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A Defining Moment

Posted by: Jena McGregor on September 26, 2008


It’s always interesting to me to ask what CEOs are reading. Very rarely do I find that it’s one of the hundreds of dull management guides that publishers churn out every year. More often it’s history. Quite often it’s about real leaders facing trying times.

Whatever your politics may be, this looks like a good one, and a fitting one for this week. Jim Sinegal, CEO of Costco, told me not too long ago—but before the financial shock and awe we’ve been seeing in the last two weeks—that he’s been reading “The Defining Moment,” Newsweek writer Jonathan Alter’s book about the first 100 days of Roosevelt’s presidency and the empathy he learned from fellow polio patients that helped him during those days.

I’d asked Sinegal about the economy and his outlook for it. “Nobody seems to know what’s behind the curtain,” he said. But after saying he’d just read the book, he was quick to turn the discussion to the customer. “What’s the effect of all this going to be on the poor consumer? The people out there working for a living who keep the country running, who are in danger of losing their homes. … I was born during the Depression. By the time I was 5 years old, I’d heard enough stories, stories from my parents about how the confidence of the entire nation disappeared.” While he was careful to say he wasn’t trying to engage in hyperbole, he also recognized how much “the confidence of the nation is shaken at the moment.”

I haven’t read Alter’s book, published in 2006, but after recalling our conversation I sought it out today. Reading this line from the synopsis on Simon & Schuster’s web site was almost eerie given the presidential debates tonight and the unfolding financial crisis: “In the most tumultuous and dramatic presidential transition in history, the entire banking structure came tumbling down just hours before FDR’s legendary ‘only thing we have to fear is fear itself’ Inaugural Address.”

Beats “The 21 Qualities of a Leader” any day.

Reader Comments

Wally Bock

September 27, 2008 5:34 PM

History and biography are the best reading for leaders. The mechanics of business are pretty simple and generally straightforward. What makes business or political leadership is people. People are the unchanging part of business.

And reading history gives us a frame of reference. It may be true as Mark Twain said that, "History does not repeat, but it does rhyme." But that's enough.

Bruce Temkin

September 28, 2008 9:23 AM

Great post. It's no surprise that Costco came out at the top of Forrester's Customer Experience Index (which ranked 112 firms) given the empathy that Sinegal shows for customers. That's why I often write about leadership in my blog "Customer Experience Matters" (


September 29, 2008 11:27 PM

What people now consider "leadership" is little more than self-interest. That's not leadership, it's greed. Real leaders of old (Alexander, Sun Tzu, Aurelius) would give up their lives to save their country. They sacrificed for the good of their people. The bland, win-win "leaders" we have nowadays are nothing like them, and it's laughable that many consider them anything beyond profit takers.


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