A Life In Leadership: A book review by Bob Morris

A LifeA Life In Leadership: From D-Day to Ground Zero: An Autobiography
John Whitehead
Basic Books (2005)

Note: I re-read this book before reading Steven Mandis’ recently published book, What Happened to Goldman Sachs: An Insider’s Story of Organization Drift, published by Harvard Business Review Press (2013). Whitehead plays a significant role in Mandis’ account, one that may well prove to be one of the best business books in 2013.

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A compelling personal account of a life well-lived and a nation well-served

A brief summary of John Whitehead’s accomplishments thus far indicates the nature and extent of his “life in leadership”: most recently, chairman of the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation (LMDC); previously, co-chairman of Goldman Sachs and then deputy secretary of state, second-in-command to Secretary George Shultz, in the Reagan administration; also tenures as chairman of the governing boards (at one point or another) of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, the United Nations Association, the International Rescue Committee, the Harvard Board of Overseers, Haverford College from which he earned a B.A. degree, and the Asia Society. It should also be noted that, during World War Two, Ensign Whitehead commanded a Landing Craft, Vehicle, Personnel (LCVP) or “Higgins boat” that successfully delivered troops to Omaha beach on the first day of the Normandy Invasion.

With all due respect to Whitehead’s numerous and considerable accomplishments, however, what most impressed throughout his memoirs is his passionate commitment to being an effective leader of others whose welfare has been entrusted to his care. He has always cared deeply, indeed passionately about sustaining that commitment, whatever the given circumstances may be.

As a case in point, after retiring from Goldman Sachs, Whitehead was determined to disengage himself from his various responsibilities and therefore “was dead set against” accepting New York Governor George Pataki’s invitation to serve as chairman of the LMDC, following the attack on the World Trade Center. After completing a rigorous analysis of the “pros” and “cons” of acceptance, “it was clear to me that I had to say no.” Then, after he looked around his office at all the photographs and memorabilia, “I took a deep breath, and I knew what I had to do. I picked up the phone again and dialed the governor, and when he came on the line I told him I’d accept.” There are dozens of other, comparable situations in which Whitehead also had to make an especially difficult decision, none of which he later regretted. “I don’t allow myself that luxury. What’s done is done.”

There are several important lessons that can be learned from Whitehead’s personal as well as professional experiences that he so generously shares in this volume. Those of greatest interest and value to me include these three:

1. Effective leadership is first and foremost both a privilege and an obligation; those who would lead others must embrace the obligations of trust, compassion, and dedication as well as of rigorous preparation, precise and enlightened decision-making, and courage. It is worth recalling that Dante reserved the last and worst ring in hell for those who, in a moral crisis, preserved their neutrality.

2. Effective leadership also requires not only an understanding and appreciation of teamwork but also a determination to help develop effective leadership skills in one’s associates. Hence the importance of recognizing and, yes, celebrating the achievements of others.

3. Finally, effective leadership functions simultaneously within three dimensions: the intellectual, the emotional, and the spiritual. Throughout history, the greatest leaders are those who possess (a) highly refined analytical skills and sufficient knowledge that enable them to make appropriate decisions, (b) a temperament that enables them to sustain a proper balance of what is most important, and also (c) what is often referred to as a “moral compass.” As Bill George has so eloquently explained in his book True North, authentic leaders must be authentic people.

When concluding his memoirs, Whitehead observes that he can’t help thinking how “lucky” he has been. “Mine has been a good life, filled with lots of fun, interesting experiences, drama, and an engagement with serious issues at the highest level…I have lived at a time when there has been a lot to be done, from fighting the Nazis to battling terrorists. I like to think I have risen to many of these challenges in my own quiet fashion, and I am confident that the next generation of leaders will meet them in their turn. I have been glad to do my part in all of these great endeavors. More than glad. From first to last, I have been thrilled to be in on the action.”

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