Month: February 2020

Basic competence

We’re in an era where the common “wisdom” is to discount the value of experience. National security expert Tom Nichols wrote about this in his book, The Death of Expertise: The Campaign Against Established Knowledge and Why It Matters.

Elizabeth McIntyre’s brief 2019 article in Crain’s Cleveland Business captured some wisdom from Alexander “Sandy” Cutler, who retired in 2016 as CEO of Eaton Corporation. He has been active in Northeast Ohio civic work for a long time. He said the area needs strong leadership from a Cleveland mayor and a Cuyahoga County executive “who can carry us to the next level.” That is true for many cities, but Cutler offered some specific gems of wisdom from his long experience at Eaton:

  • One year of bad government means five years of recovery, something Northeast Ohio would struggle to endure;
  • Create a system where Republicans, Democrats and independents feel it’s important to train leaders and not throw someone in there and see if they can swim;
  • Train and engage top candidates on task forces “so if they are elected, that the first year is not just a wanton disaster;” and
  • “We would never put an executive into a job with a lack of training like we put these people into.”

Seventeen American presidents were previously governors, including Jefferson and Franklin Roosevelt. Sixteen were previously senators, including Monroe and Jackson. Fourteen were previously vice presidents, including John Adams and Theodore Roosevelt. Of the twenty-nine presidents with varying degrees of military service, twelve were generals, including Washington, Grant and Eisenhower. Reflecting the impact of the Civil War, after Abraham Lincoln six consecutive presidents had been generals: Johnson, Grant, Hayes, Garfield, Arthur and Harrison. The current president is the only one with no prior service in a major elective or appointive office or military service.

When we pooh-pooh expertise and established knowledge, ignorance can become a virtue and we may sacrifice basic competence.

“Don’t ever believe your voice doesn’t count if you are articulate and well-educated on the subject. When those in Congress don’t hear from you, they fall prey to the small extremes on both ends of the equation who are pulling them in different directions.” – Sandy Cutler

Effective leadership

Chuck Carnevale is “a seasoned and grizzled veteran of the financial services industry for now going on 50 years.” He sees the stock market as a market of stocks. He evaluates each company on its merits.

Since 1982 I’ve been a serious, avocational student of companies. My best strength in this study is my intuition. I listen to quarterly conference call webcasts where a company’s CEO and CFO present highlights of the quarter and answer analysts’ questions.

Effective management is critical. Strong CEOs are knowledgable, clear and transparent. Gale Klappa at WEC Energy and Sandy Cutler at Eaton Corporation were among the best.

Sometimes, a call reveals subtle insights. In a 2014 quarterly call, long-time Digital Realty CEO Mike Foust seemed oddly distracted. CFO Bill Stein was on task and picked up the slack. I wasn’t surprised when shortly thereafter Foust resigned and Stein was named CEO, a position he still holds. Foust continued his data industry success as Chairman of Bridge Data Centres.

How do you evaluate leadership? What are your analytical strengths?

When I look at a political candidate, I ask, “Would I buy stock in his company?” Is she competent, honest, knowledgable, clear and transparent? Is he visionary and thinks “outside the box” while also managing a large organization with meaningful accountability to a board of directors? Does she respect essential institutions, maintain appropriate boundaries and operate with humility and integrity? Does he express self-effacing humor and commitment to a cause beyond himself? Does her team work well together with unity of purpose? If these traits are important for a corporation’s CEO, aren’t they absolutely essential for a President?

Be sure to click the Sandy Cutler link (above) for his wisdom about the importance of local government leadership. Tomorrow’s post will apply Cutler’s insights to national leadership.

Doris Kearns Goodwin on Lincoln’s emotional intelligence, NPR interview with Terry Gross

Washington’s birthday

The 1971 Uniform Monday Holiday Act rolled Abraham Lincoln’s February 12 and George Washington’s February 22 birthdays into a Presidents’ Day. It seemed logical and efficient in that pre-digital age. However, some things were lost in the combination, including memory. I’ll stick with what I learned in elementary school. Each of those guys deserves his own day of remembrance. Today, the stock market is closed in observance of Washington’s Birthday.

In honor of “the Father of our Country,” as we were taught in those early school years, this week’s posts will reflect (to be blunt) how far we have fallen. On several occasions, including April 2016 and July 2017, the current occupant of the White House has asserted that he is, or will be, the greatest president with the possible exception of Abraham Lincoln.

A 2019 Economist poll found that 53% of republicans say that the incumbent is a better president than Lincoln and 65% say he is better than Dwight Eisenhower. In spite of the GOP’s current amnesia, I maintain hope because the poll indicates that 59% of republicans say Ronald Reagan was better than the current president.

Beginning tomorrow, I’ll apply to the Presidency what I’ve learned about leadership from corporations through one of my idiosyncrasies–listening to CEOs and CFOs face analysts in their quarterly corporate earnings calls. To paraphrase Yogi Berra (1925-2015), “you can learn a lot by just listening.”

“Washington and Lincoln: Champions of Education,”

Our lenses

Each of us has a unique lens through which we view reality. I’m trying to be more conscious of my lens and more understanding toward those with a different lens or perspective.

Sometimes we borrow the lens of a news source, such as Fox, MSNBC, CNN, or broadcast TV. The top three cable news shows in 2019 were Hannity, Tucker Carlson Tonight, and The Rachel Maddow Show. Maddow’s in-depth investigative reporting has helped shape my lens.

Among the broadcast media, I resonate most with NPR, particularly Steve Inskeep and Rachel Martin; and PBS, particularly Judy Woodruff and Margaret Hoover. Among the general print media, my lens is impacted most by the New York Times, the Washington Post and The Bulwark.

I first heard Sean Hannity in 1990 at Huntsville’s WVNN. I next heard him on Hannity & Colmes, after he was in Atlanta from 1992-1996. While in Huntsville, Hannity was more conservative. He was for limited government. This was before he embraced big government in the form of Donald Trump.

My primary lens for news is what I believe to be the less partisan, more objective lens of financial news, such as CNBC, particularly Melissa Lee, David Faber, Andrew Ross Sorkin and Becky Quick; Bloomberg, particularly Tom Keene and Bryan Curtis; and Fox Business News, though their non-partisan voice is sadly limited to Neal Cavuto. On the print side of financial news, my lens has been shaped by the Wall Street Journal and the grass roots forum, Seeking Alpha.

What news sources have helped shaped your lens?

Just Mercy

Every day, countless people make a positive contribution to make the world a better place. Just Mercy is a powerful, true story about some of those people, beginning with Delaware native Bryan Stevenson, now 60. The movie, based on the book with the same title, begins when Bryan was a law student at Harvard. Upon graduation, he moved to Alabama to begin the Equal Justice Initiative.

Michael B. Jordan portrays Stevenson in the movie. His mentor Jamie Foxx portrays Walter McMillan, whose murder conviction is overturned through the efforts of EJI. For me, the most jaw-dropping performance was by Tim Blake Nelson, who portrays Ralph Myers, an unforgettable character whose testimony put McMillan on death row and whose later testimony freed him. Nelson also played Delmar in the 2000 movie O Brother, Where Art Thou.

The movie contains a subtle but clear background thread about the role of the African Methodist Episcopal Church in the life of Bryan Stevenson and Walter McMillan, from their first conversation on death row to their 1994 appearance before a U.S. Senate committee, where Stevenson said:

“Through this work I’ve learned that each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done; that the opposite of poverty isn’t wealth, the opposite of poverty is justice; that the character of our nation isn’t reflected in how we treat the rich and privileged, but how we treat the poor, the disfavored and condemned. … we can begin to change this world for the better. If we can look at ourselves closely, and honestly, I believe we will see that we all need justice, we all need mercy and perhaps, we all need some measure of unmerited grace.”


Clarity is sometimes painful but it’s almost always a good thing. In the coming months we’ll get a big dose of clarity. Unfortunately, all kinds of obfuscating disinformation will come our way, too. Sifting is a critical survival skill for this period of history. We will have plenty to sift through, but clarity will come.

On Tuesday, I was part of a group that heard John Archibald speak about his upcoming book. It was scheduled for publication later this year, but John said publication has been delayed until February because the publishers are inundated with upcoming books about the Trump administration. There will be plenty to sift through. Clarity’s coming.

I’ve been “re-called” to a post-vocational mission to engage my conservative friends about what it means to be a true conservative, and to engage my liberal friends about what it means to be a true liberal. Much has been lost in our dueling soundbite culture. One reason the U.S. has endured this long is that when true conservatives and true liberals compete as the “loyal opposition” to each other, democracy’s engine is constructively dynamic.

William Kristol is (for me) one who is true to the best conservative virtues. Yesterday, he published “A Time to Speak,” a thoughtful, important challenge to his fellow conservatives who have served in the Trump administration. One sentence conveys the article’s flavor: “If you are a lawyer who served in the Trump administration, you owe it to your countrymen—and to yourself—to speak up for the rule of law now.”

Why a ‘loyal opposition” matters
F.W. de Klerk and Nelson Mandela, 1994


Yesterday, former ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch received a standing ovation at Georgetown University. The 33-year foreign service veteran was presented with the J. Raymond “Jit” Trainor Award for Excellence in the Conduct of Diplomacy by Georgetown’s Institute for the Study of Diplomacy. She spoke to the gathering of students, faculty and a large number of retired diplomats.

She cited the work of career foreign service officer George Kennan (1904-2005), who outlined a strategy to contain Soviet communism and career military officer George Marshall (1880-1959), who conceived a generous peace for the recovery of Europe. She said the tyranny of communism could not compete with the “ideals of democracy and the promise of capitalism.”

Yovanovitch spoke of numerous old and new challenges, including “the tension between a globalizing world and a trending nativism.” She said “our alliances are fraying, new powers arising and that creaking sound we can all hear are the institutions of the international order under very severe strain. Without doubt, our international institutions need a reboot, but they don’t need the boot. We need to reform them to accommodate the challenges of the time, but the principles upon which they were established remain our true north: rule of law, generosity of spirit and understanding that we are stronger together…to make the world a more democratic, more prosperous and more secure place.”

She spoke of the “quiet work of diplomacy.” Yovanovitch is an inspiring example of commitment to American ideals and selfless public service.

AP photo, via Fox News




Bonfire of the extremities

In a conversation with Sean Hannity aired before the Super Bowl on Fox, President Trump called Bernie Sanders a communist. This week at a New Hampshire Sanders rally, Princeton Professor Emeritus Cornel West called Mr. Trump a “neo-fascist gangster.” We are a week shy of nine months away from the election. Nine months.

We need a Monty Python type comedy series called the Bonfire of the Extremities, where we poke fun at extremism. Humor may be our best antidote for extremism, just as bacteria in the air doomed the hostile space invaders in the 1953 film adaption of The War of the Worlds.

I heard two refreshing examples of disarming humor this week in the face of political attacks. Mr. Trump referred to Senator Joe Manchin as “Joe Munchkin.” The Senator responded in good humor and said gracious things about the President, wishing him success. When pushed about Mr. Trump’s “munchkin” tweet, the 6’3″ senator said, “I’m taller than him and a little bit bigger than he is, not heavier. He’s much heavier than me, but I’m a little bit taller than him, so I guess he got that a little bit off.”

The President also attacked Senator Doug Jones with one of his favorite adjectives, calling him a “lightweight.” With good humor, Jones responded to the “lightweight” reference by tweeting: “Thanks! I haven’t been complimented about my weight in awhile.” Then he added, “Regardless, Mr. President, thank you for signing into law the 17 bipartisan bills that I sponsored that will help folks in Alabama.”

Senator Doug Jones weighs in on Trump Impeachment, WBHM

Bonfire of the vanities

You’ve probably heard of the Bonfire of the Vanities, a best-selling 1987 satirical novel by Tom Wolfe (1930-2018), the disappointing 1990 film with Tom Hanks, Bruce Willis and Melanie Griffith, or the 1497 Shrove Tuesday burning of tempting objects in Florence, Italy led by Girolamo Savonarola (1452-1498).

The only similar event in my memory was a 1966 movement to burn Beatles records (or album covers), mostly in the southern US. Two Birmingham radio personalities, Tommy Charles (1929-1996) and Doug Layton (1933-2015) were looking for something to talk about. There was no bonfire in Birmingham. It was a virtual bonfire (what we might today call a cyber bonfire) that morphed into a publicity stunt. Layton was a dear friend, an excellent Bible student and one of the funniest people I’ve known.

Today’s polarized atmosphere is conducive to bonfires. It’s easier to burn caricatures than to build character. Here’s a history lesson worth remembering: One who lights today’s bonfire may wind up inside tomorrow’s, as happened to Friar Girolamo.

In coming posts, I’ll reflect about some “isms” I’ve experienced and some “isms” that are gathering steam in today’s contentious environment.

Birmingham disc jockeys Tommy Charles, left, and Doug Layton of Radio Station WAQY, rip and break materials representing the British pop group The Beatles, in Birmingham, Ala., Aug. 8, 1966. The broadcasters started a “Ban The Beatles” campaign after John Lennon was quoted as saying his group was more popular than Jesus. (AP Photo, from Mother Jones)

Retail death in Iowa

We’ve heard about the “retail apocalypse” or the “death of brick and mortar retail.” In December, CB Insights published a report about 81 retail bankruptcies since 2015. Among the casualties: Sears, A&P, Toys “R” Us, RadioShack, Hancock Fabrics, Remington, Claire’s, Payless, Rockport, Nine West, Gander Mountain.

We may have witnessed the death of “retail” presidential politics as practiced in Iowa and New Hampshire. What may now be the late Iowa Caucus last night announced delegate results, six days late. The day after the caucus, I naively Googled “Iowa Caucus Results” on my phone. What appeared first among the news reports was a subtle campaign ad by Mike Bloomberg, who wisely skipped Iowa.

Other campaigns spent millions of dollars and thousands of human hours in Iowa, hoping to get a timely boost. Amy Klobuchar famously visited all 99 Iowa counties. I thought of her as I looked at the Bloomberg ad. After all her effort, the day after the caucus, people searching for the results via Google saw first a Bloomberg ad.

During some prior campaigns, a relative handful of voters could “jump start” a campaign or end one (Truman in ’52, Johnson in ’68). The 2024 election may begin with a revised version of “Super Tuesday” that will not rely on “retail politics.” We’re now in the age of online politics.