The man of all seasons: Sidney Harman
Question: Considering all spheres of endeavor, who would you nominate as Leader of the Year in 2010? Why?
In full disclosure, I met my nominee over a half century ago in a strangely exotic setting: a small manufacturing plant in Bolivar, Tennessee, where the workers were turning out rearview mirrors for automobiles. We've been friends and colleagues ever since. At that time he was the owner and CEO, well before that acronym was widely used, and I was a professor of management at M.I.T., fascinated with progressive companies, striving to develop more collaborative and effective relationships with unions.
In those days, there were only a few companies pioneering in what was then rather quaintly called, "participative management." One thing stood out immediately: It was the most diverse working force I'd ever seen, especially in the South. More unique, at that time in the late 50s when unions and management throughout the country were roiling with discontent, accompanied by soft and hard forms of "union busting," here in Bolivar, management and the union were actually working together in fundamental ways--setting working hours and wage structures, even agreeing to productivity goals. In the first day or two I thought this was some kind of a weird Potemkin Village. Weird, only because it was real and, over the next two decades, became a model of successful union-management relationships throughout the world.
During our early years, my nominee came close to Joseph Campbell's heroes: an "object of enchantment." Since then, he's no longer an object but the enchantment has morphed into deep respect. From those early days, my man for all seasons has led and participated actively in virtually all of our country's most significant sectors. He's been president of a small, liberal arts college; a pioneer in moving audio-visual systems from the analog age to the digital age, and then CEO and founder of one of the largest industrial companies making high-quality sound systems; Under Secretary of Commerce under President Carter; and in the several years since, he has become a chaired professor at my university where he has established a new institute of "polymathic studies," a portent for the future of a real liberal arts education, just as his Bolivar days led to more humanitarian work places. Along the way, he and his wife, an influential congresswoman, have been creative philanthropists, donating untold millions for educational and cultural institutions. And this year, mirabile dictu, he bought and co-chairs a widely renowned national, weekly news magazine!
While he is a bare seven years older than I, I call him "the kid," and he calls me his "older bro." Sidney Harman turns 93 next August, and his age is irrelevant because it doesn't appear that he'll ever stop. "If and when I die," he once said to me, during a tennis match years ago. I took that seriously. When the business world, in particular, is desperately looking for leaders with a double "bottom line"--humanitarian and ethical principles along with serving their investors with reasonable profits--we need look no further than Dr. (almost forgot, he got a Ph.D. along the way) Sidney Harman.
December 22, 2010; 4:12 PM ET
Category: Accomplishing Goals , Corporate leadership , Government leadership , Leadership personalities , Teaching Leadership Save & Share:
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