Kitty Kelley Book Club: David Rubenstein’s ‘How to Lead’


By Kitty Kelley

The Irish were the first to master the art of television conversation with “The Late Late Show,” moderated by Gay Byrne in Dublin from 1962 to 1990 and still running today with various hosts. Then came the British with David Frost, who hosted several U.K. “chat shows” before coming to America with “The David Frost Show.” Frost rose to international prominence in 1977 with his five 90-minute interviews with Richard Nixon, which forced the former president to acknowledge and apologize for Watergate. One of Frost’s many successors in London is Clive James, who currently hosts “Talking in the Library.”

In the U.S., Larry King held sway on CNN every weeknight with “Larry King Live,” reigning for 25 years in colorful suspenders. He was followed by Charlie Rose, who invited guests to join him at his table on PBS from 1991 to 2017. When Rose was summarily fired for sexual harassment, he and his table were banished and replaced by two sturdy chairs for David M. Rubenstein to interview the great and the good on “The David Rubenstein Show.”

A co-founder of the Carlyle Group, a D.C.-based, multinational, private-equity investment firm, Rubenstein — a spectacular businessman worth $3.4 billion — is capitalizing on his television show by publishing some of his interviews. His first book, “The American Story: Conversations with Master Historians,” published in 2019, was very good. His second, “How to Lead: Wisdom from the World’s Greatest CEOs, Founders, and Game Changers,” published last month, is okay.

The book’s cover features sketches of Oprah Winfrey, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Bill Gates, Christine Lagarde, Warren Buffett, Jeff Bezos, Indra Nooyi, Richard Branson and Yo-Yo Ma. The contents present 30 individuals — 15 men and 15 women — Rubenstein deems as exemplifying leadership, whom he divides into different categories: visionaries, builders, transformers, commanders, decision makers and masters.

In his introduction, Rubenstein presents his formula for becoming a world-class leader. Moses had 10 Commandments; Rubenstein has 12:

I. Luck.

II. Desire to succeed.

III. Pursue something new and unique.

IV. Hard work and long hours. (“Workaholism is a plus.”)

V. Focus everything on mastering one skill.

VI. Fail. (“My having been part of a failed White House certainly fueled my ambition to succeed,” he writes, as former deputy domestic-policy assistant to President Carter.)

VII. Persistence.

VIII. Persuasion.

IX. Humble demeanor.

X. Credit-sharing. (Here, he quotes his hero, John F. Kennedy: “Victory has a hundred fathers, and defeat is an orphan.” So, spread the glory.)

XI. Ability to keep learning. (Rubenstein writes that he reads six newspapers a day, at least a dozen weekly periodicals and a minimum of one book a week, although, he adds, he often juggles three to four books simultaneously. You wonder how the man finds time to tie his shoes.)

XII. Integrity, which he defines as not cutting ethical corners.

Rubenstein comes to all his interviews well prepared, if a bit short on charm. He’s developed a style much like Jack Webb on “Dragnet”: “Just the facts, Ma’am.” He’s respectful to his guests, even as his questions probe.

“How to Lead” begins with the best interview in the book. Its subject: Jeff Bezos, who happens to be the richest man in the world ($173.5 billion), founder and CEO of Amazon and owner of the Washington Post. A high school valedictorian who graduated summa cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa from Princeton, Bezos changed his major from theoretical physics to electrical engineering and computer science when he realized he was not going to be one of the top 50 theoretical physicists in the world — an indication, perhaps, of why he prizes failure as a pathway to success.

(Here, Rubenstein admits his own financial failure, the biggest business mistake he made, selling his firm’s equity in Amazon for $80 million in 1996, which, today, would be worth “about $4 billion.”)

In his interview, Bezos reveals a man devoted to his parents. “One of the great gifts I got is my mom and dad,” he says. “I was always loved. My parents loved me unconditionally.” He adds that he’s committed to eight hours of sleep every night, reserving “high IQ meetings” for midmorning, when he has his best energy. He says the most important work he’s doing at present is investing in the future by putting $1 billion a year of his own money into Blue Origin, his aspirational program to make expanded human space travel a reality.

The only one of Rubenstein’s leaders without a college degree, let alone the advanced degrees that most of the others hold, is Richard Branson, a dyslexic who dropped out of school at 15. “Do you think you could have been more successful in life if you had a university degree?” Rubenstein asks. “No,” says Branson, who founded Virgin Group, an umbrella for hundreds of Virgin enterprises, including Virgin Airlines, Virgin Megastores and Virgin Galactic. Branson is worth $4.2 billion.

Rubenstein includes his double interview with two former two-term presidents, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. But he has not interviewed his former boss, Jimmy Carter, a one-term president whom many consider a leader in humanitarian outreach. Rubenstein characterizes Carter’s term in office as a “failed White House.” Yet Carter established the Department of Energy in 1977 and the Department of Education in 1979.

He cut the deficit, ended rampant inflation and managed to get more of his legislation passed than any president since World War II with the exception of Lyndon Johnson. And Carter, a Nobel laureate, is the only president since Thomas Jefferson under whom the U.S. military never fired a shot.

With all due respect to this billionaire author, Carter’s presidency, while only four years, can hardly be dismissed as a failure.

This review originally appeared in the Washington Independent Review of Books.

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