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What’s In A Name?

CONFESSIONS OF AN S.O.B. Al Neuharth, Doubleday, 361 pp. $18.95.That’s the question this book poses to me. If one accepts …

CONFESSIONS OF AN S.O.B. Al Neuharth, Doubleday, 361 pp. $18.95.

That’s the question this book poses to me. If one accepts the hype on the book jacket, Al Neuharth believes he is an “S.O.B.” and a “maverick CEO.”

I am unconvinced that Neuharth is as much of an S.O.B. or a maverick as he thinks, or wants us to believe. I don’t know why he wants to create this “tough guy” image unless he believes it will sell books. Certainly his judgment on how to sell publications is something we must take seriously.

Whatever his motivation, the self description of Neuharth is of a more sympathetic and, I would argue, more typical, although innovative, CEO than the title suggests. That is not to say that the typical

CEO has had two wives or, as we are reminded repeatedly, writes memos on peach colored stationery, or maintains a deluxe suite in a posh hotel.

Neuharth does have his own distinctive personal style to which he devotes a chapter. All corporate leaders have personal style, although typically less flamboyant than Neuharth’s. Neuharth uses the term “style” to connote matters of taste and life-style rather than the narrower sense

used in most books about management and leadership-the habitual behavior pattern of the leader as he interacts with others. I emphasize this because it is in the latter sense that Neuharth seems more typical than he admits.

Neuharth gives us his strong, personal opinions about newspapers (especially the Washington Post), journalism schools, state governors, world leaders and other business leaders he has encountered, especially in his deal making. These lively views make the book enjoyable to read.

As a supposedly serious business scholar, I felt obliged to look for a more serious message in this book. I was quickly disabused of the idea that it had anything to do with the central thesis the cover promises-that one must be an S.O.B. and a maverick to succeed as a CEO. In the first couple of pages, Neuharth tries to define an S.O.B.

First we are told he has been called one by others because “he was a thorn in their sides,” or “a pain in the ass,” or because “he had won their admiration, affection, even envy.” He continues that “in today’s world, calling someone an S.O.B. means whatever you want it to mean.” His own personal definition: “An S.O.B. is someone who uses whatever tactics it takes to rise to the top. As nicely as possible. A little niceness whenever necessary.” In the final chapter we are told “you must draft your own definition of an S.O.B.”

I think that even those who are not scholars or Harvard MBAs will understand my consternation. How can Neuharth write a book about the importance of being an S.O.B. if he can’t define one?

I decided to search for my own message. I did so with trepidation, as I noted Neuharth’s references to business schools and MBAs were never favorable. I was gratified, however, to see he gives high marks to the Harvard Lampoon for its parody of USA Today.

What does Neuharth really think it takes to rise to the top and be a successful business leader? First, I do not know whether he is an S.O.B. by any definition, as the only external judgments of him are made by his ex-wives and his two children, all of who are bound to be biased. What is clear however, is that he has what my psychologist friends would call a strong ego. He has a strong sense of himself and his personal goals. I would assert that this is not unusual among CEOs I’ve known or of those who have been the subject of research at Harvard.

Further, Neuharth, rather than being a harsh, insensitive person, comes across as one who is indeed highly attuned to those around him, whether they be board members, subordinates, owners of potential acquisitions or competitors. In fact, one of the most significant messages he delivers is the importance of having your antennae tuned to those with whom you must relate. If you want to sell a new idea-like USA Today-to the board, you’d better understand how each director is likely to respond to such a radical idea. If you want to consummate a deal for the Louisville Courier-Journal and Times, you’d better understand the owners. If you want to make a favorable impression on Wall Street analysts, you need to learn about their motivations and agendas. If you want to convince a subordinate to take a risky assignment, you need to understand his or her concerns, hopes and aspirations. The reader can decide whether this is the advice of a maverick or would come from any successful CEO.

Neuharth also sounds like other successful CEOs I know when he describes his concerns for all Gannett’s stakeholders, shareholders, customers (readers) and employees. His basic arguments are that all are important and that the CEO must concern himself with all of them and their expectations of his company. Again, the image he conveys to me is that of a corporate leader who understands that his job must include balancing these sometimes diverse interests and figuring out how to meet them all.

If there is anything unusual about Neuharth, as compared to other CEOs, it is his success as an innovator-whether it be a product like USA Today, or new human resource policies, such as his success in bringing women and minorities into Gannett’s management ranks. Again, as I understand him, his success has little to do with being an S.O.B., although it may have something to do with his being a maverick. In both instances, his success at introducing change stems first from his personal involvement in the project at hand. As he says in discussing the creation of USA Today, “that’s why the CEO must be involved. No one has as good a feel for a product as its creator or founder or boss.” Beyond this “feel,” the CEO’s involvement sends an important message to those working on the new idea and concerned with it: the big boss cares, this is important.

Whether Neuharth is or is not an S.O.B. is less important than recognizing that beneath the hype and the pithy statements of superficial advice, there are a few profound messages, which business leaders should heed.

Jay W. Lorsch is a professor at Harvard Business School and author of Pawns or Potentates: The Reality of America’s Corporate Boards.

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