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Interview: Why Good CEOs Make Bad Moves

Another red flag about Dick Fuld is the attachment story. He was credited with rebuilding the firm when it was spun out of Shearson in the early 90s. He thought of himself as a founder -- as if he was a Lehman. His over-attachment caused him to not want to sell. John Thain had no such attachment. He was looking to sell out at the highest price.

Jackson: Most would say President Obama is smart. He appears to have surrounded himself with talented people. He has enormous goodwill from the American public. What are the biggest lessons he should take from your work in order not to squander the opportunity he has?

Finkelstein: He appears to have the right management style with what we've found works. He delegates with appropriate oversight without micromanaging. That's a real art. He also pays attention to the importance of symbols and customs. A lot of leaders have no clue about just how important it is to pay attention to the symbolic things that people always remember. He also appears to engender real debate without getting bogged down by analysis paralysis. I think his biggest risk is that he listens too much. At end of the day, there's only one leader and he has to decide.

I would also advise him, if he asked me, to never give up the high ground on values -- the fundamental values of what you believe in. He's come to power with a lot of high hopes. Compromise is important and part of the political process, but he's got to stick to some fundamental principals.

Jackson: I was struck by what you said in the book about pattern recognition. Hedge funds have gotten their share of the blame for the current mess. Many funds built quantitative models with bright PhDs in math, computer science and physics to predict the future. When the world changed, their models were found to be worthless and resulted in billions in losses and redemptions. If you were advising a hedge fund picking up the pieces now, how do you do pattern recognition correctly?

Finkelstein: A lot of people in hedge funds attribute their success to their genius -- on the way up. You think they're doing the same now? Arrogance is an incredible warning sign for later tragedy. Every one of their quant models was based on a set of assumptions. You have to understand those assumptions and whether your model is based on limited data.

The world changed. Going forward, they have to build new models and ensure they are monitoring and updating their assumptions as they go in a dynamic fashion instead of remaining static.

Jackson: You point out the risks of an over-confident leader. Shouldn't leaders be self-confident though?

Finkelstein: No one has ever been successful without self-confidence. Of course, you need a balance. It's tough but you need to find it. You have to be confident, willing and able, but you have to stay open to alternative points of views.

But again, boards play a big role in reining in out-sized egos. There are a lot of safeguards you should be aware of that we discuss in the book: avoiding yes men and ensuring a high quality of debate in group discussions. But there's no replacement for good governance. Boards need to be much more assertive.
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