Paging Larry Summers: Do Life’s Lessons Learned Ever Stop?

Lawrence H. Summers - World Economic Forum Ann...

Larry Summers - Image by World Economic Forum via Flickr

I have a challenge. You might too.

Today was a pile-on day as the same life lesson repeated twice. Something no doubt that I’ve yet to learn, or have learned and then unlearned.

Someplace at the intersection of authenticity, candor, and tact is a lesson with my name on it.

Larry Summers, arguably one of the brightest lights around, has a habit of saying things that get a reaction, if not also get him in trouble. While President of Harvard University he said – to an economists conference no less – that “under-representation of female scientists at elite universities may stem in part from “innate” differences between men and women.” While his speech and the context of it had its defenders, including prominent women, the sound bite and reaction to criticism played badly and was a factor in an accelerated departure from the school.

On a similar and lighter note, Summer’s description of his meeting with Harvard students and identical twins Tyler and Cameron Winklevoss – a scene portrayed in the movie The Social Network was “One of the things you learn as a college president is that if an undergraduate is wearing a tie and jacket on Thursday afternoon at three o’clock, there are two possibilities. One is that they’re looking for a job and have an interview; the other is that they are an a**hole. This was the latter case.

Steve Jobs also had a well-known penchant for the quick wit. His description of Bill Gates? “Bill is basically unimaginative and has never invented anything, which is why I think he’s more comfortable now in philanthropy than technology. He just shamelessly ripped off other people’s ideas.

My challenge is very different but in a similar broad vein; I say what I think.

While Summers and Jobs dished interpretations, I stick with facts; what did people say, what did they do, what were the measurable results. While Summers and Jobs may have reinterpreted  the facts and went long on interpretation, that’s a place I assiduously avoid. No guessed intents, no conclusions about what it means unless what it means is your own personal experience.

While the Bible in Johns 8:32 says “Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free,”  the fact of the matter is that telling people what happened – the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth – may not win you fans and may get you into social and organizational trouble. My truth is the Merriam-Webster version 2a; “the body of real things, events, facts” – and no withholding of information including context.

Today a client mentioned that a shared acquaintance of ours in another organization was treating me as a persona non grata. Why? I’d been recruited by the acquaintance’s organization and the CEO had said and done some pretty remarkable things. The person’s beef? They thought that repeating what had happened personally to me when people asked me about the organization (which I prefaced by saying that the organization had some great people) was inappropriate. What the CEO had said and done didn’t sound or look so good in the light of day. Far better, the helpful suggestion from my client was, to say “not my cup of tea.” 

Later in the day the head of another organization with whom I am associated dropped a note to suggest that describing an exchange with someone in their organization by name in a blog post had crossed a line. Fairly said within the context of the issue I agreed, and scrubbed the person’s and organization’s name and related reference. But in doing so it also made the reference vague, leaving out some relevant context, and perhaps helpful instructional value.

How’d the issue surface? Someone had sent the head of the organization (of whom I have a great deal of respect and admiration, as I do the vast balance of the organization) an email noting that I referenced someone by name but had not referenced the organization, and that in an earlier post had referenced the organization without referencing the person by name. I was surprised my postings had what’s referred to in the social media world as a blog stalker; the other thought was to recall a favorite boss (who had tact and savvy that I wished had rubbed off on me) saying about somebody who have the time to be tracking my posts and reporting them out, “Don’t they have a life?

What’s odd in both cases is that either offended person could have given me a call or flipped me a note asking me to rethink an approach rather than sending a message through someone else. The virtual world of the Internet is filled with people who self-identify as “anonymous” for any number of reasons; in the physical world the price to pay for intermediation can be a loss of accountability (people create issues that they themselves never personally address) and responsibility (it’s someone else’s problem to solve) absent some compelling reason to stay hidden.

The fact of the matter is we want truth (accuracy, facts, relevant context, details, etc.) when we want it (market analysis, stock picks, bank accounts, STD and marital status if you’re dating) and something less precise when we don’t, generally because it may be perceived as negative. Words like “interesting,” “fine,” “solid” or  “all right” without any factual debris to color the landscape.

Quoting somebody accurately by name if the quote may somehow not put the person in the best of lights? Not such a great idea. But if the the sentiment is only positive? The more facts the merrier.

At one level it means that kids don’t fail, they are “challenged.”  The firm is not running out of money, it’s “struggling.”  The negative becomes lost in code words that give people flexibility to deny they said anything negative, and receivers to pretend things are rosier than perhaps facts suggest.

I did work with a client where the culture of the particular market in which they operate was not to say no to people; you just ignored them and didn’t respond. That let their would-be customers save face (“They never said no”) with a price to pay that everyone had to operate in highly orchestrated dual universe; what people say, what people really mean, and the meeting after the meeting became the place to talk turkey.

There is no doubt I have much work to do in the area; more tact, more subtleties, more nuances. I likely need to acquire a much better “A” and “B” switch; the former for working with clients and close friends where candor is valued, it’s appreciated and it’s very effective. The “B” switch will be for the  rest of the world, where what’s said may or may not be what was really meant.

I talked a couple of years ago with a female acquaintance who had taken a job working with Larry Summers in the Obama Administration. She is as bright, smart and hard working as they come. I told her I would have loved to be a fly on the wall when she and Summers spoke about the role. My recollection is that she said something to the effect that “Larry has skills and abilities that few others have. But he is a whole package; you get what you get – all of it.”

So as I read to my son tonight (Aesop’s Fables), thinking about keeping true to my beliefs about truth while also working on being my better self, I also remembered something else Steve Jobs said. “Sometimes life is going to hit you in the head with a brick. Don’t lose faith.


Life Back West is an occasional set of writings focused on ways people, teams and organizations can be both more effective (doing the right thing) and more efficient (doing the right thing well). More about executive, career and team / leadership coaching services can be found at the “About J. Mike Smith and Back West, Inc.” sidebar or the “Hire Me” tab above. You can also read an online interview with me at WhoHub, as well as participate in my learning community courtesy of KnowledgeCrush.

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