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 / Fourth Quarter 2001 / Issue 25(originally published by Booz & Company)


Best Business Books: CEO Memoirs

Because Iverson practiced what he preached, he earned the right to boast that Nucor had the lowest labor cost per ton of steel and the highest-paid workers in the industry (and that, during Nucor’s only bad year, he was the lowest-paid Fortune 500 CEO). Although admirably concise, Plain Talk leaves the reader wanting more details about how Iverson handled the inevitable conflicts and complexities entailed in worker participation.

Almost as Hard as Learning
I have saved the best-written book for last. Katharine Graham’s 1997 Personal History, produced by her own hand, is the only book authored by a woman CEO of a then–Fortune 500 company. (In 2001, the Washington Post Company ranked 610.) It is also the only CEO memoir that treats readers as intelligent beings (rather than illiterates who need everything spelled out for them in the imbecilic style that publishers dictate as appropriate for business books). She tells her story masterfully and engagingly, and leaves it to readers to decide what, if anything, is applicable to their own careers and businesses. And, as the leader of the Washington Post Company during the Watergate era, she has a fascinating story to tell.

In contrast to other (male) executives, Graham is insightful about herself and others, introspective, willing to admit mistakes, and ready to own up to her fears and insecurities. Why is it that the men who write executive memoirs never make mistakes, never have doubts, and are unfailingly certain they are right? In my view, almost every business leader, male or female, would profit from Graham’s wise interpretations of her experiences as head of the Washington Post Company.

The only thing unique about her situation was the way Graham found herself in that job: She was thrust into the position in her 40s when her husband, the company’s CEO, committed suicide. Working from that tragic beginning, Graham documents how she set out to learn what corporate leaders must know and do in order to succeed. We are taken along as she seeks advice, listens to her people, and reflects honestly on the relative effectiveness of her own (initially halting) efforts to lead. We see how, through her willingness to change herself, she quickly grows into one of the most respected CEOs in her industry. As she becomes a leader, Graham belies the myth that one must be a testosterone-charged ex–hockey player like Jack Welch to be a strong, successful CEO.

As Maureen Dowd of the New York Times wrote in a tribute to Katharine Graham when she passed away last July at the age of 84, “she was The Man in the quintessential man’s town. She was so imposing and respected that even though she told people to call her Kay, they always ended up calling her Mrs. Graham. But the really cool thing about America’s most powerful woman was that she was a girl [who] loved to flirt with men and seek their counsel and chat about clothes and perfume with women.”

Parenthetically, she also caused me to question the rationale so often put forward by CEOs to justify their exorbitant salaries — to wit, that they are “indispensable.” Her ability to learn and to grow on the job should demonstrate to would-be leaders that, with the will to lead, almost anyone with integrity, humility, and respect for his or her followers can learn to be an effective leader. If nothing else, Katharine Graham shows us that with the investment of a little practice and self-discipline, running a successful company may not be much harder than writing a great book.

James O’Toole, [email protected]
James O’Toole is research professor in the Center for Effective Organizations at the University of Southern California. His research and writings have been in the areas of political philosophy, planning, corporate culture, and leadership. He has written 13 books, including Leading Change: Overcoming the Ideology of Comfort and the Tyranny of Custom (Jossey-Bass Inc., 1995).
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