Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Titans of leadership?

It was a simple family home. A mere seventy-five rooms, walls gilded in gold and platinum, an entry way larger than many places of employment, enough exotic marble to be a place of worship, and fresh and salt running water to the bath tubs. While this was the biggest home in the neighborhood, it is among others of similar peers.

The mansion is called “The Breakers” and was the family summer “cottage” of the William Vanderbilt family in Newport, Rhode Island. We visited this fantastic location this past weekend and learned more of the accomplishments of the Vanderbilt family. William was the grandson of founder Cornelius Vanderbilt who created the shipping and railroad empire.

After the tour, I thought to myself, “what a great leaders the Vanderbilt’s must have been.” As I thought and walked around, it occurred to me that they were great businessmen, family patriarchs and community influences. But leaders, I wondered. If critical roles of leadership is building ongoing compelling visions and developing people, then the Vanderbilt’s do not measure up. If their initial vision of controlling the shipping and railroad lines had true life, it would not have faded once monopoly laws and alternative modes of transportation evolved. I looked more and was unable to find clear examples of great achievers that developed under the Vanderbilt system.

While paying respect to their achievements, do you feel vision and developing people are compelling enough reasons to keep the Vanderbilt’s out of the Leadership Hall of Fame?


Amer N. Raja said...

Leadership is all about developing team (personality development). So all Machiavilleans, from political as well as business, should be excluded. They may have gained in short run but have devastating effect for future.

Note: I don't know anything about that family. I am just assuming that their chief was Unscruplous.

Suman said...

If the Vanderbilts created employment, linked previously unknown places and ports for example, invented new machines or things to facilitate their goal, kindled the spirit of public transportation... Yes I would consider them leaders.
Im not sure what the ethics was during that time so I cannot comment. If it was done through oppression, then the achievements will be diminished by the means of the achievement.
In any case, surely the hope is the generations learn to not make the same mistakes.
I loved the olympics advt. where Morgan Freeman saya, everytime someone wins its a feat to be cherished by all of mankind, its the ability of one of us to achieve such heights!

Michael Chevalier said...

Too many years since I was stationed at Newport and toured the Breakers compound!

This is very evocative, John. On one level, the Vanderbuilts did not miss the opportunity the new capitalism presented them. On the other hand, aside from the unfortunate death on the Titanic, they missed the Darwinian call and faded into 'old money' as monopoly laws broke up the trusts and vertically intergrated giant firms. They could have morphed but did not. Now, we have this monstrous yet stunning memento of their glory.

K.Scott Mullins said...

Well, I would suggest that at its core, Leadership is an attribute not reliant on wealth, but all too often we mistake the acquisition of wealth as proof of leadership.

I think the Vanderbilts did in fact show leadership and successfully executed to a particular vision. The world changes and sometimes, great leaders are able to adapt their visions to match the world and other times they are not. We will look back on Sir Richard Branson in much the same way 100 years from now?

Eric Hiam said...


The original Vanderbilt's are long gone but their homes still drive a significant amount of revenue to their new owners.

Dowling College, Holbrook, Long Island, NY ....another summer cottage turned into Suffolk County's most popular and expensive private college

Biltmore Estate, Asheville, NC ....At $45.00 per person to view the house and grounds, not to mention the onsite winery, gift shop, and restaurant...their legacy residences are producing quite a bit of wealth!

I hope you also had a chance to visit the Tennis hall of fame...another stop for the Vanderbilts in RI.

New Yorker turned Rhode Islander,


Chris Stergiou said...

"If critical roles of leadership is building ongoing compelling visions and developing people, then the Vanderbilt’s do not measure up."

With respect John, we have mythology for the kind of thing you're talking about. These, (speaking in general now about the Gilded Age Titans of Industry), were leaders.

Leadership is prescribed by the circumstances and under the circumstances, these guys built the foundations for everything we have today; Railroads, Shipping, Banking, Coal, etc. etc. and of course their legacies of the Library system, the myriad Universities, the endowments etc. etc. speak for themselves. Perhaps a better way to look at it is not as Leadership, which has an artificial quality of "how we feel" about a guy but maybe it would be better to say Stewardship, and then judge them on that basis.

Given that the bedrock of every institution we enjoy today was built by these guys and others like them; I'd say they did pretty well. Again, not speaking for any particular one of them here, but speaking about them as a class.

None of these guys were concerned with any "developing people" programs; that's left up to society, not to the leaders

Devon Oslund said...

Many people make the assumption that because talent tends to promote success, success necessarily implies talent (and that failure implies a lack thereof).

It does not.

The role of randomness is huge.

Toss 1024 and 512 will come up heads. Toss them again, and 256 will produce heads again. 128 the third time, 64 the fourth.

By the time we are down to one coin, it will have produced heads *ten* times in a row. It can point to its "track record" of success at producing heads.

Yet, flip it again, and the odds are 50/50, just as they always were.

We should never assume that succeeding means you did something right... unless we can clearly show and understand the correlation between success and result.

The same is true of failure.

Joyce Schneider said...

Very interesting perspective, John. I don't know the full history of the Vanderbuilts, but if they did not develop their teams to all think strategically, to inspire them to keep their eyes focused on long term developments, did not practice forward thinking and see what impact the changes in the law would have on their business model, were not open to considering the possibility of investing in or purchasing alternate businesses that would extend their domain, did not keep up with changes in science and consumer needs, and most importantly, not create a vision for innovation as a way of sustaining the business as a corporate entiry, then I suspect you opinions have merit as it relates to re-considering the Vanderbuilts position in the Leadership Hall of Fame.

David Shirey said...

Leadership cannot be equated with wealth, as I believe you indicate, John, and I agree with that. The simple fact is that once you reach a certain tiping point in terms of wealth and success, people will follow you and try to ally themselve with you (which subsequently makes you more wealthy and successful) no matter what kind of idiot you might be. Some people are just lucky, others might be just underhanded and cut throat. We have plenty of examples of those leaders.

The problem is, we tend to view leadership as a positive thing. Sometimes it isn't. Leadership is the art (or gift) of getting other people to do something that is important to you but is not necessarily in their own best interest. And that can be used for both positive and negative ends.

I agree, however, that great leaders are those who can care in two directions; they care passionately about the goal and are able to communicate that goal to others, and then care about the people they are leading. Developing successful followers is a prime example of that. Creating something that outlives your life is another.

Richard Vernon said...

John...I enjoyed your discussion item but find it difficult to associate leadership with a dynasty rather than individuals/teams. In their own right the "Commodore" (Cornelius), son (William Henry) and grandson William showed different kinds of leadership needed to succeed in their environments. While we can view monopolies with disdain today, this Darwinian approach to business was a fact of life at that time. It could be said that they succeeded in spite of it as much as because of it.

Cornelius is often criticized for not being more benevolent while building his fortune but there is a lot to be said for building a position of strength from which greater good can be done. He made significant donations in his later years and his son took that to a higher level.

I don't really know enough about the Vanderbilt’s but, looking at the "Commodore" on his own, he demonstrated a vision and went after it with a vengeance. He didn't accomplish this on his own and demonstrated the ability to lead the right people to execute his visions. We may not agree with monopolies or other restrictive trade practices but that was the environment he had to build his business in. I think that taken individually some of the Vanderbilt’s make the grade.

Thanks for your thought provoking topic!


Anonymous said...

Very thoughtfull post on leadership. It should be very much helpfull.

Karim - Mind Power

Bob Hall said...

Great post and very thoughtful comments.

The Vanderbilts and others like them may not be considered great leaders when measured in today's terms, although they may have been thought that way during their eras.

Since we're dealing with the present, I guess I'd consider the Vanderbilts as leaders in their industries (as in "ahead of the pack"), but that's not the same as being great or even good leaders.

I consider them more rulers than leaders. Rulers can get done what they want done and never develop or grow a single person.

We need more leaders and fewer rulers.

Ashutosh Agrawal said...

Leadership is very broad term. Hitler was also a leader and so also Gandhi. We look up at Gandhi and look down at Hitler.
Then there are leaders who develop institutions, organisations, companies with sheer strength of their character.

But we as human beings are more interested in Good leaders like Mahatma Gandhi, Abraham Lincoln and others who have made a positive contribution to welfare of society. Only such leaders are to be admitted in Hall of fame. To determine a good leader, we need to look at the intention behind his actions. What was their vision?

Vanderbilt was guided by intention of accumulating wealth or creating a system to facilitate movement of essential goods across continent? Was his vision to accumulate wealth or to contribute to society?

Anthony said...

I lean toward a combination of the last 2 comments. I would call them pioneers and rulers but not leaders. I also agree that each of our own definitions of leadership shapes our answer. If you belive leadership is based on your financial or industrial position (in front of the pack etc), then you can make the argument they are and were leaders. COnversely if you take that definition and apply a moral compass to it and make it conditional then you have another definition. Personally I would say pioneers becuase they developed so many ideas and fostered so much change in America that changed the world. For me, that does not make them leaders but pioneers in their industry. My denition of leadership includes the reasons WHY we do things, why we want to develop new enterprising ways to grow the country or economy or whatever it is. If it is for the greater good and if it is at it's base, the right thing to do...leadership. If the motivation is money and personal wealth, and the by product happens to make things better...not a leadership. I would call that stewardship.

Patrick Harkey said...

Leadership is a term that means different things to different people, but being a leader of people does not mean the same things as being a business leader, and have completely different methods.

I think there are examples of those that are both leaders of people and business leaders as well, but while many of the past generation of business leaders were not leaders of men, the measurement of their success would be comparing Vanderbilt to Carnegie. Depending on your point of view, you can argue who was the best business leader, but when it comes to being a leader of people, Carnegie would be in a class of it's own. I like Scott's reference to Sir Richard Branson, who is a visionary business leader, but also a leader of people, so it would be interesting to see how they would be considered in the future. Anyone can generate wealth, it takes individual effort to do things different than most, and be more successful than most at the same time.

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