Thursday, August 5, 2010

Sidney Harman on 'The Most Overlooked Skill'

Here is an insight into Sidney Harman, new owner of Newsweek, that you won't find in the coverage of his purchase of the magazine this week. I think it explains a lot about why he is making this huge investment.

Harman has been aces in my book since I read his 2003 memoir "Mind Your Own Business" (Currency Books). It was just what its subtitle promised: "A Maverick's Guide to Business, Leadership and Life." I published an excerpt in Directors & Boards. Not only that, I then took that excerpt and made it a reading assignment in a course I have been teaching for several years at Temple University.

I wanted my Directors & Boards readers as well as my students to appreciate how much an impressive corporate leader such as Sidney Harman regarded the ability to write as crucial to success in life. Here are a few of his observations:

• "Sadly, writing is lightly regarded in business and often dismissed as unnecessary. Executives frequently declaim, 'I do not write. I'm a people person. I like to look the other fellow in the eye.' That's a clever rationalization. There is a time to look the other fellow in the eye, of course, but writing is a unique and powerful instrument."

• "The person who invests in writing, who exercises the discipline to do it well, and who uses it frequently, will possess a matchless instrument for discovery, clarity, and persuasion."

• "My own experience persuades me that it is the most overlooked skill in the business arena, and one that rewards the executive in many ways. It helps clarify one's thinking. It improves all other means of communication by enhancing vocabulary and promoting the ability to formulate thoughts in coherent and creative ways. It is first cousin to public speaking, because it helps frame the material in a fashion that makes it explicable and communicable. That is essential in public speaking."

• "Writing, like public speaking, does not come easily. You must invest in it. You must tolerate frustration and disappointment. You must persevere. But hanging in and learning from one effort to the next pays dividends."

• "It will come as no surprise that I have promoted writing at Harman [International Industries, the maker of audio equipment that he founded in 1953]. Today in our company virtually every executive of any consequence writes. I would wager that virtually all of them agree that it is one of the most productive tools they have acquired at the company."

If you have 13 minutes, spend it watching Harman address the Newsweek staff. You will see up close a leader of great grace, charm, wit, intelligence and, yes, courage. Dire predictions are still being leveled for Newsweek's prospects, but it seems to me that the publication is in sound ownership hands for writing its next chapter.