bankrupt company is hard, so you need extra money to do it. That takes ... well, chutzpah. Among other things. Not to mention the fact that $60 million (if all the management performance numbers were met) would give every laid-off staff person $30,000 a year. Think of the products the Tribune could actually produce for that amount of money.
Compare that, for a moment, to some of the military and business leaders Deutschman uses as examples--from Alexander the Great, who took more hits on the front line than any of his soldiers, to Norman Schwartzkopf, who insisted that officers in his command eat the same food and meet the same fitness standards as the troops they commanded. Or Bill Hewlett of Hewlett-Packard, who Deutschman says made every employee, including himself and his entire top management team, take every 10th day off without pay, rather than laying off any employees in the recession of 1970.
Another point Deutschman makes is that a great leader has, in the words of Urban Meyer, head football coach at the University of Florida (where Tim Tebow plays), "the ability to make the level of play of everyone else around him better." Again, a seeming statement of the ridiculously obvious. But consider this piece on Bank of America's outgoing CEO (and former chariman) Ken Lewis, who announced last week that he was retiring--although he said he'd stay on through December because a successor wasn't waiting in the wings. And why wasn't a successor waiting in the wings? Because, according to the article's author, Joe Nocera, Lewis "brutally fired many of the firm's most talented executives, seemingly afraid to be surrounded by potential successors."
So, Lewis wasn't well liked, or good at nurturing or inspiring good performers around him. But not every leader has to be liked to be successful, right? Possibly. But they have to be respected, at least. And ... oh yeah, successful. But during Lewis's tenure, he also made a series of less-than profitable business decisions and purchases, including the purchase of the notorious mortgage disaster known as Countrywide Financial, not to mention the Merrill Lynch mess, that caused the stock to return negative 13 percent while he was in charge.
And yet, Nocera reported, Lewis has taken home $60 million in compensation over the past three years. Clearly, the idea that a good leader--one worth compensating obscenely well-- should be someone who not only exceeds expectations but also inspires better performance in those around him and sacrifices with the troops, is not a patently obvious or well-understood idea at the top levels of Bank of America. Or among executives at any number of other financial institutions and corporations who have spent the last year boggling many people's minds at their capacity for tone-deaf and enduring senses of entitlement. So much so that the entitlement-laden gestures and complaints aren't even eyebrow-raising to many people at this point.
So maybe the more interesting question is: Are these executives beyond hope? Are really great leaders born, and these executives simply don't have what it takes? Or, even if great leadership traits can be learned, are they traits we have to learn in childhood, not at age 55? Or can they be rehabilitated into better behavior and leadership?
Deutschman doesn't get into whether leadership traits are innate or acquired. But he does sketch out, at the end of his book, some traits that he believes are essential in a great "leadership personality": focus; empathy; relentless authenticity; belief not only in themselves, but also in others and in change itself; resilience; and dogged persistence.
Another person's list might differ. But I found the list interesting food for thought. For one thing, "empathetic" isn't generally the first word we hear when Wall Street and corporate titans are described. Brilliant, focused, ruthless, sharply analytic, and relentless, yes. But authentic and empathetic ... not so much. That might explain a lot. (Also ironic to see empathy given such big play in a business book, after all the argument about it in Sonia Sotomayor's confirmation hearings.)
But just for argument's sake, let's say Deutschman is right, and the traits he lists really are the essential pre-requisites for a great executive or leader. Can they be taught in business school, or in a business setting? Or do we simply have to start looking for a different kind of leader in the first place?
Evolutionary psychologists are only beginning to look at how individual personality traits may evolve (as opposed to more basic domains of survival, sexuality, parenting, community, cooperation and aggression). But a recent paper on the subject by David Buss, professor of psychology at the University of Austin, noted that "virtually all personality characteristics ... show heritabilities in the range of 50% and substantial cross-time stability, even over spans of decades."
Which still leaves 50 percent, of course. And education and training can certainly help strengthen or mitigate someone's natural tendencies. After all, belief in a person's ability to change is, itself, one of the traits Deutschman says great leaders possess.
On the other hand, if the traits Deutschman lists as important really do have a significant genetic component, and personality traits have substantial stability over time, then it might not do troubled executives much good to read Deutschman's book. But even if that's the case, it could still prove useful to the rest of us ... if only in underscoring the seemingly obvious fact that we might want to give a little more attention to the personality traits of who we hire to run things. Walking the walk, it turns out, is a lot harder, and rarer, than one might imagine.
“Here is what I would like for you to know: In America, it is traditional to destroy the black body—it is heritage.”
Last Sunday the host of a popular news show asked me what it meant to lose my body. The host was broadcasting from Washington, D.C., and I was seated in a remote studio on the far west side of Manhattan. A satellite closed the miles between us, but no machinery could close the gap between her world and the world for which I had been summoned to speak. When the host asked me about my body, her face faded from the screen, and was replaced by a scroll of words, written by me earlier that week.
The host read these words for the audience, and when she finished she turned to the subject of my body, although she did not mention it specifically. But by now I am accustomed to intelligent people asking about the condition of my body without realizing the nature of their request. Specifically, the host wished to know why I felt that white America’s progress, or rather the progress of those Americans who believe that they are white, was built on looting and violence. Hearing this, I felt an old and indistinct sadness well up in me. The answer to this question is the record of the believers themselves. The answer is American history.
In Sunday’s referendum, voters firmly rejected Europe’s plan to bail out the country’s economy. What’s next?
Updated on July 5, 2015 4:57 pm
On Sunday, Greek citizens took to the polls in a controversial referendum asking them whether they support a plan calling for continued economic austerity in exchange for debt relief. Their answer—with more than 70 percent of the votes counted—was a resounding “no.”The outcome means that next steps for the nation, which has fallen into arrears with the IMF and imposed capital controls to prevent a run on the banks, is largely uncertain. According to reports from Reuters, the country may next attempt to secure financing by asking for more emergency funding from the European Central Bank.
The referendum—which had asked Greeks to vote “yes” or “no” on a proposal from Eurogroup leaders to extend financing to the deeply indebted country— was called for by Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras amid meetings of Eurozone leaders trying to come up with a deal to allow the country to avoid default. The call for the referendum effectively ended those discussions.
The Islamic State is no mere collection of psychopaths. It is a religious group with carefully considered beliefs, among them that it is a key agent of the coming apocalypse. Here’s what that means for its strategy—and for how to stop it.
What is the Islamic State?
Where did it come from, and what are its intentions? The simplicity of these questions can be deceiving, and few Western leaders seem to know the answers. In December, The New York Times published confidential comments by Major General Michael K. Nagata, the Special Operations commander for the United States in the Middle East, admitting that he had hardly begun figuring out the Islamic State’s appeal. “We have not defeated the idea,” he said. “We do not even understand the idea.” In the past year, President Obama has referred to the Islamic State, variously, as “not Islamic” and as al-Qaeda’s “jayvee team,” statements that reflected confusion about the group, and may have contributed to significant strategic errors.
In 1992, the neuroscientist Richard Davidson got a challenge from the Dalai Lama. By that point, he’d spent his career asking why people respond to, in his words, “life’s slings and arrows” in different ways. Why are some people more resilient than others in the face of tragedy? And is resilience something you can gain through practice?
The Dalai Lama had a different question for Davidson when he visited the Tibetan Buddhist spiritual leader at his residence in Dharamsala, India. “He said: ‘You’ve been using the tools of modern neuroscience to study depression, and anxiety, and fear. Why can’t you use those same tools to study kindness and compassion?’ … I did not have a very good answer. I said it was hard.”
A new book by the evolutionary biologist Jerry Coyne tackles arguments that the two institutions are compatible.
In May 1988, a 13-year-old girl named Ashley King was admitted to Phoenix Children’s Hospital by court order. She had a tumor on her leg—an osteogenic sarcoma—that, writes Jerry Coyne in his book Faith Versus Fact, was “larger than a basketball,” and was causing her leg to decay while her body started to shut down. Ashley’s Christian Scientist parents, however, refused to allow doctors permission to amputate, and instead moved their daughter to a Christian Science sanatorium, where, in accordance with the tenets of their faith, “there was no medical care, not even pain medication.” Ashley’s mother and father arranged a collective pray-in to help her recover—to no avail. Three weeks later, she died.
As the world frets over Greece, a separate crisis looms in China.
This summer has not been calm for the global economy. In Europe, a Greek referendum this Sunday may determine whether the country will remain in the eurozone. In North America, meanwhile, the governor of Puerto Rico claimed last week that the island would be unable to pay off its debts, raising unsettling questions about the health of American municipal bonds.
But the season’s biggest economic crisis may be occurring in Asia, where shares in China’s two major stock exchanges have nosedived in the past three weeks. Since June 12, the Shanghai stock exchange has lost 24 percent of its value, while the damage in the southern city of Shenzhen has been even greater at 30 percent. The tumble has already wiped out more than $2.4 trillion in wealth—a figure roughly 10 times the size of Greece’s economy.
Female athletes have historically received very little attention from activists and advocates for gender equality. Why?
When I told my friends and family I’d be going to Brazil for the World Cup last year, they looked at me like I’d just won the lottery. In a sense, I had; I’d entered a lottery just to be able to purchase tickets. In Recife, I attended games at a brand-new stadium with a bright-green grass pitch, along with 40,000 other soccer fans from around the world. For months leading up to the event I saw news coverage on TV, in newspapers, and in magazines hyping Team USA, even though they had a virtually nonexistent chance of victory. By the time I left for Brazil, friends who I never knew to be soccer fans were telling me who their favorite players were, jealous that I would see “our boys” play against the tournament favorites, Germany.
For centuries, experts have predicted that machines would make workers obsolete. That moment may finally be arriving. Could that be a good thing?
1. Youngstown, U.S.A.
The end of work is still just a futuristic concept for most of the United States, but it is something like a moment in history for Youngstown, Ohio, one its residents can cite with precision: September 19, 1977.
For much of the 20th century, Youngstown’s steel mills delivered such great prosperity that the city was a model of the American dream, boasting a median income and a homeownership rate that were among the nation’s highest. But as manufacturing shifted abroad after World War II, Youngstown steel suffered, and on that gray September afternoon in 1977, Youngstown Sheet and Tube announced the shuttering of its Campbell Works mill. Within five years, the city lost 50,000 jobs and $1.3 billion in manufacturing wages. The effect was so severe that a term was coined to describe the fallout: regional depression.
Defining common cultural literacy for an increasingly diverse nation.
Is the culture war over?
That seems an absurd question. This is an age when Confederate monuments still stand; when white-privilege denialism is surging on social media; when legislators and educators in Arizona and Texas propose banning ethnic studies in public schools and assign textbooks euphemizing the slave trade; when fear of Hispanic and Asian immigrants remains strong enough to prevent immigration reform in Congress; when the simple assertion that #BlackLivesMatter cannot be accepted by all but is instead contested petulantly by many non-blacks as divisive, even discriminatory.
And that’s looking only at race. Add gender, guns, gays, and God to the mix and the culture war seems to be raging along quite nicely.
People labeled “smart” at a young age don’t deal well with being wrong. Life grows stagnant.
At whatever agesmart people develop the idea that they are smart, they also tend to develop vulnerability around relinquishing that label. So the difference between telling a kid “You did a great job” and “You are smart” isn’t subtle. That is, at least, according to one growing movement in education and parenting that advocates for retirement of “the S word.”
The idea is that when we praise kids for being smart, those kids think: Oh good, I'm smart. And then later, when those kids mess up, which they will, they think: Oh no, I'm not smart after all. People will think I’m not smart after all. And that’s the worst. That’s a risk to avoid, they learn.“Smart” kids stand to become especially averse to making mistakes, which are critical to learning and succeeding.