Our latest contest for a day as president of Schmidlap National Bank was on the topic "What makes a good leader?"
The best answers were not descriptions of what a CEO does, or lists of important qualities, but examples of actions that a leader's true worth.
The closest thing to an analysis of traits a CEO needs came from an old friend, Thomas L. Gray Jr., president and CEO of Carnegie Bank of Princeton, N.J.
Tom's answer to the contest was a poemlike statement written by Lao-tzu in the 6th century B.C.
A leader is best
When people barely know he exists,
Not so good when people obey and acclaim him,
Worse when they despise him.
But of a good leader, who talks little,
When his work is done, his aim fulfilled,
They will say,
"We did it ourselves."
John A. McGann, a former banker and now principal consultant at Input in Teaneck, N.J., wrote that what makes a good CEO "can differ among banks, depending on their markets and size." He gave two examples, from a small bank and a behemoth.
Example one was Tom Bisko, CEO of Quakertown (Pa.) National Bank.
"Rather than concentrate all his time on improving services and adding electronic services as advised when he became CEO, Tom encouraged his staff to increase contacts with depositors by phoning them if it wasn't possible to talk when they visited the bank," Mr. McGann wrote. "Regular contact with the people whose deposits and loans have been the bread-and-butter of this bank helped it resume a pattern of strong growth.
Example two was Citicorp's John Reed.
Mr. Reed "is associated with some of the most revolutionary technological changes in banking," Mr. McGann wrote, "but he caught a number of banking and financial industry people off-guard when he dared to admit that it will take 50 to 70 years for full-scale electronic banking to take hold.
Mr. Reed's remarks make it possible for people at Citicorp "to plan for change with the assurance that top management understands the difficulty of achieving goals," Mr. McGann wrote. "
But our winner of the Schmidlap presidency was B. David Kurland, who identified himself only as Box #1253 in Melville, N.Y.
President (ahem) Kurland wrote:
"Your article 'Building the Ideal CEO,' which appeared in the Sept. 24 American Banker, immediately brought to mind two experiences from my early banking career decades ago - both with the president of my bank, an institution which had approximately $1.5 billion in assets at the time.
"The first: I was in the training program when my mother passed away of cancer. Several weeks later, the American Cancer Society sent my family the cards which accompanied the contributions made in my mother's name. To my utter amazement, there was a card from the president with the message: 'Please accept this contribution in memory of my associate's mother.'
"He called me an associate! The president called a trainee 'associate!' That experience made such an impression on me that to this day I refer to all my colleagues as associates, regardless of their rank.
"The second: Two years year later, I was approached by a large insurance company which wanted me to join its fast-track training program. To make a long story short, I went to the president, explained my situation, and he said to give him a few days.
"He proceeded to get former employees of that insurance company who now worked for the bank to speak with me about their experiences. They convinced me to remain, whereupon I learned the president was on the board of directors of that company! In addition, he told me confidentially that the program for which they recruited me was soon to be abolished.
"Both instances illustrate a CEO who truly cared about his employees, or at least about this one.
"I have become a loyal disciple by using the interpersonal skills I learned from him. It is so much more fulfilling and fun coming to work when you know those in senior management have your best interests at heart."
Congratulations, president Kurland; your certificate of appointment is in the mail.
Mr. Nadler is a contributing editor of the American Banker and professor of finance at Rutgers University Graduate School of Management.