IAN MANN REVIEWS | Masters, builders, visionaries: Lessons from the world's great leaders

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Rachel Luna / Stringer / Getty Images

How to Lead: Lessons from the World's Greatest CEOs, Founders, and Game Changers, by David M. Rubenstein

Is there really anything that hasn't already been said about how to lead? Probably not. But this book is worth reading, and here's why.

The author David Rubenstein is a founder and co-executive chairman of Carlyle, one of the world's largest and most diversified investment firms. They have $230 billion under management, employ over 1 800 professionals, and operate across six continents.

Rubenstein began his 'Peer to Peer' interview show on Bloomberg TV in 2016, and this book is an outgrowth of those interviews. The quality of the people interviewed, is no doubt, because Rubenstein is their "peer".

The leaders interviewed cover a wide array of contexts in which they led and excelled, from business (of course), to the performing arts, health and justice – all at the highest possible levels.

He has divided leaders into six categories and has five interviews in each. To get a sense of the quality of people interviewed, consider these examples in each category. The "Visionaries", Jeff Bezos and Bill Gates; the "Builders", Phil Knight and Jamie Dimon; the "Transformers", Eric Schmit and Tim Cook; the "Commanders", General Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice; the "Decision Makers", Christine Lagarde and Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and the "Masters", Jack Nicklaus and Yo-Yo Ma, the cellist.   

I will describe only one from each category.

The Visionary

"Few American success and leadership stories rival that of Oprah Winfrey's", Rubenstein notes. Winfrey was raised in absolute poverty by her grandmother. She achieved extraordinary fame as a talk show host, in a different league to all others, and that has made her the richest black woman in America. She has been the most watched television personality in the US for nearly three decades, with reach into the homes of Americans unmatched by any TV personality, ever.

How did this happen? Clearly, she was determined to rise from poverty, but it was her critical skill as an interviewer, who really listened to what the interviewee was actually saying, and trying to understand the impact of what was being said. This combined with her unique way of showing empathy for her interviewees, and her audience. Her ability to connect so viscerally with those who were watching, made her extremely appealing, and unique.

She recalled autographing after a show and never looking up, trying to get through all 350 people. Then she stopped mass autographing, because what she really wanted was to talk to this audience, to find out who they are, where they come from. What all people want to know, is "Did you hear me? Did you see me? And did I say anything that mattered?" Winfrey believes.

That is why she was so influential.

The Transformer

One of the "Transformers" interviewed was Indira Nooyi, the CEO of PepsiCo from October 2006 to October 2018. It is rare in the US for huge companies to be led by a woman, and especially when the woman is an Indian immigrant.

During her tenure, Pepsi's market value rose from $104 billion to $154 billion! She has a rare combination of intellect, focus, work ethic, global perspective, and charm. She maintain strong family relationships with her parents, husband, and children.

Her leadership "secret" was being very well-grounded by her parents—particularly her mother, who taught her not to take herself too seriously, and to always be respectful of others.

She regularly wrote letters to the parents of her senior employees, giving them a report of how well their children were doing. "It occurred to me," she said, "that I had never thanked the parents of my executives for the gift of their child to PepsiCo."

The Commander

General David Petraeus is an example of a "Commander".

He describes the risks that combat leaders take as being of a different order of magnitude. While "they need to be very precise and decisive in their orders and directions, and need to instil discipline, teamwork, and confidence into their troops". A very tall order.

Petraeus believes that leadership at the very top of any organisation involves four critical tasks: Getting the big ideas (the strategy) right. Communicating this effectively throughout the organisation. Overseeing the implementation of the big ideas. And then having a process to determine how the big ideas need to be revised and refined in response to what has been learned, and to changing circumstances.

Doing all this is undoubtedly required, if rare among leaders of any organisation.

The Decision Maker

Among the leaders who are "Decision Makers" is Dr Anthony Fauci, physician-scientist and immunologist who was the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases since 1984. He is now the chief medical advisor to US President Joe Biden.

His leadership style is not to dictate to people, but rather to let them know what your vision is. This requires that you hire the best people, and then don't get in their way.

During the Covid-19 crisis, he became known as the world's leading authority on infectious diseases. He dived into this crisis with the same "work-around-the-clock, just-the-facts style" he always exhibited working with six US presidents. He could work with them all because he is completely apolitical.

He has dealt with every serious infectious disease challenge while at the same time writing or editing more than 1 100 scholarly articles and several textbooks!

Until this crisis, he commuted to work by train, after several miles of power walking, his daily exercise. "No federal civil servant, in any area, can exceed Tony Fauci's long-term and selfless commitment to this country and the health of its people."

Money doesn't motivate him, but serving the country does, to the country's good fortune.

The Master

A leader in the "Masters" category is Lorne Michaels, the producer of Saturday Night Live.

On October 11, 1975, television history was made with this comedy show that is unlike any other. It has continued running for 45 years as the showcase and arbiter of American humour.

Michaels produced the first episode, and is still producing the show. This 90-minute weekly live show with its performers, skits, and set changes all done live, just keeps going. The key, Michaels says, is being open to new ideas, to changing his mind, and to accepting the best ideas from wherever they come. It keeps going because the show is placed ahead of anything else, including egos.

This is an extraordinarily engaging book. Will you learn a set of new techniques? No. Are there immutable laws of leadership – clearly not. The value is simply being exposed to the very, very best, and being inspired and enriched by knowing more about them, and each one's inimitable leadership style.

Readability                     Light -+--- Serious

Insights                         High -+--- Low

Practical                         High ----+ Low

*Ian Mann of Gateways consults internationally on strategy and implementation, is the author of 'Strategy that Works' and a public speaker. Views expressed are his own. 

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