In a recent class at Cornell I heard a group of students demythologize famous leaders as part of an exercise. One of my students concluded, “I wouldn’t have wanted to work for Steve Jobs, he seemed like an S.O.B.”

Another student even took Washington down a peg and questioned how bright our founding father really was. He asked weather or not Washington’s silence hinted at tactical stoicism or if his quiet demeanor implied that he often missed the point?

Richard S. Tedlow’s book, Giants of Enterprise, is an exercise in demythologizing leadership.

“Look kiddy,” said Charles Revson, president of the Revlon Corporation, “I built this business by being a bastard. I run it by being a bastard. I’ll always be a bastard…don’t try to change me.”

Revson was speaking to a talented brand manager who he had brought to tears after he demolished a pitch she’d spent months working on.

If Revson was so cruel, then how did he manage to bring the Revlon Corporation to such great heights?

Thomas J. Watson Sr., founder of IBM, didn’t know much about computing. He could understand how a cash register worked, but he didn’t know the mechanics behind building one.

If he didn’t have the technical skill, how did Watson turn IBM into a global force?

No one demythologizes leadership better than Richard S. Tedlow in his still enlightening, entertaining, and engrossing book. It’s a work that must be kept on the shelves of all high potential leaders, current leaders, and those who hope to train leaders.

Tedlow, professor at the Harvard Business School, profiles seven American business innovators and explores what made them successful, what made them tick, and what made them work so hard.

With a keen eye Tedlow writes about, Andrew Carnegie, George Eastman, Thomas J. Watson Sr., Henry Ford, Charles Revson, Sam Walton, Sam Noyce and all the periphery  characters that made these men’s businesses so successful.

It’s easy to look at these business titans and assume they are endowed with something special, something rarefied, that the normal person can’t quite put his finger on.

But Tedlow doesn’t portray these giants of enterprise as larger-than-life men who stomp around palatial offices having nothing but brilliant ideas. He presents these leaders as human beings who, more often than not, had to pick themselves off the floor and brush the dirt off their knees.

The underlying lesson in Tedlow’s book is that leaders aren’t figures that descend from the heavens, but rise through the ranks and make just as many mistakes as the next guy.

And it’s not like each of these men had brilliant, ground-breaking, ideas. They were each knee-deep in competition, surrounded my players who were doing exactly what they were—and in some cases, doing it better. Sam Walton wasn’t the only retailer that discounted–he had to compete with Kmart, Woolworths, and Target. Andrew Carnegie had to compete with other rivals in the steel business—and had to work aggressively to buy them out.  The list goes on. The difference maker for the men illustrated by Tedlow was their leadership ability and how they managed teams, campaigns, agendas, and moments of great upheaval and change.

What Tedlow excels in doing is showing the micro-skills of execution these leaders employed. In many ways he is a biographer of tactics. He shows us how each of these leaders succeeded because they knew how to get things done, push agendas, and politically survive. And, yes, even manage.

Leave a Reply