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Best Business Books 2005: Leadership

The chapter is dramatic, informative, and, ultimately, sad — because the reader knows, as Mr. Bakke himself must know, that no matter how many good things he did, his record will always be tarnished by the financial mess that ended his watch. Without doubt, he was an impressive manager of people, one of the best in America during the 1990s, when few leaders cared to demonstrate ethical concern for their employees. But he also was an unfortunate — perhaps incompetent — strategist, and even being the greatest people manager won’t compensate for that when the bills come due.

The Old-Fashioned Way
John C. Whitehead’s A Life in Leadership: From D-Day to Ground Zero: An Autobiography (Basic Books, 2005) is the memoir of the chairman of the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation, the agency charged with resurrecting the devastated 16 acres where the World Trade Center once stood. Even at age 80, Mr. Whitehead appears to have the right credentials for that tough political job: navy service at Omaha Beach, success as co-CEO of Goldman Sachs, experience as No. 2 in the State Department during Ronald Reagan’s face-off with the Soviet Union, and membership on the board of just about every civic and philanthropic organization that counts in the Social Register. The guy has a resume, and a Rolodex, to die for.

What he doesn’t have is a track record of visionary leadership, if the ability to enlist reluctant followers in fundamental change is the hallmark of such. Instead of using fanfare or bravery, Mr. Whitehead succeeded the old-fashioned way: diplomatically. As he reports it, everything he has said and done over his entire career is politic, courteous, and nonoffensive. He is a patient, kind, and thoughtful listener, even when being berated by a first-rate Wall Street egotist, a second-rate Marxist despot, or a third-rate American politician.

His reminiscences are discreet: If he kissed, he doesn’t tell. But just when you are becoming exasperated, wishing he would say something shocking or report that he once did something dramatic, you suddenly realize you both like and respect the author for who he is. In fact, he is one of the last of that breed of moderate Republicans — folks with solid Midwest values, Ivy League educations, and a sense of responsibility to the big cities where they worked — who ran our largest corporations from the end of World War II through the Ford administration. The likes of John Whitehead worked diligently to keep the country they loved on an even keel, offering workers secure jobs with good benefits, giving generously to charitable causes, and serving in positions of civic and public leadership. Without boasting, he describes this brand of “quiet leadership” in the last, and best, chapter of the book. I commend this book, especially to young, aspiring leaders, if only to remind them that in this country there once was a brand of leadership that was thoughtful rather than brash, persuasive rather than belligerent, encompassing rather than divisive, and idealistic rather than ideological.

Authors being authors, and publishers being publishers, we can expect yet another round of scribbling about leadership next year, whether or not there is anything new or useful to say on the topic. As a repeat offender myself in this regard, I’m the last one to be critical of my fellow authors. Instead, the responsible thing for me to do here in conclusion is to give them some guidance by identifying the next important leadership subject deserving of a new book. But, then, if I knew that, I’d write it myself.

Author Profile:

James O’Toole ([email protected]) is research professor at the Center for Effective Organizations at the University of Southern California. His research and writings have been in the areas of philosophy, corporate culture, and leadership. He has written 14 books; the latest is Creating the Good Life: Applying Aristotle’s Wisdom to Find Meaning and Happiness (Rodale Press, 2005).
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