Tag Archives: David Halberstam

Yes, You Can Develop More Charisma – But There May Be Limits

Phil and Katharine Graham on their wedding day

He was the incandescent man.  Phil Graham walked into a room and took it over, charming and seducing whomever he wished, men and women alike.  No one in Washington could match him at all, not even, in the days before he became President, John F. Kennedy.
Everyone adored Phil Graham.
David Halberstam, The Powers that Be (Phil Graham married Katharine Meyer, whose father owned the Washington Post.  She is, of course, better known as Katharine Graham).

We now understand charisma as a set of behaviors.
Olivia Fox Cabane, The Charisma Myth


I’ve been thinking about charisma.  Bob Morris does not steer us (me) wrong on books, and he is high on the new book The Charisma Myth.  (read his review here).  So, I am reading it in parts, in brief moments.  I like it.  It has a lot of great, practical advice. I am looking forward to working through the specific suggestions about how to develop a charismatic presence, how to make a charismatic impact.

But, I suspect that this is like so many other things.  We can all get better; maybe noticeably better.  We can all develop some/many of these traits.  We can work on intentionally learning how to leave an impression, how to have “charisma” (the book talks about what to wear, how to develop a good handshake…  practical steps).  All of these are useful, good, helpful… and they do and will lead to greater presence, greater charisma.

But I suspect that we could work really hard at this for years and we will still not turn ourselves into a Phil Graham.  And therein lies the frustration.  We read a title like The Charisma Myth, and we inevitably start comparing ourselves to the genuine superstars.

So, here is my counsel.  Yes, you can learn to be noticed in a room.  You can learn the behaviors that will make an impact on others.  (And don’t forget to be sincere in such a pursuit, as Bob Morris warns us in his review).

But when a Phil Graham shows up, chances are he will still take the room over.  So, in the presence of a superstar, just relax and enjoy the show.


A side note:  I am asked “what is the best book you have ever read?” more times that I can count.  I find that question impossible to answer.  There are so many variables; the “place” I was in at the time of the reading; the purpose of the book, and my purpose for reading the book.  But The Powers that Be by David Halberstam would go on my short list for a book that is absolutely worth the money and time.

But We Can’t All Be Michael Jordan – The Challenge: Building Success with Average Folks

I am bothered.

I am a big fan of making people and companies better.  I have written many times about the need for constant innovation, perpetual improvement, pushing folks to get better (pushing myself to get better).

Just yesterday, I re-read the classic essay by David Halberstam about the end of Michael Jordan’s playing career:  Jordan’s Moment (from December, 1998).  It is a really terrific read (Halberstam at his best – and Halberstam was the best!), and it showed how Michael Jordan understood what new skill(s) he had to develop in his last years of play, and, how he practiced/learned/mastered these new skill(s).  Consider this paragraph, from near the end of his playing career:

In 1995, after Jordan returned to basketball from his year-and-a-half-long baseball sabbatical, he spent the summer in Hollywood making the movie “Space Jam,” but he demanded that the producers build a basketball court where he could work out every day.  Old friends dropping by the Warner lot noticed that he was working particularly hard on a shot that was already a minor part of his repertoire but which he was now making a signature shot––a jumper where he held the ball, faked a move to the basket, and then, at the last minute, when he finally jumped, fell back slightly, giving himself almost perfect separation from the defensive player. Because of his jumping ability and his threat to drive, that shot was virtually unguardable. More, it was a very smart player’s concession to the changes in his body wrought by time, and it signified that he was entering a new stage in his career. What professional basketball men were now seeing was something that had been partly masked earlier in his career by his singular physical ability and the artistry of what he did, and that something was a consuming passion not just to excel but to dominate. “He wants to cut your heart out and then show it to you,” his former coach Doug Collins said. “He’s Hannibal Lecter,” Bob Ryan, the Boston Globe’s expert basketball writer, said. When a television reporter asked the Bulls’ center, Luc Longley, for a one-word description of Jordan, Longley’s response was “Predator.”

But…but…  we are not all, we are not any of us, Michael Jordan.  And this is why I am bothered.  The rest of us are mere mortals, and we cannot match the gifts, or the brilliant insights, or the work ethic, or the resources of such a a one-of-a-kind master craftsman.

In other words, a lot of the world really is average.  In fact, the average person really is… average.  Really.

I have even written a blog post or two in which I praised the “average,” the “mediocre.”  I have said that we have to have companies and organizations that learn to do as well as they possibly can with “average” workers.

Some say that we can’t abide mediocrity.  I get that.  I want exceptional service, exceptional products, exceptional work done.  And if I were having surgery, I would not put out a call for service that says:  “Wanted:  mediocre surgeon to perform surgery on me in my moment of need.”

But the fact remains that there are many, many surgeons, and only a small percentage (5% to be exact) are in the top 5% of surgeons.  The rest are farther down the pack.  And people put their lives in their hands every day.

So, this article from Leadership Freak grabbed my attention:  Organizations Where Average Leaders Excel.  From the article:

By definition most of us are average. Even though:
            68% of the faculty at the University of Nebraska rate themselves in the top 25% of teaching ability.
            90% students see themselves as more intelligent than the average student.
            93% of U.S. drivers put themselves in the top 50% of driving ability.
            92% of teachers say they are less biased than average. That one is uniquely hilarious.
            96% of leaders today believe they have above average people skills. Stanford University School of Business.
On average, most of us think we are above average. Leaders, like everyone else, suffer from illusory superiority.

In the article, Gary Hamel is quoted as saying:  “We need to create organizations where average leaders can enjoy extraordinary success.”

So, the idea may be that with proper and exceptional management systems and processes, with more attention to helping “average” workers be more productive, then we can up the results.

But here is what I know – there really are only 5% in the top 5% of any arena.  “Grade inflation” does not produce smarter people.  And vocabulary (calling “average workers” by loftier superlatives) does not wipe out the fact that there are lots and lots of people who are average.  In fact, most people are averageaverage workers, average leaders, average anything.

Our challenge, it seems to me, is to build the best success we can with our average workers.

The Discipline of Discipline — Reflections on the Tiger Mother, the 10,000 Hour Rule, Work Ethic, and a Little More

It has been a while since a book has sparked such interest, such controversy, such applause and disdain, and almost furor, as Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother by Yale Professor, and mother, Amy Chua (currently #5 on the overall list of bestsellers on Amazon).  If you haven’t heard about it, you really must be living in a cave…  Here’s a paragraph from the review by Janet Maslin from the New York Times:

Ms. Chua was not about to raise prizeless slackers. She wanted prodigies, even if it meant nonstop, punishing labor. So “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother” chronicles its author’s constant demanding, wheedling, scolding and screaming. It describes seemingly endless piano and violin sessions that Ms. Chua supervised. (Her own schedule of teaching, traveling, writing and dealing with her students goes mostly unmentioned — and would require her to put in a 50-hour workday.) And it enforces a single guiding principle that is more reasonable than all the yelling suggests: “What Chinese parents understand is that nothing is fun until you’re good at it.”

Amy Chua


Amy Chua, and discussions of her book, have been everywhere – I’ve heard her on NPR, read about her in the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, yesterday in Points in the Dallas Morning News.

I’ve got three observations/reflections about this whole discussion.

#1 – I think I probably (ok, make that definitely) could have been more disciplined – make that, demanded more discipline – in raising our two sons.

#2 – After all the angst and disagreement and argument over her specific approach, I think she is simply saying this – it takes time, lots and lots of time, to get good at anything, and to get children to put in that kind of time, the parent has to put in that kind of time.  I think she is saying that to learn to master anything can develop the ability to master other things in life.

I thought of a woman I know.  She heard me present my synopsis of Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell, and she was intrigued by the 10,000 hour rule — the idea that it takes 10,000 hours to get really, world-class good at anything (Gladwell did not “develop/discover” it – he is always the great popularizer.  Dr. Anders Ericsson of Florida State University is apparently the one who came up with the concept, after his extensive study of expertise).  This woman earned her Ph.D. in some field of Business, and teaches at the graduate level.  But in her “first life,” she was an accomplished pianist, playing at the top level.  She told me that she did a quick back-of-the-napkin calculation after my presentation, and figured out that she put in well over 10,000 hours on the piano, and now puts in the same kind of time in her business research and writing.

In other words, the discipline of discipline, once learned and mastered, carries over into additional endeavors.

#3 – I remembered a story from a book by David Halberstam.  The book, The Reckoning, tells of the rise and fall of Ford, and the rise of Nissan (up to the point the book was written – it came out in 1986).  It is a terrific read.  In the book (my apology, my copy is in storage – so this is from memory), he described a conversation he had with a man in Japan who worked at Nissan.  He described how in America, life had gotten “easy,” and the people had lost the hunger that drives the discipline needed to be the best.  He observed that this hunger (almost a sense of desperation) led to Nissan’s ascendancy.  But, then a warning – he had already seen this hunger begin to lessen in Japan, and he saw it “transferring” over to Korea.  The formula – hunger leads to discipline leads to success – is one that I remember vividly.  I think this Tiger Mother may have captured a piece of that.

I have not yet read the book.  But I think that it points us to a fear – a fear that we simply lack the discipline needed to get good at anything, and then later to get good at other things.  And I suspect that a whole lot of people are reading this book feeling just a little bit scared.


Yes, I did read David Brooks column, Amy Chua is a Wimp.  I think it’s cute.  I really like Brooks, but in this case, I think he may be off-target.  There are a whole lot of people who excel at sleepovers who never excelled, and may never excel, at much of anything else…

Border’s Difficult Days – with Maybe an Object Lesson for us All

(let’s call this a lesson in business focus).

No, I don’t know the future of the book business, (or the restaurant business, or the car business — or any business, for that matter.).  I don’t  know if physical books will survive in the e-books era.  I don’t know if people will be able to read anything much longer than a Tweet or a text message in years to come.

But in reading about the fall of Border’s (it may be nearing the end…), I was reminded of a story told by David Halberstam years ago.

First, Borders.  In What Went Wrong at Borders by Peter Osnos at the Atlantic site (read it here), Mr. Osnos closes with this:

Len Riggio, Jeff Bezos of Amazon, and the successful independent proprietors, whatever their other business virtues and flaws, really have a deep attachment to books and the people who read them. But when Borders expanded, they brought in executives from supermarkets and department stores (all of whom insisted they were readers), and the result was a shuffle of titles and more downsizing against a backdrop of financial engineering, which only seemed to make matters worse. Ultimately, a successful bookstore, on any scale, depends on a specific understanding of how to make the most of the outpouring of books and the digital transformation that will attract readers. Whatever else Borders does in the months ahead, it needs to recover its belief that real book-selling is an art (with all the peculiarities that entails), as well as a viable business.

It’s such a subtle point, yet so clear – it simply seems like really obvious common sense.  If you want to succeed in the book business, it might help if you love books.  A supermarket and department store expert may know a lot about a lot of other stuff, including management and sales  – but he/she may not love books.

I confess — I think I would love working in a book store.  I would walk the aisles during my breaks, and always spend every available dollar buying as many books as I could afford (and probably quite a few I could not afford).  Walking up and down the aisles of supermarkets or department stores just does not have the same allure to this book lover (although, I might like to sample a whole lot of Häagen-Dazs – better keep me away from there!)

Now to the Halberstam story  (Told from memory – I heard it in an interview from somewhere long forgotten).  Years ago, he told of a time when Walter Mondale, while Ambassador to Japan, toured the largest steel plant in Japan.  After a while, he asked his host’s opinion of (now dissolved) Bethlehem Steel.  After 30 minutes of very careful Japanese politeness (“father of the industry; great company; great legacy…”), his host finally asked “why is Bethlehem Steel buying banks?’  It was then that Mondale realized that the steel makers in Japan loved steel.  Whereas in America, the steel makers loved money.  And in the steel business, the steel lover has a definite advantage over the money lover.

I don’t know who the last physical book seller will be.  But I think I know this – whoever it is will love such books to the end, and he or she will hate to see the books go every bit as much as he/she hates to see the job end.

I hope you love what you do.


Here’s Something You Can “Do,” Beginning Right Now, To Help You Be More Successful In 2011 – “Look” The Part

He was the incandescent man.  Phil Graham walked into a room and took it over, charming and seducing, whomever he wished, men and women alike.  No one in Washington could match him at it, not even, in the days before he became President, John F. Kennedy.  He was handsome and slim and when he smiled, at first shy and then bold, everything stopped…
David Halberstam, The Powers That Be, introducing Phil Graham, (the husband of Katharine Graham).


Here’s a way to propel you to a better year, a year toward success, in 2011.

Act the part – look the part!

No, I’m not talking about your wardrobe, keeping your shoes shined, “dressing for success…” (although there is plenty of evidence that this also has an impact)  – I’m talking about the way you look; or, make that, I’m talking about the way people see you.

And to boil it down, it’s this:  posture, eye-contact, a sense of forceful assertiveness, all really matter.

Here’s the way Jeffrey Pfeffer put it in Power:  Why Some People Have it – And Others Don’t:

People with less power or people who didn’t feel powerful exhibited “inhibitive nonverbal behaviors,” such as shrinking in, caving in their chests, physically withdrawing, and using fewer and less forceful hand gestures…  Shrinking in and not behaving in a forceful fashion causes others to attribute less power to you, reinstating a negative cycle of behavior in which you’re not treated as powerful and you further withdraw and act powerless.

So – you can start now.  Sit up straight – stand up straight.  Look people in the eye.  Don’t be tentative.  (But, beware of the danger of coming across with arrogance).  Don’t run over people – but be, and be perceived as, overflowing with self-confidence.

This is something you can do.  In fact, it is something you have to do, to practice, every day, in every encounter, in every meeting.  Start right now.  Sit up straight.  Walk, stand, sit with purpose.  Don’t shrink in, don’t cave in your chest, don’t physically withdraw.  To be successful, it helps to look the part.  And looking the part is a series of behaviors — some things that you do.


I’m presenting my synopsis of Power this Friday at the January, 2011 First Friday Book Synopsis.  We meet at the Park City Club in University Park.  If you are in the DFW area, come join us.  Register here.