On the Decorating Impulses of Two Leaders...

When listening to NPR yesterday, I heard an interview with Callie Shell, Time's White House photographer, a story that included an interesting comment about Obama's changes to the Oval Office:

"When presidents move into the White House, they often put their own mark on the space with photos on the wall and various personal knickknacks. Shell says that Obama hasn't done much to the Oval Office.

'To me, he appeared to go in the first day and just start working,' she says. 'He wants the room to look good and make people feel welcome. And I've heard him say that, 'This is the people's Oval Office.'"

So the most powerful man in America made the decision when he took office at a moment of crisis to leave decorating decisions aside for the time being, choosing instead to focus his energy on developing solutions for the myriad problems the nation faces today.

The Oval Office, says Callie Shel, remains essentially as it did when Bush was president.

Contrast this with the story of another very powerful man, John Thain, the toxic asset recently jettisoned by the folks over at Bank of America/Merrill Lynch.

Thain became CEO of Merrill Lynch in December 2007, and with a total compensation package worth $83.8 million, became one of the highest paid CEOs that year.

(And he started work as Merrill's CEO with just one month left in the year.)

Within 15 months, he was out of a job. In his well-compensated time at Merrill Lynch, he rammed through early payment of $4 billion in bonuses to fellow Merrill execs (funded, apparently, by TARP), made a sad and ultimately futile attempt to get a hefty bonus of his own and lavished attention on the details of renovating his office.

Now we know Wall Street is all about excess and compensation and they're bright guys, over there on Wall Street, yes we know. Thain is one of many Wall Street execs who are by-products of the Harvard MBA program - that bastion of corporate wisdom.

So Thain comes in to lead a company that is bleeding out money like blood from a severed artery and he decides to spend valuable time, attention and more than a million dollars on making his office and conference rooms over in the Thain style.

In a time of crisis, he went in search of his interior decorator. And a $68,000 credenza. And a $35,000 commode. And a $1,400 wastebasket.

His office looked beautiful.

In the 4th quarter of 2008, his company posted $15 billion in losses - for just that quarter alone.

$5.1 billion in losses in the third quarter of 2008.

The short, unhappy reign of Thain was a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad year by any measure. He came to lead Merrill at a time of crisis and instead of engaging in triage to save his company, he focused on the trappings of power - the imagery of success - the search for the very finest antiques.

In the end, it got him fired.

Hopefully the takeaway we get from the story of Thain and his focus on office renovation is that leadership isn't about the acquisition of "stuff." The beauty of your office means nothing if your company is on the verge of collapse.

Leadership is about ideas and solutions and hard work and sweating the details and motivating the work force and representing your company in ways that inspire confidence among internal and external audiences.

Real leaders know that acting to bring their organization out of crisis is the true compensation for their work. Perhaps, someday, Wall Street execs will catch on to this notion....


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