Liveblogging the Presidents: Gerald Ford


“We’re taught Lord Acton’s axiom: all power corrupts, absolute power corrupts absolutely. I believed that when I started these books, but I don’t believe it’s always true any more. Power doesn’t always corrupt. Power can cleanse. What I believe is always true about power is that power always reveals. When you have enough power to do what you always wanted to do, then you see what the guy always wanted to do.”  — Robert Caro, The Guardian, June 10, 2012.


Power always reveals—that is the premise for a year-long seminar that I’m guiding to draw leadership lessons from the autobiographies, biographies, and principal speeches of the post-Watergate Presidents (i.e. those from 1974 to the present).  These Presidents are closest to the reality of today’s MBA students and rose to the position through an incredible selection gauntlet.  Their styles and actions are minutely documented, making it possible for us to see them in detail.  If Robert Caro is right, the clarity about these seven Presidents should help us to understand the use of power and execution of leadership.  What leadership insights might their use of power reveal?  Most generally, what meaning might we make of the story of any leader?


Our seminar convened on September 1 to discuss the biography and memoir of Gerald Ford, [1] who served as the 38th President, from August, 1974 to January, 1977.  That was an inauspicious moment in history at which to start a study of leadership.   


Ford’s Presidency: Brief Highlights


Ford’s administration began at the nadir of popular support of the presidency, a moment of a profound crisis of trust.  President Nixon resigned in disgrace in August, 1974, having been accused of obstruction of justice in investigations about the break-in at the Democratic National Headquarters in the Watergate in 1972.  Earlier, Vice President Spiro Agnew had resigned following a charge of corruption.  Ford was part of a difficult leadership episode in American history.  During the two decades of leaders from 1960 to 1980, no one served two full terms, owing to loss of reelection (Ford and Carter), drop out of re-election (Johnson), resignation (Nixon), or assassination (Kennedy).  Ford was the only President in U.S. history not to enter the White House by means of a national election as President or Vice President.  One poll found that over 80% of the people believed that Ford did not have the ability to run the country.  He was mocked as the “accidental President.”


Nor was the rest of his incumbency easy.  Ford dealt with the withdrawal from Vietnam, the economic aftershock of the OPEC oil embargo, Congressional investigations on domestic intelligence abuses, rising inflation, the Mayaguez incident, budget deficits, the Swine Flu scare, Middle East tensions, relations with China, the Turkish invasion of Cyprus, and the Indonesian invasion of East Timor.  Ford himself survived two assassination attempts. 


Ford has been described variously as “a decent man,” a team-player, ego-less, steady, dependable and a centrist.  As a star athlete at University of Michigan, he learned the virtues of self-discipline, practice, and sacrifice for the team.  His lifetime of service in the U.S. House of Representatives developed his skills of coalition-building and negotiation with political opponents.  As Republican Whip and the House Minority Leader, he grew to value cohesion and loyalty to the party.  Ford described himself as an economic conservative, social moderate, and internationalist.  Military service in World War II led him to believe that security of the nation depended on active engagement and leadership in the global community—this was a marked turnaround from isolationist views he held before the war.


Upon rising to the Oval Office, Ford immediately sought to set a tone of “healing” to address the crisis of trust (the title of his memoir conveys this dominant tone, A Time to Heal).  “Our long national nightmare is over,” he declared in his inaugural speech.  He pledged candor and openness, sought to create national unity in the face of partisanship, initiated a program by which Vietnam War draft resisters could achieve a presidential pardon, and pardoned Richard Nixon for the obstruction of justice.  He sustained Nixon’s international policies and retained Nixon’s presidential staff and Cabinet, notably Henry Kissinger.  For his pardons and retention of Nixon’s staff, he was vilified in the press and by both the left and right of the political spectrum.  To respond to mounting inflation, he announced a program to “Whip Inflation Now” (WIN), a program of voluntary belt-tightening aimed at reducing demand and married with tax increases on corporations and wealthy individuals. All this occurred within Ford’s first three months in office.  The unpopularity of these actions prompted a resounding defeat for Republicans in the mid-term elections of November 1974.  The Democrat-controlled House and Senate that returned to Washington in January 1975 challenged Ford for the rest of his incumbency. 


Ford’s style as an administrative leader marked a break from Nixon.  Where Nixon relied on a strong Chief of Staff as a gatekeeper, Ford wanted to be more accessible at the center of a hub-and-spoke administrative system with little staff filtering.  Later, recognizing the overwhelming volume of issues and interests that came to the White House, Ford eventually acceded to stronger staff intervention.  But throughout his career, Ford proved to be a “big picture” leader, who relied on others to master details—this non-mastery proved to be a critical part of his defense of his pardon of Nixon (i.e., that Ford had no prior knowledge of Nixon’s obstruction of justice) or of CIA improprieties.


Ford’s execution of his own policies drew more criticism.  He recruited Nelson Rockefeller as his Vice President and later dropped him when running for re-election.  Ford appeared to “flip-flop” on budget-cutting: at first, his WIN program sought to cut expenses and balance the budget; soon he abandoned that policy in the face of a recession and overwhelming Congressional pressure and signed a deficit-expanding budget.  He was unable credibly to shake allegations that he had accepted some kind of deal to pardon Nixon.  He went to Helsinki to negotiate a ground-breaking agreement with the Soviets on human rights, only to face a barrage of criticism upon his return home.  He proved to be a lackluster communicator on TV and stumbled in debate with Jimmy Carter. 


Ford’s was the second-shortest incumbency in the 20th Century and the fifth-shortest in U.S. history.  Short tenure in office is bound to affect one’s impact and legacy.  With the exception of Kennedy and possible exception of Ford, the ten shortest-tenured Presidents left rather empty legacies. 


U.S. Presidents, Shortest Days in Office and Rank in Poll of Historians



William Henry Harrison



James A. Garfield



Zachary Taylor



Warren G. Harding



Gerald Ford



Millard Fillmore



John F. Kennedy



Chester A. Arthur



Andrew Johnson



John Tyler




A recent ranking of Presidents by historians puts Ford in the second quartile from the bottom.  Historians tread carefully in discussing Ford’s presidency but their sentiments echo the rankings (“unique” “obstructed,” “stalled,” “mediocre,” “tarnished,” “cautious.”) 


With the passage of time, critics relented and even reversed their judgment of Gerald Ford.  The John F. Kennedy Foundation gave Ford its 2001 “Profile in Courage Award” for pardoning Richard Nixon.  Ted Kennedy, one of Ford’s leading adversaries in the 1970s, said, “I was one of those who spoke out against his action then.  But time has a way of clarifying past events, and now we see that President Ford was right.”


In sizing up a President, what questions should we ask?


Our seminar discussion chewed over the details of Ford’s presidency.  Five “buckets” of concerns seemed to matter in our assessment:

·        Circumstances.  Stuff happens to any leader: crises, changes in the economy and political environment, the prevalence of urgent issues to deal with, and the strength (or weakness) of the mandate with which one assumes leadership.  Ford parachuted into a maelstrom.  The first step in assessing a presidency is to appraise the special circumstances that the President faces.

·        Character.  What a leader brings to the office matters.  As Aristotle said, “Character is destiny.”  “Character” serves as an umbrella for a range of personal attributes such as values, priorities, life experience, ideology, personality and purpose.  In his classic book, Leadership, James MacGregor Burns wrote that:


“Essential in a concept of power is the role of purpose….[Transformational leadership] occurs when one or more persons engage with others in such a way that leaders and followers raise one another to higher levels of motivation and morality…Their purposes, which might have started out as separate but related, as in the case of transactional leadership, become fused.  Power bases are linked not as counterweights but as mutual support for common purpose.  Various names are used for such leadership, some of them derisory: elevating, mobilizing, inspiring, exalting, uplifting, preaching, exhorting, evangelizing.  The relationship can be moralistic, of course.  But transforming leadership ultimately becomes moral in that it raises the level of human conduct and ethical aspiration of both leader and led, and thus it has a transforming effect on both.” (pages 13 and 20). 


Character (purpose) plays a vital role in leadership.  In the assessment of historians over time, Ford’s character (his decency, steadfastness, and moderation) is the defining attribute of his legacy as a leader: “healer” President.  A second step in assessing a presidency is to inquire how a President’s character stands out, while in office and changes over time.

·        Choices.  The President cannot escape from making hard decisions.  Those choices are the tangible footprints of leadership.  Our seminar paid particular attention to the tone that Ford sought to set for the nation, the prioritization of issues and agenda, the organization of the White House staff, and preparation of the budget.  A third avenue of inquiry is to discern which choices proved to be pivotal in the President’s incumbency.

·        Execution.  Implementation of the President’s program is another weighty indicator of leadership: how is it done, and how well?  For instance, in his book, Soft Power, Joseph Nye has distinguished between using “hard power” (coercion through threats, force, and money) and “soft power” (persuasion, attraction, and appeal).   The President must choose the kind of power to wield, and how to use it.  Skills of communication and negotiation are crucial.  The recruitment of talented and effective staff and of allies and coalition partners is indispensable as well.  The President cannot only take; he or she must also give: judging where and when to compromise is vital.  Fourth, how well did the President implement the agenda?

·        Outcomes.  Our seminar gave considerable attention to what we might mean by “success” and “failure” in the presidency.  Some defined success as the ability to achieve the policy agenda, to win elections and Congressional passage of legislation, and to create a legacy of high esteem.  At several points in our discussion, students noted the tension between “legacy” and other measures of presidential success—maybe by doing the right thing (pardoning draft resisters and Nixon) one loses elections.  Any discussion of a presidency invites two final questions: did the President succeed?  And by what standards do we measure success?


The elements of Presidential leadership seem interdependent.


The presidency of Gerald Ford suggests that circumstances, character, choices, and execution are related to outcomes, but in a non-obvious way.  It is too simplistic to say that if you have one kind of input, you’ll get a certain kind of result as President.  When one takes into account the evolution of a presidential administration over time, these five buckets seem interdependent.  Circumstances, character, choices, and execution affect outcomes as well as each other.  We should not look at a President’s leadership as static.  The interdependence of the buckets becomes vivid as the President’s leadership plays out over time. 


As circumstances change, the President must adapt character, choices, and execution–or fail.  World War II prompted Ford’s conversion from isolationism to internationalism.  For much of his career, Ford was a Cold War hawk—yet he also sought a nuclear disarmament treaty with the Soviets and presided over the withdrawal from Vietnam without victory.  Ford was a consummate legislative leader who was unable to translate that skill into a successful legislative program once he occupied the Oval Office. 


Of course, the interdependence can work in other directions as well.  Ford gambled that his choices about healing, openness, and pardons for the accused would temper the popular distrust of the presidency—yet for the balance of his incumbency, it inflamed the distrust.  Execution can affect choices: Ford’s maladroit TV addresses and debates diminished his popular support and narrowed his range of political flexibility.


Interdependence and feedback suggest a richer way to think about presidential power and leadership.  Actions or positions taken in any of the five elements in the system feed back to other parts of the system.   The following figure gives the general idea: each arrow indicates one path of the feedback.  Obviously, this can get complicated.  But the chief implication is that simple explanations about the success or failure of a President are probably incomplete, incoherent, and/or wrong.




Our exploration of leadership in the presidency of Gerald Ford offers many possible insights.  Several of them warrant more discussion over the year ahead:

1.      Five buckets.  We seemed to collect our thinking around circumstances, character, choices, execution, and outcomes.  Do these buckets suffice?  Are there more? 

2.      A presidency is dynamic, not static.  An assessment of the president at one moment in time may be overshadowed by the next moment, as the volatility of polling results shows.  How shall we take into account dynamism and mutability as we assess the President’s use of power and implementation of leadership?

3.      Feedback matters.  Let’s reflect on how one dimension of presidential leadership affects the other dimensions as time progresses.  Maybe good leadership is about managing well the interactions among the buckets.   As we consider the record of a leader, where and how does feedback among leadership elements prove consequential?

4.      If feedback matters, then performance of a leader is contingent, because the impact of feedback is uncertain.  For instance, we can’t just say that “if the President has a strong majority in Congress, a strong character, or excellent communication skills, then success will happen.”  At best, you can say, “it depends.”  Therefore, perhaps we should try to step into the President’s shoes and re-create the odds of success that underlay the President’s choices.

5.      Learning matters.  If a leader is inundated with feedback among these components, then paying attention and adapting well is important.  The foundation for doing this is a learning mindset.   (For more on this, see Carol Dweck’s book, Mindset: The New Psychology of Success.)  Of course, the President could be motivated to be bold and self-confident, to take charge, and give orders, all of which militate against listening well, reflecting, and tolerating dissent.  Therefore, perhaps we should consider how well the Presidents listen and learn.


“Power always reveals,” said Robert Caro.  I think he got that right.  Our reading of Gerald Ford reveals a host of insights about power and leadership.  There are more to come as we turn to Jimmy Carter and his successors.


  1. Time to Heal, by Gerald Ford and Gerald Ford, by Douglas Brinkley []
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Why ask students to teach?

I guess you could say it’s an experiment.  But that would imply something less than the strong intention I have.  The question (in the title) was posed by a student who observed that in all three of the courses I’m teaching this semester, every student will have an opportunity to lead some of the classroom discussion.  “Do you always lead a course this way?” the student asked.  Perhaps the student wondered why I wasn’t doing the teaching.  In fact, coaching the discussion leaders before class, writing feedback to the leaders after class, and then liveblogging about the class takes more time and effort than just teaching the class on my own.  What was I thinking?  Let me explain.


In earlier posts (such as here and here) I’ve argued that:

·        You learn best that which you teach yourself.  This is my one-sentence argument for why learning by the case method is so effective.  But I can go even farther: you learn very best that which you teach others.  This is a secret that teachers the world over have discovered: if you really want to master something, try to explain it to someone else.  Thus, if the teacher really cares about student learning, then asking students to explain, teach, question, and guide the learning of others follows naturally.

·        How we teach is what we teach.  The format of the classroom experience is hugely important in shaping the capabilities of students.  If you teach by asking students to sit silently and take notes, they will become better and better at that.  But is note-taking what business leadership is about?  Active learning builds capabilities that are valuable in professional life.  Asking good questions is among the most valuable capabilities.  Therefore, I structured by classes accordingly this fall.

·        You can run a business by asking questions.  In one style of business management, leadership is command-and-control; the leader gives orders; and the employees are order-takers.  What this breeds is a passive organization of people who are drones, who work-to-the-rules, who adopt a checklist mentality and bring less initiative, personal investment, or willingness to question authority.  Such organizations are bureaucratic, slow, unresponsive to the needs of customers or other stakeholders, and dreary.  In the new style of management, the leader asks rather than tells.  Through questioning, the leader frames a problem or challenge, helps the followers to grow in awareness, and solicits their thinking.  The followers who are closer to the front-line of action are bound to have more clarity about the problem.  And the process of group discussion tends to build alignment within the group and commitment to a course of action.   Businesses really need such alignment and commitment so that authority can be delegated and action taken promptly and nimbly.  Good management starts with good questioning.  Our alumnus, George David, the former CEO and Chairman of United Technologies Corporation, had a practice that he called “fifty questions.”  When he visited a manager or a plant, he didn’t settle to listen passively to a set-piece presentation.  Instead, he actively engaged his managers in a curiosity-driven process.  Darden teaches you not to be shy about questioning.  The Chinese have a proverb: “He who asks a question is possibly a fool for a moment; but he who does not ask a question remains a fool forever.”

·        Growth as a leader depends on growth in asking good questions and in listening well.  I want my students to grow as leaders.  Therefore, the assignment to them of leading discussions is an exercise in leadership development. 

·        Teachers also must learn—this was the mantra of a mentor of mine (C. Roland Christensen at HBS).  Though I have mastered the subjects I’m teaching, there is a lot more I want to learn about them.  In virtually every class this fall, student discussion leaders raise some unexpected insights. 


So far, the students are rising nicely to the challenge.  And the coaching I give them seems to help.  A week before they teach, I meet with the student discussion leaders to shape expectations—I don’t tell them what to do or say.  Instead, through questioning I try to help them understand what a good class discussion looks like and what they can do to achieve it. 

1.      Success starts with clarity about two or three important learning goals for the class meeting.  What are they?  And how do they link to previous classes and set the stage for class meetings to follow?  I refer the students to the readings assigned for that week and brief them on my aims for the course and on the importance of their class meetings to the course objectives.  In the coaching meeting, we discuss the strengths and weaknesses of the readings and their relevance to the students.  Within broad parameters, I insist that the students develop the specific learning goals for the class meetings that they will lead.

2.      A teaching plan using the “ask, don’t tell” approach might look like a series of questions with rough time allocations next to them.  I emphasize that a discussion is a process, an unveiling of insights and ideas.  Therefore, the questioning should aim to structure the unveiling in a way that arrives at a good destination.  Trying to start at the destination usually results in disaster.  Also, I urge the students to pay close attention to the exact way they ask questions: those that start with “what,” “where,” and “when” will typically generate a short reply and less energy.  But questions that begin with “how” and “why” elicit richer replies and more energy.   And asking students to make a decision or take a stand may generate tension, and emulates the business world.

3.      I encourage the discussion leaders to develop mini-cases, games, simulations, debates, or competitions for use right in the classroom.  These give hands-on exercises that deal with the concepts of the day.  The resulting experiments have generated real energy in the classroom.  So have short and provocative video clips available from the Internet helped to challenge or reinforce student insights.

4.      Based on past experience, most students can summon up some attributes of a successful class discussion.  These might include breadth of engagement, energy, excitement or points of tension, and valuable insights.  There is always the temptation to close a discussion with a pronouncement by the leader of “here’s what this class meeting was about.”  It’s better to close by asking rather than telling: “in summary, what are some key points that you take from our discussion today?”

5.      Finally, I encourage flexibility.  Rarely does a class meeting go precisely according to plan.  To some extent, the discussion leader should follow the energy of the students: about what are they enthusiastic or troubled?  But a few outspoken students can lead the class far afield.  A key judgment of the discussion leader is when and where to guide the discussion back to the goals for the day.  One can’t explore every nook and cranny within the time constraint of a class period.  Anyway, open issues or questions are great fodder for student reflections outside of class. 


At Darden’s graduation in 2007, I said:


Learning and managing well are fundamentally about self-discovery.    The secret to learning is not to wait for someone to tell you the answers, but to figure things out for yourself.  What we teach at Darden is how we teach, a process of questioning and challenge, of debate and persuasion, of dealing with ambiguity, of running up and down blind alleys—because all of that is part of the essential experience of personal discovery. 


Great teachers ask a lot and tell little.  They ask a lot in the sense of stretching their students and they ask a lot in the sense of inquiring rather than telling.  …The minute that you unshackle yourself from the expectation that someone else is going to lay out the meaning of things for you, you become much more effective and compelling.  You enable all of the attributes of leadership: the ability to recognize threats and opportunities; to shape a vision; to enlist others; to communicate; and to take action.  Once you realize that learning is about self-discovery, you are ready to give the gift to others. 


The big implication is this: you should manage others in the same way you have been taught at Darden.  Like your professors, you should ask a lot and tell less: guide, help, goad, irritate, stimulate, and question.  Expect that your employees will explore, inquire, experiment, and analyze.  The greatest managers don’t tell; they engage others to learn.  The day of the corporate command-and-control generalissimo is past; in the best practice organizations today, groups of professionals work together like learning teams to figure things out.  Make knowledge important wherever you go; state problems and encourage pragmatism and experimentation. 


Conversation is transformational.  The leadership of conversation is radically transformational.  By my work with students this fall, I hope to strengthen them radically. 


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Liveblogging “Financial Innovation” Week 3

“[K]nowledge advances when striking real-world events and issues pose puzzles we have to try to understand and resolve. The most important decisions a scholar makes are what problems to work on. Choosing them just by looking for gaps in the literature is often not very productive and at worst divorces the literature itself from problems that provide more important and productive lines of inquiry.”
– Professor James Tobin, Essays in Economics, Vol. 4


This post continues a series of postings related to my course, “Financial Innovation: Opportunities and Problems.”  We devoted classes on September 5 and 6 to discussing some important drivers of innovation, such as profit-seeing, risk management, industrial change and incomplete markets.  And we had a video visit from Nobel Laureate in Economics, Robert Shiller, who is a professor at Yale.  At the end of the second day, this famous quotation by James Tobin (another Nobel Laureate) came to my mind.  Tobin basically says, “If you’re going to spend your time, don’t work on trivial problems”—this applies to business professionals as much as it does to scholars.  More on that in a moment.


Here are some points from the week that may seem obvious at first, yet are quite subtle and warrant some of your time to reflect upon:

1.      Financial innovation pays.  This is the main finding of research by Lisa Scholar, Bernd Skiera, and Gerard Tellis.  It’s good to know that financial entrepreneurs get a reward for their labors.  Following the Global Financial Crisis, it seemed that all we heard about were innovations that blew up and cost their inventors, customers, and investors a lot of money.  But looking beyond the recent episode at a lot of innovations over a longer time period yields a conclusion at variance with the popular schadenfreude. But why would it be a surprise that innovation pays?   As we saw in earlier classes, the evidence is that financial innovation is a fairly steady ongoing phenomenon (with some peaks and valleys).  Would innovation occur without the financial incentive that success affords?  Probably not.  But our discussion of this paper summons two questions:

a.      Does it pay commensurate with the risks?  The study focused on innovations commercialized by established financial institutions.  What’s missing are those start-ups that fail and ideas hatched within larger companies that never go to market.  It’s nice that innovation pays; but does it pay enough?

b.      Does financial innovation create value?  It’s nice that innovation pays, but are we all better off because of the innovation or did the innovation just transfer wealth from the pocket of Peter to pay Paul?  This was the gist of Paul Volcker’s famous claim that he hadn’t seen a worthy financial innovation since the ATM—“worthy” as he went on to discuss, meant that it would increase national productivity (i.e., create wealth).  It’s a worthy research question, probably better tackled at the level of individual case examples rather than large-sample research. 

2.      Look for opportunities to “complete” markets.  The demand in most markets is not satisfied with “one size fits all.”  Some consumers want tiny Smart cars; others want big SUVs.  So much of the artistry in business consists of recognizing unmet demand and tailoring products and services to meet that demand—this is called “completing” the market.  Advanced techniques, such as conjoint analysis that one learns in an MBA program, help to identify segments of the market and the extent to which they are completed.  Many of the fintech pitches one hears today, and of the financial innovations in history have at their core a proposition to complete the markets.  One reason we should want to promote the completion of markets is that we are all better off to the extent it occurs—this is the insight of two Nobel Laureates in Economics, Kenneth Arrow and Gerard Debreu.  In theory, a general equilibrium (a world of complete markets) is pareto efficient or “as good as you can make it” without enhancing the welfare of one person by reducing the welfare of another.  But the practical businessperson is probably much less interested in the theoretical case of perfectly complete markets and much more interested in the instance of incomplete markets, in which we find ourselves today.    That markets are incomplete pleads a few questions:

a.      Where are the gaps?  Big data, advanced analytics, A/B testing, and machine learning can help one answer this question.

b.      How big are the gaps?  Arrow and Debreu hypothesized a global economy so segmented that each person represented his or her own market segment.  That may be a nice thought experiment, but if the demand in a certain gap has a population of one, it won’t be large enough to sustain an innovation effort (unless that person is someone like Warren Buffett or Bill Gates).

c.      Why do the gaps exist?  Perhaps the economics in that segment of the market really stink.  Or maybe there are regulations or patents that get in the way.  Analyzing the barriers to entry to a market is by now an advanced art-form

d.      If you enter that gap, what competitive reaction might that elicit?  Big players on the edge of a market segment are unlikely to sit still if you penetrate that segment.  Dreams of big rewards might evaporate as the market gap suddenly fills.  Fintech entrepreneurs often fail to answer this question adequately.

3.      So many segments, so little time.  In class, we discussed the case of MacroMarkets, a firm founded by Robert Shiller and that brought to market in 2009 a kind of insurance against falling house prices.  Shiller noted that for most families, the home is the largest asset they own and a significant, if not dominant percentage of wealth.  People insure against illness, fires, and auto accidents—why not insure against a decline in the value of one’s home?  So he got to work and through a process of experimentation with others developed a succession of product designs over time—the case illustrates, again, that financial innovation is most often a process of incremental advance.  Eventually, he brought his perfected innovation to market, but was hampered by market conditions (Global Financial Crisis), the aversion of most people to dwell on the downside likelihood, and generally, marketing.  The new instruments failed to gain the trading volume and liquidity and were withdrawn from the market.  It seemed to consumers that buying the house value insurance really was considered a bet “against” one’s home.  The implication for many students was that even if you have a market-completing innovation, regulations and poor market conditions can prevent a successful roll-out.  And we listed a range of issues that challenge the success of new financial products and services: consumer myopia, regulation, non-standard assets (e.g. houses), institutional momentum, tangibility, emotion, moral hazard, and cost.  Robert Shiller seemed unfazed by the outcome.  He said, “A lot of things have slow beginnings.  Life insurance was first offered in ancient Rome and grew very slowly until it took off in the 20th Century.  I’ve made my peace; I brought this idea to the world; its time will come.”  In his writings (see especially his Finance and the Good Society) Shiller argues that financial innovation can address substantial problems facing society, such as wage inequality, pension shortfalls, and volatility in home values.  By example and exhortation, he encourages us to work on consequential needs in the world.


All of this brings us around to James Tobin’s remark that the most important decisions one makes are what problems to work on.  Financial entrepreneurs face a blizzard of market gaps.  So, work on the worthiest problems.  These might be defined by potential scale and scope, and by social impact.  How do you define “worthy?”


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Liveblogging the Great Depression: Lords of Finance

This post begins some commentaries on readings about the Great Depression.  Richard A. Mayo and I are conducting a year-long seminar to look at this complicated and overshadowing episode in economic history.  We will drill into readings that are classic and/or new.  I have decided to liveblog about these readings in order to give to our students some added perspective and criticism on the slant that writers take on the Great Depression—and on comments made in our seminar discussion.  This is not a Cliff’s Notes summary of what we read and discussed, but collects, rather, some ideas that rattle around in my mind.  I hope that our students (and any other readers) will find these reflections helpful.


The Great Depression vastly influences the way we think about business cycles (especially troughs), financial crises, and government intervention in markets.  And it represents a massive pivot in American politics as well, away from laissez-faire and toward socialization of risks and returns, centralization of economic policy-making, and the regulation of economic life.  Thus, mastery of the Great Depression is a very worthy goal for the development of MBA students.   As the generation with any personal memory of the Great Depression passes away, and as we approach the 10th anniversary of the Panic of 2008, now seems like the right time to help the rising generation make some meaning about it.   


On August 25th, the seminar commenced with a discussion of Lords of Finance: The Bankers Who Broke the World by Liaquat Ahamed.  Few books about central banking have gained the plaudits of this one.  It has figured among the “must-read” recommendations of prominent executives and critics.  And the book has taken some stiff criticism from Stephen Schuker (historian at UVA) for Ahamed’s neglect of important source material, or “of fiscal politics, evolving industrial structure, or the prerequisites for a growth-oriented entrepreneurial culture.”  Ahamed (a hedge-fund manager) might fairly be indicted for practicing history without a license.  Yet Lords of Finance remains a valuable portal into a multi-disciplinary study of the Great Depression for raising a number of important themes and stimulating critical thinking about that period of time.  Here are six such points:


1.      Financial and economic crises have long ancestry.   How far back in time must one go to tell the story of the Great Depression?  The popular view is that the story begins with the stock market crash of October, 1929: “greedy speculators created a bubble, which burst, and imposed economic hardship on everyone for ten years.”  But it’s not that simple.  Ahamed advances the view that the Great Depression had its origins in the First World War and especially the Versailles Treaty of 1919.  The developed economies exhausted themselves fighting and financing the war.  Reparations and the payment of war debts, combined with an ill-advised return to the gold standard created a brittle and unsustainable economic system.  This repeats an argument made by luminaries such as John Maynard Keynes and Herbert Hoover.  Therefore, if one is interested in getting to root causes of a financial crisis, one must look farther back in time than the obvious onset. 

2.      The cycle of debt-deflation is the foundational economic phenomenon of the Great Depression.  Debt-deflation entails a pernicious feedback spiral in which the pressure for repayment of debts triggers the effort to sell assets by debtors.  The effort to liquidate assets drives asset prices downward.  Declining prices (deflation) worsen the adequacy of collateral underpinning other credits in the economy, which triggers more pressure for repayment of debt and/or for demanding more collateral for loans—in other words, “the more the debtors pay, the more they owe.” [1]  The increased pressure triggers more liquidation of assets.  As the debt-deflation spiral worsens, economic output plummets, workers are laid off, and bankruptcies (corporate and personal) and social distress rise.  This stimulates hoarding of money, which worsens liquidity in the economy and threatens the stability of the financial system.  The debt-deflation spiral ends either with the return of confidence from some powerful surprise (such as government intervention through debtor relief or fiscal spending) or when no assets remain to be sold in the effort to liquidate debt obligations.  The theory of debt deflation was originally formulated by Irving Fisher in 1933, in response to the onset of the Great Depression.  Significantly, Fisher rejected the view that markets were generally and always in equilibrium.  In response, mainstream economists argued that deflation wasn’t so dangerous, since in Fisher’s model, value was merely transferred from debtors to creditors, with no impact on the overall economy.  But in 1995, Ben Bernanke (another student of deflation) counter-argued that a sufficiently severe debt deflation cycle would produce adverse effects on output and employment, both of which could produce depressions.  The deflationary process that caused so much hardship, especially in 1930-1934, spanned most sectors of the economy and appeared sporadically early in the 1920s, notably in agriculture.  Orthodox thinking held that deflation was a temporary adjustment following a period of inflation.  Yet economic history suggests that the US has sustained some extended periods of deflation.  Some sectors, such as agriculture, experienced deflation for much of the 1920s and 1930s.  Why might this be?  Maladroit monetary and fiscal policies are standard explanations.  An added candidate would be technological innovation.  Technological change is generally deflationary.  Alexander Field, in his book Great Leap Forward offers some evidence to suggest that the displacement of steam-based power by electro-motive power in American manufacturing during the 1920s had a depressing effect on prices.  Deflation is much in the minds of central bankers today: what are the parallels between the twenty-teens and the 1920s?    

3.      Determinism versus personal agency: shall we study economic leadership?  Ahamed could have focused his book on policies and larger trends.  But by focusing on four central bankers, Ahamed seems to argue for the significance of human agency in the unfolding of great events.  Economists don’t spend much effort studying individual leaders and instead focus on aggregate flows of money and resources.  Historians, on the other hand, don’t like to attribute big outcomes to the decisions of individuals because big outcomes have many causes and theories about free will and the “Great Man” of history are out of fashion.  Determinism flourishes in much of the writing about the Great Depression: because of pre-existing conditions, the economy was bound to collapse, regardless of what individuals might choose to do.  Yet it is important for us (at a professional school) to study the relation among individuals, their decisions, and the outcomes that follow as a way to learn about leadership.  By focusing on individuals in history, we better understand their motives and consequences of their choices, thus better informing our own choices going forward.  As much of the behavioral research in economic decision-making has shown, biases and preferences of individuals matter enormously—so do ideologies, incentives, and interests; for such reasons, the study of economic leadership is valuable.

4.      Keynes, the looming presence.  Nominally, Lords of Finance is about four central bankers.  But a fifth person, John Maynard Keynes, overshadows the episode.  From the start, he decried policies that ultimately led to catastrophe (his criticism of the Versailles Treaty, The Economic Consequences of the Peace, is worth reading in 2016—and I commend Margaret McMillan’s Paris 1919: Six Months the Changed the World).  Historians of the Great Depression generally cleave to Keynesian economics in their interpretation of the awful downward spiral of 1929-1934.  Perhaps this is with benefit of hindsight: Keynes’s General Theory of Employment, Interest, and Money was published in 1936 and reflected his critique of economic orthodoxy of the day, classical economics, which held that the cure of a depression was a process of “liquidation” like a cold or a case of the flu—and the risk of such a cure was deflation (see point 2, above).  It was in this regard that Keynes wrote, “Practical men who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influence, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist. Madmen in authority, who hear voices in the air, are distilling their frenzy from some academic scribbler of a few years back.”  The “defunct economists” and “academic scribblers” were the classical economists whom Keynes would eventually displace.  Keynes’s demand-side stimulus-oriented policy recommendations offered a provocative alternative.  Yet Keynes had less to say about possible structural barriers to economic recovery from a crisis.  The alternative narrative to Keynes, neoclassical economics, adds that supply side inflexibilities such as entrenched labor unions, “sticky wages,” heavy regulation, trade barriers, and the like can limit the speed of an economic recovery.  But as of the 1920s, the central bankers in Lords of Finance had little consciousness of either demand-side or supply-side narratives.  An important lesson of the that era is that economic and financial crises spawn new ideas.  I leave it for our students to surmise what new ideas are arising from the Global Financial Crisis and Great Recession.

5.      Author’s purpose.  The thrust of Lords of Finance is to explain why and how the axis of monetary orthodoxy shifted profoundly between 1919 and 1939.  Not a pretty process and one fraught with poor choices and inept actions.  I surmise that Ahamed wanted to offer a cautionary tale to current and future economic leaders.  Did he succeed in this?  Much as one may enjoy a good yarn, there is no thoughtful reading without criticism: Where were YOU persuaded?  Where not?

6.      History matters.  Henry Ford famously said, “History is bunk,” words that he later ate when, in penance, he established a wonderful museum of industrial history, Greenfield Village.  History matters for practical people as a way to make meaning about what is happening right now and how the future might unfold.  The Great Depression has cast a very long shadow.  At the nadir of the Global Financial Crisis, some pundits prophesied the onset of another Great Depression.  But things didn’t turn out exactly that way.  Why and how that happened will be an underlying topic in our seminar.  Suffice it to say, as Mark Twain said, “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it rhymes.” 


  1. Irving Fisher, (1933) pages 344-346. []
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Liveblogging “Financial Innovation” Week 2

This continues a running commentary that parallels a new course that I’ve started at Darden, “Financial Innovation: Opportunities and Problems.”  On August 29-30, we explored several important themes in articles by James Van Horne, Josh Lerner, Antoin Murphy, Robert Shiller, and Scott Frame and Lawrence White.  We studied the case history of John Law’s meteoric rise and fall in 1720 with the bursting of the Mississippi Bubble.  And on August 30th, we heard a presentation from Pascal Bouvier, a fintech venture capitalist.  What are we to make of all of this?

1.      “Revolutions” in financial innovation do occur, and should be assessed with caution.  At the close of class the previous week, we debated the extent to which the blockchain “revolution” was substance or hype.  James Van Horne took us back to 1985, when he described a recent wave of financial innovation and warned that it can lead to “excesses.”  The problem with frothy episodes of financial innovation is that they can advance meaningless and ephemeral new products and services, inflate bubbles in asset valuations, and promote outright frauds.  There are many cautionary examples in history; the story of John Law is an iconic example.  A financial genius, Law is credited with strengthening the concept of a central bank, organizing one of the earliest international trading conglomerates, commercializing the concept of financial options, organizing an options market, and arguing that shares in an enterprise were effectively another form of “money”—in the early 18th Century, any one of these would have been a big deal; altogether, they were “yuuuuge.”  And Law was a master practitioner of co-opting the state: with patronage from the King of France, he amassed monopolies on foreign trading rights in return for which he proposed to restructure the national debt of France.  Law’s problem was that some worthy ideas gave way to excess.        

2.      Momentum strategies always end in tears.  In order for Law to succeed with is audacious plan, he needed to raise more capital, and at higher share prices.  To justify higher share prices, Law extolled the promising growth of trade with the Mississippi Valley and other regions.  The buoyant expectations soon turned to speculation and then a massive bubble.  In the summer of 1720, investors awoke to the realization that real growth of trade with the Mississippi Valley or even real growth of the entire French economy would never warrant the lofty share values.  Thus, the bubble collapsed; John Law fled the country; and financial innovation in France was suppressed for decades.  Nevertheless, the model of momentum growth is a hardy weed in the business garden.  Examples such as Enron, Boston Chicken, and the dot-com bubble of 1998-2000 speak to its durability.  The following figure illustrates the “self-reinforcing cycle,” as systems analysts call it: each new infusion of capital fuels more growth, which justifies higher prices for the next infusion of capital.  But momentum growth strategies always fail because of declining returns to scale: eventually firms run out of enough promising assets necessary to justify the high growth expectations.  Stated alternatively, the Mississippi Company couldn’t grow indefinitely faster than France and its colonies without eventually owning it all!  The lesson for budding practitioners in law, business, and public policy: learn to recognize a momentum strategy and call it out.




3.      Who innovates?  John Law illustrates one other point: Financial innovation seems likely to come from the periphery, rather than the center, of a field; from entrants rather than incumbents.  The articles by Josh Lerner and by Frame and White helped to illustrate this.  In a world of only big firms and oligopolistic competition, it seemed that only big firms (incumbents) would have the capital and incentive to innovate—this was the thesis of Joseph Schumpeter, one of the great economists of the mid-20th Century.  Iconic examples such as Bell Labs (of AT&T) and Xerox PARC (of Xerox) seemed to prove Schumpeter’s thesis.  But thanks perhaps to deregulation and technological change, the pattern in the financial sector seems to be that players on the periphery innovate and that big, established incumbents imitate, quickly.   To be clear, “the periphery” means different things to different researchers.  Josh Lerner describes it as “small firms,” “less profitable firms,” “older, less leveraged firms located in regions with more financial innovations.”  Frame and White tell us that “the early issuers were those that tended to be higher risk and also tended to be banks and thrifts (which had relatively liquid assets that could be placed in over-collateralized special funding vehicles).”  The research suggests that the prominent incumbents in the financial sector are likely to be followers and adopters of innovations, whereas players closer to the periphery are likely to be the innovators.  John Law is an extreme example of the outsider-innovator: a Scotsman who fled to France from England, an alleged murderer, and a “gambling dandy” and bookmaker entrusted with the national fisc.  In obvious ways, Law is not a life example for students to follow.  So we looked at Bond Street, an online lender to small and medium-sized businesses, and asked why big banks aren’t imitating that model?  Students pointed to the tendency of big banks to emphasize economies of scale: make only big loans to big firms and watch those clients closely.  In short, John Law, Bond Street and academic research suggest that if you want to look for the source of innovation in finance, you should look toward the periphery. 

4.      Fintech is booming.  Perhaps the biggest illustration of innovation-from-the-periphery is the growing mass of fintech startups, some 18,000 of them in the world, according to Pascal Bouvier, a venture capitalist, CFA, Darden MBA (1992), and blogger in fintech.  We hosted Bouvier for a class session.  He quoted Marc Andreesen that “software is eating the world” and explained that “code is replacing what is done manually.”  Change in financial services has come slowly because of heavy regulation.  But the financial crisis of 2008 has opened the door to financial innovation.  Over the next 15 years this industry will reinvent itself, he says.  Because of innovations, he anticipates a big decline in employment in the financial services sector.  He noted that the charge on intermediating assets has been stable at 2% for more than a century and that the wave of innovation will drive this charge downward.  Incumbents seem to have a hard time innovating because of their corporate cultures that focus on “risk management” rather than “risk-taking.”  Venture capitalists invested several billions of dollars in fintech startups in 2015—Bouvier mentioned the payment systems segment as especially attractive.  It certainly seems as if the fintech field has momentum, but that may also be its problem (see point #2).

In the next few classes we turn from “who innovates” to “what motivates financial innovation”?  The discussions this week suggest that entrants/outsiders/players-on-the-periphery are better at seeing opportunities to innovate.  But what is it that they see?

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Liveblogging “Financial Innovation” Week 1

This begins a running commentary that parallels a new course that I’ve started at Darden, “Financial Innovation: Opportunities and Problems.”  On August 22nd, we kicked off the course, and developed themes.

1.      The huge range and breadth of “financial innovation.”  I took students through a number of fictional “elevator pitches” (short appeals for funding by entrepreneurs to investors) that illustrated the immensity of financial innovation today and in history.  The term, “financial innovation,” covers “financial engineering,” (a somewhat disfavored term these days) and “fintech,” uses digital technology, artificial intelligence, machine learning, blockchain technology and others to provide new financial products and services. Though we can try to “bucket” innovations in terms of new markets, new institutions, new instruments and new services, we confronted the fact that most innovations are idiosyncratic—they color outside the lines in ways that defy simple categorization.  The idiosyncrasy of financial innovation is both a curse and a blessing.  It brings forward interesting new products and services and makes the lives of individual and corporate consumers, financial institutions, regulators, entrants, and incumbents less certain and more interesting.

2.      Motivation to study financial innovation.  Students are showing increased interest in financial innovation as related to their studies and career interests.  “Fintech” is attracting entrepreneurs and venture capital in growing volumes.  Pundits assert that Bitcoin (and other cryptocurrencies) and the underlying blockchain technology will revolutionize finance.  The subject is relevant to the economy and society as an influence on the stability of the financial system.  And financial innovation retains a prominent place in current political and policy debates—a government report in 2011 accused financial innovation as a prominent cause of the Panic of 2008.  In 2009, former Fed Chairman, Paul Volcker, said, “The most important financial innovation that I have seen the past 20 years is the automatic teller machine…I have found very little evidence that vast amounts of innovation in financial markets in recent years has had a visible effect on the productivity of the economy  ((Paul Volcker, quoted in New York Post, December 13, 2009, accessed at ))  All of this warrants careful examination. 

3.      Current stuff and history.  This course turns to a blend of current topics and examples in history to illuminate financial innovation.  There are plenty of financial innovations in the current environment to fill a course.  But looking only at current events forsakes a grasp of consequences.  It is the longer-range outcomes of financial innovations that help you build a critical point of view about them.  Also, history grants the kind of perspective that can help you understand the future.  For instance, history shows that innovation tends to come from the periphery of finance, not the center; it seems to increase in times of social and political change rather than in quiescent periods; and it tends to be led by entrepreneurial visionaries rather than pushed by the general market.  Studying important financial innovations of the past can help you assess the present to anticipate opportunities and problems in financial innovations to come.

4.      What stimulates financial innovation?  This is a question with which we will deal throughout the semester.  Our discussion this week suggested that the business and economic context creates challenges and opportunities for financial innovators.  The innovators respond with proposals for new markets, institutions, products/services, instruments, technologies—and even government policies (both private- and public-sector financial entrepreneurs design these).  These innovations ultimately create outcomes for consumers, taxpayers, investors, issuers of securities, employment, the voting public, and the stability of the financial system.   Government policies interact significantly with financial innovation, either ex post, in the form of regulations of markets, institutions, and instruments, or ex ante, in the form of incentives or constraints to which innovators respond.  The course will aim to illuminate the interaction between financial innovations and government policies.




5.      Is the blockchain a genuine revolution-in-the-making, or just a lot of hype?  We explored blockchain technology and its potential application in financial innovations—our resource here was the book, Blockchain Revolution, by Tapscott and Tapscott.   And we read the foundational document by the mysterious Satoshi Nakamoto, “Bitcoin: A Peer-to-Peer Electronic Cash System.”  The blockchain technology offers many appealing features: lower cost, faster speed, encryption, open source, greater privacy, and potentially increased systemic resilience.  And blockchain’s advocates argue that it will disrupt the financial sector profoundly, as well as other sectors such as transportation, energy, resource extraction, health care, retailing, record-keeping, and the “factory of things.”  But sober assessments (such as a critical piece by David Evans of University of Chicago) suggest that the blockchain won’t eliminate intermediaries, that Bitcoin is not a medium of exchange (it is an investment asset) and will have a volatile value with uncertain expectations, and that the evolution of blockchain technology depends on the adaptation of new systems of governance.  And finally, students (and I) admitted that the actual functioning of blockchain technology remains inaccessible to the businessperson—you need a grounding in computer science to really understand what is going on.  But do we need to master the technical functioning of the Internet in order to start an online business?

All of these themes warrant deeper consideration, which the balance of the course will explore.

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The Intern’s Expectations

Sidebar: Those interns who are in the home stretch and really hope to gain an offer might find some of my past advice helpful. Here are some suggestions I’ve given over years past to improve the odds of getting an offer:

  1. Actually ask for the job. Too many summer interns simply don’t “close the sale” (see this.)
  2. Become known. “Lean in,” in Sheryl Sandberg’s parlance. Too many summer interns lean back and fade out (see this.)
  3. Finish at a sprint; don’t coast to the end. Research suggests that the most recent perceptions are very influential to decision-makers. Even if you’re finished with your summer project, walk around and volunteer to help anyone else (see this.)
  4. Quell any sense of entitlement; you must earn the offer. In most settings, arrogance damages, rather than strengthens, career prospects (see this.)
  5. Even if the outcome doesn’t look good, exit gracefully. (see this.)
  6. Focus on finding a calling, not just a job. (see this.)

“It wasn’t what I expected,” said a second-year MBA student who had just returned from a summer internship. He was sitting in my office some years ago, and said, “I aspired to make a difference; to really show what I could do. Instead, what we got was warmed-over projects, company propaganda, and lots of social events. I mean, the company is okay, but if last summer is the kind of work they want me to do, should I accept their job offer?” This student clearly had one leg out the company’s door (if not more of his anatomy). His explanation seemed to beg for my confirmation. Thus, he was a bit surprised when I didn’t leap to his conclusion. I asked him four questions:

  1. Were your expectations reasonable?
    Students tend to set expectations based on hearsay from other students, or on the big decisions embedded in case studies. But frankly, a lot of the high-impact work in business is based on tedious foundation-building. Thomas Edison argued that genius is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration. Anyway, I said to the student, “if you were CEO of that company, how would you have used a bunch of summer interns, all of whom knew little about the company to start with and some of whom might not return?”
  2. Why might the company have structured the internship as it did?
    Most companies use the summer internship as part of a sophisticated recruitment and selection process. The recruitment piece is that they want to inform the interns in an effort to create ambassadors for the company on school campuses in the coming year. And some companies try to give the interns a jolly time so that they will bring some enthusiasm to their peers. But more importantly, companies use the internship to vet the candidates on the company’s own turf. Does the intern work hard, bring something to the enterprise, and play well in the sandbox? If you thought no one was paying attention to you, think again. It doesn’t take a high-impact project to bring out the best (or worst) in people. No doubt, the Director of Campus Recruiting spent months scrambling to find useful work for all the interns—so I said, “have some empathy for him/her. Someday, you might find yourself in a similar position.”
  3. What’s the outlook for you, the company, and the economy?
    One can start with the assumption that one’s work last summer isn’t a perfect indication of the work that the company might have in store. Therefore, it is worth having a few long conversations with the folks there about what you’d be doing in the future. And any assessment of your own outlook should entail the question, “What’s the alternative?” At the start of the campus recruiting season the substitute to that company is anyone’s guess. And there is always uncertainty about the company and the economy. Take an investment point of view (you’ll be investing your time and effort in building the company): does this company have a good outlook? Would you buy stock in the company (if you had the money)? And whether the economy booms or busts, will this company be a good place to work?
  4. What did you learn about the people and the culture there?
    Just as the company was vetting you last summer, you’ve had an opportunity to vet the company, to get the kind of insights that are rarely possible in campus interviews. There’s a saying that “A-players hire A-players; B-players hire C-players.” Generally, one can trust A-players to use your talents well—did you see any A-players? And the word, “trust,” directs one to think about values and ethics: did the people you met resonate with your best values? Even if your summer work was rather drab, the opportunity to work with great people, with whose values you resonate, will probably turn out well.

My dominant advice to the student in my office was that late summer was probably too soon to decide. Big decisions require time to reflect. I didn’t confirm the student’s leanings—but my questions stimulated a check on his expectations.

There are other lessons here, worthy of longer treatment than I’ll give, regarding how to set expectations for yourself and others. As managers and leaders, we must set reasonable expectations and hold people (and ourselves) accountable. The operative word here is “reasonable.” The student’s expectations for summer work were a tad high. Two filters for the reasonableness of expectations are humility and gratitude—an exemplar in this regard is the cosmologist, Stephen Hawking, who was diagnosed with a degenerative disease when he was a young man. Hawking is a high performer in his field. And he confessed, “My expectations were reduced to zero when I was 21. Everything since then has been a bonus.” [1] I hope that my questions helped the student gain some humility and see a bonus in his summer internship.

  1. “The Science of Second-Guessing” New York Times Magazine interview, December 12, 2004. []
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In Memory of James R. Rubin


Our colleague and friend, James R. Rubin, passed away yesterday, saddening the Darden Community. He was a member of the Darden School faculty for some 25 years, teaching and writing in the area of management communications. He brought leadership to faculty teams and was a devoted teacher. Many knew him as a gentle and humble colleague; as one came to know him better, James shared a wry wit and a passion for written and oral expression. He reminded us that leadership is nothing without the ability to express ideas in a way that binds people together and mobilizes action. His passion resonated with students and changed lives. He was the first faculty recipient of the Frederick S. Morton Awards for Leadership in 1996, given at graduation to an outstanding student in leadership and to the faculty member who made the most significant contribution to that student’s life.

James touched his colleagues as well. Each of us has our own stories of the impact he made. Early in my years as Dean of Darden, I sought the benefit of James’s expertise in corporate branding, identity and reputation. I had been getting some unsolicited advice about how Darden needed to present itself as more of this and less of that. These people said that Darden needed a re-branding, a cosmetic makeover that, regardless of the veracity of the new brand, would create a wonderful new reality for the School: if you say it, everyone will believe it. To me, this advice sounded like baloney, but what did I know? I was just a Dean.

So I consulted James, whose expertise was in corporate identity. He responded with alacrity, walking into my office with a bulging three-ring binder of background material to read, and an oral briefing for me. The gist of his advice was that great corporate identities spring from deep values and strong competencies. Strong brands are built upon a bond of trust between the organization and its stakeholders: you say what you are going to do, and then you deliver on it. Therefore, James said that Darden should frame its brand around what it cares about and does well—and then should communicate that identity relentlessly. This advice got us on the right track, and after good work by teams of faculty, staff, students, and alumni, prompted solid expressions of our mission, vision, values, and norms, all of which became the foundation of Darden’s branding.  Ever since then, we’ve been hammering away on the message that Darden is about superb teaching and leadership development. Rankings, applications, student satisfaction, and fund-raising affirmed that this message was on-target. James helped us get the right orientation at the right time.

James leaves a lasting legacy of wisdom, student-centered teaching, and collegiality. He will be missed. We all extend our condolences to his wife, Jane Perry, his son, Edward, and family members.

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A Year in the Wilderness

“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only theimage of Henry David Thoreau essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practise resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms.”
Henry David Thoreau

Back in the 1960s, undergraduates who misbehaved or failed their courses could be “rusticated.” Brits used that term to mean suspension from school, to be sent out of the city or university community and into the countryside, the wilderness. There, by dint of hard labor and solitude, the prodigal person would come to one’s senses, straighten up, and fly right. Some students went to a real wilderness: climbing in the Himalayas or hiking the Inca trail. Or they found a wilderness of manual labor, working on construction jobs, in a factory, or as a deckhand on a ship. Others got drafted. And yet others took back-office jobs in a big city. And for the most part, they came back changed for the better. Being rusticated was about finding a new direction.

This past academic year, I was rusticated.

No, I didn’t flunk out of Darden. The custom at UVA is that when you leave the Dean’s Office, you take a year’s leave of absence. This helps the successor Dean get traction and helps the (now former) Dean get a different kind of traction. It’s a good policy. But it meant that I had to get out of Dodge.

The wilderness I chose was Boston, where I was a visiting professor at Harvard Business School. (I’m very grateful for Dean Nitin Nohria’s hospitality.) I did not teach, consult, or give speeches. I retired from a board. Instead of all the other stuff that a former Dean could do, I chose to become a student for a year. I attended a couple of courses and occasionally dropped in on classes of other great teachers. I read deeply, spending a third to a half of each day that way. I wrote (and edited) a lot, which is my way of sorting out my thoughts. And I reached out to economists, business professors, historians, political scientists, English professors, lawyers, and biomedics — they were all cordial and toughminded about my ideas.

Larry Summers and Bob Bruner
Larry Summers and Bob Bruner

For instance, Larry Summers, reputed to have strong opinions and fearless expression, was friendly; he invited me to some gatherings and generously gave me helpful advice on my work. My wife and I attended concerts, lectures, museums, and saw the Celtics, Patriots, and Red Sox-we discovered that Boston may be great for students but is even better when you have some spending money. The year was just packed with new ideas and experiences.

But without question, it was a year in the wilderness, a time to chart a new path. Friends ribbed me about the “vacation” I was taking, but it was some of the hardest work I’ve done. There is no guidebook; distractions abound; advice varies; and time flies. Pathfinding is lonely; dead-ends and naysayers sap enthusiasm. And just when you think you’ve nailed some new insight, you discover that someone else has already published it. Finally, I saw age-ism, typically subtle and sometimes blunt, but always doubting that anyone over a certain age has something left to add. For character-building, the intellectual wilderness of Boston easily rivals anything in Wild, The Jungle Book, or Thoreau’s woods.

Whether I really succeeded will be determined years from now. But objectively, my year in the wilderness was a very productive time. I wrote six papers and four case studies. I designed four new courses that I’ll teach at Darden next year. Most importantly, I’ve gone deep into three fields that will energize me for a long time to come: financial crises (their origins and consequences), financial innovation (how can we use it to make the world better?), and leadership attributes of the U.S. Presidents (what are they and why?) I look forward to bringing my discoveries back to UVA.

My year in the wilderness taught me that:

  • One chooses one’s wilderness — sure, you can get suspended from school or rusticated as a former Dean, but you can choose where to go next. You can even choose to rusticate yourself. Why wait for someone to tell you to hit the road or give you permission to go for a year?

  • Wildernesses are all around you. You don’t need to go very far — it could entail a change of place, of task, of routine, of social network, or of intellectual sphere. You can go totally (as I did) or partially (think about short retreats, online courses, and executive education programs). The range of choice is enormous.

  • You must plan to get to a genuine wilderness. It doesn’t just happen; your former life exerts an almost gravitational pull and distracts, if you let it. Professional transitions are excellent moments to go to the wilderness because of the break in current life that occurs.

  • Once in the wilderness, sample widely. Get out of your bubble. I’ve spoken with a number of CEOs who were rusticated: one studied for the Ph.D. in Art History in London before returning to lead one of the largest corporations in the world; a media CEO drove his camper van across the U.S. for a year eating at every BBQ joint he could find and listening to hundreds of radio stations–and returned to rejuvenate a radio broadcasting company; a brilliant neurosurgeon spends a month each year teaching at a clinic in Ethiopia and comes back renewed.

  • Ask: if you need structure (like courses and reading lists) then get it. But don’t wait for someone to tell you what to do. Figure it out for yourself. Running up and down a few blind alleys is an essential part of the experience.

  • “Live deliberately,” as Thoreau said; “front some essential facts.” Link your choice of wilderness and how to spend your time to some purpose. As I have said elsewhere, you must go where you believe you can do your best work. This entails having some sense of purpose or vision for what that best work will be.

For me, the best work I could have done this past year was to set a new course for myself. Now, it feels like I’m on the way.

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To Fight a Financial Crisis: What Should the President Do?

You are the U.S. President. After the hoopla of the inauguration, you settle into your work focused particularly on implementing your policy agenda, on which you were elected. The success of your campaign breeds triumphalism that energizes your work. Then, within weeks of your inauguration, a financial crisis hits. What should you do?

The Miller Center at University of Virginia focuses on the U.S. presidency and is conducting a series of seminars on the President’s first year, for which it has commissioned a range of essays on potential issues. (See: First Year 2017: Where the Next President Begins.) They asked me to write about the possibility of a financial crisis in the first year.

You can read my essay, “Grab hold of the levers,” here and a shorter version on Fortune’s web site, there. I won’t spoil the message by repeating it in this post. Suffice it to say that historical precedents suggest that financial crises and Presidents don’t mix well. And the difficult mixture happens more often than you’d guess. Eight of the 44 Presidents faced a major financial crisis in the first year of their first term, some at or within days of inauguration. Nearly half of the Presidents faced a major domestic financial crisis anywhere within their first term. And almost 60 percent faced a domestic or international crisis in their first term. In short, history suggests that the risk of a financial crisis is material. The President should prepare. My essay is about what it means to prepare.

I’ve blogged previously about the importance of studying history to the development of future leaders (see this and my annual lists of recommended readings, such as this). History is a powerful tool for framing one’s own experience and for anticipating what the future might hold. Confucius said, “Study the past if you would define the future.” Humans are naturally given to reasoning by historical analogy.

Yet reasoning by historical analogy warrants at least two cautions.

First, the historical experience of oneself or one’s community is usually so impressive as to assure that whatever happened WILL happen again (i.e., with high probability). In financial markets, this tendency to project the past into the future is shown to explain why investors tend to overshoot or undershoot in their pricing of assets—and why bubbles and panics occur. Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman described a bias or “heuristic” by which people project an outcome (incorrectly) based on a small sample. People tend to see patterns where none actually exist—this is especially true about patterns of prices in financial markets. This representativeness heuristic draws its power from the individual’s observation and past experience. Another phenomenon, conservatism, reflects the fact that people tend to be slow to change their beliefs in the face of conflicting evidence. Representativeness and conservatism can make a potent brew, by which as Andrei Shleifer wrote, people “[underreact] to individual pieces of information, but [overreact] to conspicuous patterns.” [1] Psychological biases are a more or less forgivable error and can be corrected by rigorous assessment of one’s assumptions.

Second, the less forgivable error is to tilt reasoning by historical analogy for some ulterior purpose, such as to justify an unjust war, to exalt a bogus nationality, to validate genocide, or to excuse theft. In her book, Dangerous Games: The Uses and Abuses of History, Margaret MacMillan writes,

Political and other leaders too often get away with misusing or abusing history for their own ends because the rest of us do not know enough to challenge them…Bad history tells only part of complex stories. It claims knowledge that it could not possibly have, as when, for example, it purports to give the unspoken thoughts of its characters…Bad history also makes sweeping generalizations for which there is not adequate evidence and ignores awkward facts that do not fit….Bad history ignores…nuances in favor of tales that belong to morality plays but do not help us to consider the past in all its complexity. The lessons such history teaches are too simple or simply wrong. That is why we need to learn how to evaluate it properly and to treat the claims made in its name with skepticism. [2]

These cautions are especially relevant to us in early 2016. Political candidates are wont to make passionate assertions about the past in support of aspired policies. Leaders in government and the financial services industry appeal to history (especially the recession of 1937-38) in support of various proposals to jump-start growth in the global economy right now. Today’s military tensions are compared to geopolitical pivot points in the past.

My advice: take a deep breath. Reasoning by historical analogy is useful in the way that scenario planning is useful: it illuminates the possibilities and dynamic dependencies; it invites critical evaluation of assumptions; and it can promote preparedness. And as long as you respect the two cautions (about biases and intentions) it can be fun.

Thus I offer my essay about how the President should address a financial crisis in the first year, in the spirit of Margaret MacMillan, who wrote:

History, by giving context and examples, helps when it comes to thinking about the present world. It aids in formulating questions, and without good questions it is difficult to begin to think in a coherent way at all. Knowledge of history suggests what sort of information might be needed to answer those questions. Experience teaches how to assess that information….What happened and why? The historian asks. History demands that we treat evidence seriously, especially when that evidence contradicts assumptions we have already made. Are witnesses telling the truth? How do we weigh one version against another? Have we been asking the right or the only questions? Historians go further and ask what a particular event, thought, or attitude signifies. How important is it? The answers in part will depend on what we in the present ask and what we think is important. History does not produce definitive answers for all time. It is a process. [3]

The Miller Center’s project, First Year 2017, is exactly that: a valuable process to generate penetrating questions by which all of us can set expectations for the new administration.

  1. See: Andrei Shleifer, Inefficient Markets, Oxford University Press, 2000, page 129. []
  2. Pages 36-37. []
  3. Page 167. []
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