Goldman Co-Chair Rouses HBS Grads

John C. Whitehead, former co-chair of Goldman Sachs and a deputy secretary of state for Ronald Reagan, began his Harvard Business School Class Day address by commenting on the poor quality of most graduation speeches.

“I tried to remember what I’d learnt from various graduation speehces,” he said to an audience of 2,000 sitting on the perfectly manicured grass in front of Baker Library. “I couldn’t remember a thing.”

Whitehead said he wanted to give a few words of advice about the various leadership challenges he has faced and used personal anecdotes to illustrate how each individual situation requires a unique leadership style.

“It’s hard to find common factors that lead to leadership success,” said Whitehead.

He said that very different leadership skills are necessary in times of prosperity and in times of hardship. He cautioned graduates not to indulge themselves and their subordinates with limousines, high salaries and numerous assistants in successful times so that cutbacks in a recession would not need to be as damaging to the corporate community.

“It’s all too easy in good times to get into bad habits,” Whitehead said. “It is [easy to forget] that business cycles still exist.”

While he mentioned that there were two main styles of leadership that people could adopt—soft spoken and thoughtful or aggressive and dominant—he urged the graduates to always listen and not shy away from seeking advice.

“Try to listen first and decide later,” he said.

When he was appointed to his current job as chair of the Lower Manhattan Redevelopment Project, Whitehead said he took his own advice. He immediately declared himself to be in a “listening mode,” made no decisions for the first two months and convened eight advisory committees to represent the various parties interested in the project, he said.

He also spoke about the benefits of group decision making.

“Two people making a decision will come up with a better decision that one person leading alone,” he said. “Three people better than two, and four better than three.”

Whitehead recounted how he once had the opportunity to be appointed sole chair of Goldman Sachs. But instead, in a move with which he says he is still happy today, he decided to become co-chair with his longtime friend John L. Weinberg.

“Our skills complemented each other and two heads were better than one,”said Whitehead. “My decision to share power turned out to be a good one for the firm, and a good one for me.”

Whitehead advised graduates that one of the skills most important in a leader was the ability to hire the best people.

“If we had the best people, we’d be the best firm,” he said referring to his time at Goldman. “Talented people, not organization charts, are what makes the world go round.”

He noted that during his tenure at Goldman the company did not even have an organization chart; this allowed the bank to be more flexible in responding to changing situations, he said.