Monday, February 16, 2009

Lesser Lights

I got a chuckle out of the Wall Street Journal's recent report on a mishap at a brokerage industry conference in Palm Beach, Fla. During a presentation on hedge funds, a power failure plunged the hotel into darkness. Quipped the WSJ, "The lights are going out all over hedgeland — literally."

It reminded me of my favorite anecdote about Harold Geneen (pictured), the legendary head of ITT Corp. during its uber-conglomerate decades of the 1960s through the 1970s.

The notoriously exacting CEO was holding court in Brussels with a group of his European managers. The lights in the room began flickering. Since it was 2 a.m. and the meeting was showing no signs of ending, one of the executives piped up, "You see, even the lights are getting tired."

Snapped Geneen: "Only the lesser lights."

When I look around at the havoc being wreaked by this recession, all I can think of is that this is the handiwork of lesser lights – from Wall Street to Main Street to Washington, from trading floors to boardrooms to Congressional offices. 

On this President's Day, a day when we honor profound leadership, here is a call to those now in power in the aforementioned boardrooms: Turn the lights out on any lesser lights in your midst. That means firming up the talent both on the board itself and in the senior management ranks. The challenge ahead is just too daunting to do otherwise.