Beyond the Build


What Dinner With Alan Greenspan Taught Me About Leadership

Last month, with little time to spare, the Senate reconfirmed Ben Bernanke as Chairman of the U.S. Federal Reserve. His term was set to expire just two days later. Senators were looking for a place to lay blame for our country’s current financial dilemma. Bernanke took much of their heat, even though they really wanted to point a finger at former chair Alan Greenspan.

Many argue Greenspan, who in his last four years as Fed Chairman kept rates too low and regulation too tight, led us to a housing bubble that is causing our worst financial crisis since the Depression. But Bernanke has said regulatory problems in the mortgage markets were to blame, not the Fed’s monetary policy. All this got me thinking about the bit of personal insight I have on Greenspan’s leadership.

In 2000, I was invited to a Washington D.C. dinner attended by Mr. Greenspan and hosted by Congressman Spencer Bachus. Over the course of that meal, I learned that Greenspan is a diverse man. I’ve talked before about becoming a better business leader by indulging your passion, and it seems his is two pronged: music and data.

Although his life’s work has been centered on economics, Greenspan graduated from Juilliard in his early 20s and traveled as a professional saxophonist in a jazz band prior to earning degrees in commerce and economics. He still plays the sax occasionally, in addition to the clarinet and the piano.

As for the data side of his passion, he has long studied New York Yankees statistics. Even as a boy, he could tell you the batting average of every player. This folded logically into his career. Greenspan told me that his business life could be easily described as studying data and trying to figure out how the world works.

In an MSNBC article he said, “I love facts and figures. It’s like following a detective story, piecing together what’s going on in the economy.” Now, I imagine he’s studying data and taking his time to put this crisis into some kind of fact-based, statistical perspective—solving the mystery, so to speak.

After meeting him, I don’t believe he ever allowed the seemingly endless, often excessive praise he got in the old pre-crisis days go to his head. His data-based disciplines kept him steady as reflected in this quote about his time as Fed Chairman: “I was praised for things I didn’t do and now I’m blamed for things I didn’t do.” Powerful words.

My takeaways:

  • Don’t be a one-note song. Explore all your interests, both in your career and outside it.
  • Find a way to relate your passion to your career. Greenspan made his life’s work from his love for interpreting data.
  • Much like Greenspan’s approach to capitalism, laissez-faire leadership is often the best.
  • Make glory personal, not something others ascribe to you. If your work is grounded in data, you can stand by your decision, no matter which way the wind is blowing.
Merrill Stewart Jr.

Merrill Stewart is Founder and CEO of The Stewart/Perry Company, a commercial building contractor based in Birmingham.