Gerald Posner: Part 1 of an interview by Bob Morris

Gerald_Posner_author.tiffJohn Martin of ABC News says “Gerald Posner is one of the most resourceful investigators I have encountered in thirty years of journalism.” The Los Angeles Times dubs him “a classic-style investigative journalist.”

Posner is the author of twelve books, including New York Times bestsellers, and one a finalist for the Pulitzer in history. At 23 he was one of the youngest attorneys ever hired by the Wall Street law firm of Cravath, Swaine & Moore. A Phi Beta Kappa and Summa Cum Laude graduate of UC Berkeley (1975), he was an Honors Graduate of Hastings Law School (1978), where he served as the Associate Executive Editor for the Law Review. Of counsel to the law firm he founded, Posner and Ferrara, he is now a full-time journalist and author.

He has also written widely on investigative issues for many national magazines, and contributes regularly to NBC, the History Channel, and CNN. He lives in Miami Beach with his wife, author, Trisha Posner, who works with him on all his projects.

His latest book, God’s Bankers: A History of Money and Power at the Vatican, was published by Simon
& Schuster (February 2015)

* * *

Morris: Before discussing God’s Bankers, a few general questions. First, who has had the greatest influence on your personal growth? How so?

Posner: My parents. Both my mom and dad instilled in me an absolute sense of integrity, and that has carried over as an indispensable trait when it comes to investigative journalism.

Morris: The greatest impact on your professional development? How so?

Posner: It might seem odd that the greatest impact came not from the world of journalism, but instead from my first few years as a lawyer at the New York law firm of Cravath, Swaine & Moore. It was there that I learned firsthand the truth of the maxim that ‘knowledge is power.’ At Cravath, in an intensively competitive atmosphere of smart lawyers, there was no shortcut for hard work and mastering the details of the complex litigation in which the firm specialized. I also learned at Cravath that the evidence we complied was what led to the strength of the conclusions we reached. It was later a template for how I approached journalism, allowing the facts to take me where they would on a story.

Morris: Years ago, was there a turning point (if not an epiphany) that set you on the career course you continue to follow? Please explain.

Posner: It came after I had worked for several years on a pro-bono lawsuit on behalf of twin survivors of concentration camp medical experiments at Auschwitz by Dr. Josef Mengele. Although I had amassed more than 25,000 pages of documents about the fugitive Nazi – then the largest private archive on Mengele – the court action was not successful. As a backup I thought it might be best to use my newly uncovered documentation to write a biography of Mengele. That is ultimately what I did, with a British co-author, John Ware. And I donated some of my proceeds on that book to the twin survivors, a way for me to pay tribute to those victims who had originally sparked my intense interest.

I loved the process of writing that book. And my investigation on Mengele led to an idea for another project on a completely different subject. During my research in Paraguay I had interviewed some Corsicans who were fugitives from French heroin trafficking charges. They did not know much about Nazis but they related remarkable stories about the heroin trade and they complained nonstop that Chinese Triads had taken control of their old business. That was enough for Trisha and me to decide to do a second book. Only a few months after Mengele was published we left for an extended research trip to Hong Kong and the Golden Triangle. Although I did not then know it, I had switched careers. With only a few exceptions, I never returned again to the practice of law.

Morris: To what extent has your formal education been invaluable to what you have accomplished in life thus far?

Posner: Very important. The Jesuit instructors at my Catholic high school taught a classical education, ranging from courses in ancient Greek and Latin to long discourses about philosophy and history. That instilled in me a love for several thousand years of scholarship in Western civilization that might not have developed had I not gone to a school that concentrated almost entirely on preparing me for the SAT and college admission. At UC Berkeley I pursued a political science major and a minor in history. It was there I learned the skills of how the knowledge I was acquiring could be effectively used to challenge myself and even my professors.

Also, in both high school and college, I was on the debate teams. As part of that I studied logic and rhetoric and learned how to persuasively argue both sides of controversial issues. That was in essence a multi-year course in how to conduct extensive research, compile credible evidence, and then use the accumulated data to draw reasonable conclusions. That would prove to be a template once I turned to journalism.

What do you know now about the business world that you wish you knew when you went to work full-time for the first time? Why?

Posner: When I was in school I wish I knew there was no rush to enter the business world. I was so anxious to start my legal career that I finished my BA in 3 years. I was a lawyer at 23. Now I realize my early twenties was the last real opportunity to simply learn for the sake of learning. My business career would not have suffered had I slowed my education. I might have pursued a PhD or at least a Masters degree. Maybe I would have gone abroad to study. So my somewhat unusual lesson about the business world is that it will always be there. Once you are committed to a professional career, you will be at it a long time, so indulge in feeding your mind through many scholarly pursuits as long as possible.

Morris: Of all the films that you have seen, which – in your opinion — best dramatizes important business principles? Please explain.

Posner: Two films, Citizen Kane and Wall Street. Both are important not for the good principles and guidance they set forth, but rather as cautionary tales. The first is a powerful reminder that getting to the top always has a price and might be ultimately unfulfilling. The second is a wonderfully entertaining glimpse behind the scenes of America’s financial markets, and it methodically disproves its own maxim that “greed is good.”

Morris: From which non-business book have you learned the most valuable lessons about business? Please explain.

Posner: The Godfather. It demonstrates in a very straightforward manner several key lessons: keep emotions out of your decisions; the importance of having a smart and trustworthy advisor; why your reputation is critical to how your competitors respond; why creating reliable relationships and a deep support network is critical to any serious expansion; the importance of being decisive; and depending on the size and complexity of your business, the need for a good succession plan. Unexpected things happen, even in the business world.

Morris: Here are several of my favorite quotations to which I ask you to respond. First, from Lao-tse’s Tao Te Ching:

“Learn from the people
Plan with the people
Begin with what they have
Build on what they know
Of the best leaders
When the task is accomplished
The people will remark
We have done it ourselves.”

Posner: In the world of business leadership this is key. Many of the best business achievers understand intuitively that no matter how smart they believe they are, they will benefit by listening to the intelligence of the crowd, both insiders as well as the public. And in the case of a very few visionaries, they can tap into what people want before they even know they want it. They fill a need that in part they create. Steve Jobs did that time and again. No matter how brilliant his execution and design and sales strategy, if he was not planning and building by learning from his customers, the Apple story might have been much less sensational.

Morris: From Michael Porter: “The essence of strategy is choosing what not to do.”

Posner: Even the best business plans occasionally get stuck in the operating phase. The best reset can come from figuring out what part of the strategy is not necessary. But it is easier said than done. It takes discipline and confidence for a business leader to use restraint in a strategy by deciding sometimes not to act in order to better conserve resources or focus of a product.

Morris: From Richard Dawkins: “Yesterday’s dangerous idea is today’s orthodoxy and tomorrow’s cliché.”

Posner: True, it’s mostly the inevitable cycle of history. The status quo gets unsettled with a brilliant but disruptive idea that is damned as destabilizing, and then over time resistance gives way to acceptance. However, some of this is the benefit of hindsight. Looking back in history, when the ‘dangerous ideas’ worked, it is hard to remember why they were first greeted with such skepticism and fear. But we also tend to forget that there are many truly bad ideas that do fail to take hold. Those fall into the dustbin of history.

Morris: From Isaac Asimov: “The most exciting phrase to hear in science, the one that heralds the most discoveries, is not ‘Eureka!’ (I found it!) but ‘That’s odd….’”

Posner: Of course the real history-changing discoveries must be about a procedure, theory, or product that is so far out in left field that no one at first has any idea what it means and heralds for the future. The “Eureka” moment can still be dramatic, but it will always be a breakthrough on an important existing field of research.

Morris: From Thomas Edison: “Vision without execution is hallucination.”

Posner: Having a great idea is super. Yet it is simply not enough. If you don’t know how to take that idea and execute it, it will only stay in the drafting stage. It is not surprising that Henry Ford liked quoting this Edison line, he understood very well how his vision of making cars an everyday means of transportation would only work if he could develop an assembly line that produced large numbers at ever more affordable prices.

Morris: Finally, from Peter Drucker: “There is surely nothing quite so useless as doing with great efficiency what should not be done at

Posner: This is a mantra that Trisha and I try to follow on our book projects. With books, and sometimes after years of research involving hundreds of interviews and tens of thousands of documents, there are many interesting offshoots to the main subject, but — with rare exception — they are only distractions. We do not want to become masters of trivia at the expense of our main narrative. I know far too many writers who miss major deadlines but are very good at refining unimportant projects.

Morris: In one of Tom Davenport’s recent books, Judgment Calls, he and co-author Brooke Manville offer “an antidote for the Great Man theory of decision making and organizational performance”: organizational judgment. That is, “the collective capacity to make good calls and wise moves when the need for them exceeds the scope of any single leader’s direct control.” What do you think?

Posner: It is hard for me to have much perspective on organizational judgment, since Trisha and I are only dealing with individual judgements and decisions. So you might imagine that I still have a natural bias toward the “Great Man’ theory,” the hope that some gifted leaders might be the result of their DNA rather than made so. If Judgment Calls is correct with its “antidote,’ then maybe one day history will be more than a collection of biographies of great people and instead also include the inside story of some remarkably cohesive and smoothly functioning organizations. Not quite as exciting, I must say, to write about however 🙂

Morris: The greatest leaders throughout history (with rare exception) were great storytellers. What do you make of that?

Posner: Humans are hardwired to pass along our history in stories. It is not surprising that most of us are fascinated with the great storytellers of our times. Charismatic leaders understand that there is an art to good storytelling and they use it to captivate, inspire and challenge others.

Morris: Most change initiatives either fail or fall far short of original (perhaps unrealistic) expectations. More often than not, resistance is cultural in nature, the result of what James O’Toole so aptly characterizes as “the ideology of comfort and the tyranny of custom.”

Here’s my question: How best to avoid or overcome such resistance?

Posner: It is tough, no doubt, to jog people out of their comfort zones. It might help to mask the change against the backdrop of tradition. The resistance is often rooted in the belief that the initiative will not necessarily provide anything better but just something different. The uncertainty inherent in fundamental change is worrisome to many people. In the research for my last book, God’s Bankers, I discovered that in the 2000-year history of the Catholic Church, the Popes who were most successful at introducing the most dramatic changes were those who invariably packaged the plans as simply adjustments of the status quo instead of trying to sell it as a complete revolution. Essentially, the best Popes lulled the traditionalists into thinking their sweeping overhauls were less ambitious than they in fact were.

Morris: Looking ahead (let’s say) 3-5 years, what do you think will be the greatest challenge that CEOs will face? Any advice?

Posner: Those operating global brands have the ever increasing challenge of operating in a fast-paced changing international marketplace. Navigating the complexity of varying government legislation and regulation is daunting. Some of the near term challenges for CEOs are digital. Protecting against data breaches. And better reaching online customers.

* * *

Gerald cordially invites you to check out the resources at these websites:

His website link

Twitter link

Facerbook link

Google+ link

LinkeddIn link

YouTube video link


Posted in

Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.