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Sunday, July 30, 2006

Homage to Brian Sullivan (or, Thoughts on Personal Force)

What makes charismatic people exude their personal power?   I have heard stories about people (of all political persuasions) encountering Bill Clinton in person - is it size? looks? the fact he is/was the President?  (On the latter point, perhaps "is" counts, but a recent personal experience suggests mere "was" does not.  I was in New York in May for my daughter's college graduation, and was walking down Lexington Avenue early on a Saturday morning to get a Starbucks.  A group of people were coming up the street in kind of a funny formation, with two small older people - a man and a woman - in the middle.  I recognized the man as somebody I knew - in fact, in the first instant, I thought he knew me too, because he made eye contact and smiled at me.  Then I realized it was Jimmy and Rosalyn Carter, walking up Lex (holding hands, by the way, it was cute) , neither of whom I know, and the odd formation was the Secret Service contingent.  It was cool, but it was not charismatic.)

Two people in my career with whom I've had more than passing contact have exuded such personal force as to make me wonder how it happens.  One is Larry Bossidy, the former chairman of Honeywell/Allied Signal.   Bossidy is a public figure and best-selling business author, so I don't need to comment on him.   Instead, I want to consider Brian Sullivan, who from 1981 to 1990 (the "Wonder Years," three through twelve, of my law career) was the Executive Partner of the Dykema Gossett law firm based in Detroit.  (In creating the link to its web site, I had a Brian Leiter " wild hyperbole" moment.  Its motto now, I guess, is "A Law Firm Unlike Any Other."  That is either (a) an unremarkable statement of the obvious, unless they are cloning firms now, or (b) the law firm version of what Brian would call Sextonism.  Brian Leiter, that is.  But I can imagine Brian Sullivan having a similar view of the slogan - see below.)

Some of Brian's more memorable exhibitions of personal force, and some speculation on the nature of charisma and personal power, continue below the break.

I have not seen Brian in many years (he pretty much retired cold turkey).  He was about 5'11, a Harvard Law School grad,  jut-jawed, square-faced, with white hair slicked back straight from an even and not very receded hairline.  His voice was very deep and he spoke loudly.   Supposedly he had been a boxer in college.  He had a legendary Irish temper, known to recede as quickly as it flaired up.  He had a stable of high-powered clients, many of whom hired him after having seen him perform on the other side in a negotiation.  When he laughed, it was kind of a bark, but I don't think he had much of a sense of humor.  In 1984, I was asked by one of the other senior partners to organize an associates'  skit/roast (in which now-Professor Lee Pizzimenti of the University of Toledo Law School played a leading role).  My best friend (in the law firm and life), Alan Greene, played our administrative partner, a non-descript bureaucratic fellow with the unlikely name of Henry Clay (known as The Great Compromisor), who, among the associates, was best-known for being Brian's lackey and wearing his pants belted somewhere around his armpits.   Alan, wearing a pair of pants belted around his armpits, began his part of the skit (an announcement by Henry of new administrative cost saving measures, like conserving on paper clips) by walking out on stage and unrolling  posters of Marx, Lenin, and Brian.  We also asked a black associate by the name of Avery Williams to play Brian in a white George Washington wig.  It was the last associates' skit for almost seven years.

One partner told a story of Brian getting mad because a dictaphone wouldn't work, and throwing it against the wall, whereupon it began working perfectly.  The partner watching this said, "well, Brian, you just scared it into working."   

Despite his lack of appreciation of others' humor, he had a dry and deflating wit.  I personally have many times quoted his description of his main job as the leader of a law firm partnership:  "keeping the troops sullen but not mutinous."  (I recommend that to deans. )  A young lawyer was bragging about having billed twenty-two hours in a single day.  Brian's response:  "I wouldn't want to be the client paying for the last eight or ten of them."

I encountered his direct management style once.  I was -  how should we say this? - a bit brash, even a little cocky,  as a young lawyer.  It didn't help that I looked about nineteen when I was twenty-seven.  I was trying to get reimbursed for a trip and getting frustrated and I was probably just a little too abrupt on the phone with his secretary.  About an hour later, I was summoned to his office, where Brian, face beet-red, threw a one-paragraph memo at me, and said "Read this."  It was a fairly accurate description of my conversation with his secretary.  Brian asked, "Is it true?"  I said, "yes, and I'm really sorry.  I will apologize to Carol."  He replied, "you are a really smart guy and a fine lawyer, but if you can't get along with the staff, you have no future with us."

But I have always wondered about that personal force.  Was it the voice?  The temper?  The white hair?  I speculated that it was a combination of two things:  (a) despite the temper, amazing self-control and calculation, and (b) just not caring what other people thought of him.  As to the first, another partner told the story of Brian just reaming an opposing lawyer in the hallway of the Wayne County Circuit Court, and in the midst of the tirade, winking at the Dykema associate standing behind the unfortunate victim.   As to the second, I once speculated that personal power arose because there was an imbalance between two people in terms of how much each other cared what the other one thought.  I cared a lot about what Brian thought of me; Brian didn't seem to care what ANYONE thought of him.  Consistent with that was something Brian told me about negotiating style.  He thought you gained an advantage if the other side thought you were just a little bit irrational and needed to be placated; he once told me it wasn't really a negotiation if he hadn't walked out at least once.

That never worked for me; I always wanted to be loved more than I wanted to be feared.

Posted by Jeff Lipshaw on July 30, 2006 at 07:25 AM in Lipshaw | Permalink


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Tracked on Jul 31, 2006 2:53:24 PM


I wonder how much of this is immediate-context dependent as well. For example, my own experience is that I have approximately zero charisma in small-scale/personal encounters. On the other hand, I seem to have a non-trivial amount persuasive force/personal force/charisma in front of a crowd or on the stage. Very odd. To my mind, that totally worthless data-point seems to suggest that the difference is largely behavioral rather than inherent -- that I behave differently in front of a crowd than I do in small groups, and have a different charisma-output.

Anyway, I'm sure there's research on this. This blog needs a psychologist or two to regularly comment (there are enough economists and philosophers hanging around) to pick up on this stuff and run with it.

Posted by: Paul Gowder | Jul 31, 2006 11:17:43 AM

Bill Clinton is 6' 4" and he has an imposing presence. His eyes are very piercing as well. Feeling like you're in the presence of greatness doesn't hurt, either.

Posted by: Bart Motes | Jul 31, 2006 1:48:28 AM

I wish I were 6'2". I've always thought I was too short for my weight.

If you are 5'2", you would have felt tall next to Dr. Ruth. She is 4'7". I still had sixteen inches on her.

Posted by: Jeff Lipshaw | Jul 30, 2006 4:39:20 PM

I don't think race, ethnicity, or phenotypical markers of such would dictate charisma per se--rather, the social constructions of the power/intelligence/innate worth of race and ethnicity do.

Oprah is supposedly the most charming, powerful, charismatic person in all of America. I don't even like her all that much (I have beef with her ending the monthly book club because of the preposterous reason "there is not enough good contemporary fiction"), but I sometimes watch the show and am struck by the pull she has over her audience--and sometimes, me. I too, now want to buy that beauty product or donate to her charity. I don't know whether "charm" is a dimunition of "charisma"--but Oprah can certainly be said to have both, and she is a "strong woman" without too many negative associations. Unlike, say, the blondenfreude associated with Hillary Clinton or Martha Stewart (although, arguably, that could be for other reasons too, like you know, politically flexible "centrism" or insider trading and being really mean about those who do not make their own chocolate shavings).

I think you're a good foot taller than me as well (I'm 5'2", and Asian), but I've been able to hold my own before a class of 30-40 students, some of whom were older than I was. Was it my performative identity that held sway, or was it the CV I waved over the class on Day 1 so that they could "get over" my performative identity? Were the two in interaction with each other, such as "impressive" credentials aside, I demonstrated myself to be warm, approachable, _and_ articulate? I don't think personal biography and performative identity exist seperate spheres, and nor do I think racial performaitve identity and social constructions of race exist in seperate spheres. They necessarily interact, and are either compromised or complemented by each other. But I think Oprah manages the interstitial space better than most.

A most interesting discussion, by the way.

Posted by: Belle Lettre | Jul 30, 2006 2:44:41 PM

Belle, that raises a question I was going to avoid in the original post - the role of sexual or ethnic identity in charisma or personal force.

I think charm is part of charisma. (Hmmm. charisma - charm. Is there an etymological linkage?) Love or hate the two of them, both Clinton and Dubya are supposed to reek of it in person. So I don't think charm itself is a sexual identity differentiator. But in addition to charm, men I think are more capable of being physically scary or intimidating (Lyndon Johnson was supposed to have combined both.) Maybe there is no real difference on charm, but if women have traditionally "male" charismatic qualities other than charm, we get into the other canards that affect strong women.

Supposedly Mary Kay Ash (founder of Mary Kay cosmetics - the pink Cadillac people) had great charisma based in large part on charm. Is that true of Brenda (Kyra Sedgwick) on The Closer (although hers is a false charm)?

Certainly, to your point, if charisma is manipulable, charm would be part of that. We "turn on the charm."

Is tall or short a charisma issue? I think that came up when Dukakis ran against Bush (pre tank photo). I remember Pat Buchanan as commentator on the 1988 Democratic Convention saying that Dukakis' acceptance speech showed "gravitas" and that he would go up 15 points in the polls. I would have told you I thought tall women were more capable of personal force, but I spent about 30 seconds in a Tel Aviv hotel elevator last summer with Dr. Ruth (I have to be a good foot taller than she is), and I can tell you that I was bowled over with charm and personal force.

Maybe this links into your work on the transposition of ethnic stereotypes into performance characteristics in the workplace. Are some ethnicities seen to be more capable of charisma or personal force? (My own reaction is no: physical imposition, voice, charm seem to trump. But I don't know.)

Posted by: Jeff Lipshaw | Jul 30, 2006 2:03:10 PM

This reminds me of performative identity, or what sociologist Erving Goffman called "front stage presentation" of the self. Goffman compared human social interactions to performances on the stage, and in any interaction the people involved may be both performers and audience members. The goal of the performer is to create a favorable impression on the other, such that the performer gains influence over the other--a most important achievenment in a social network or organization, like an office. Charismatic people both attract and scare me---even if you are not aware of what or how they're doing it, you can feel the control they are exerting over you.

I wonder if charismatic people just know how to perform their identity better (suggesting something mechanical in their approach) or if it is something "inherent" that makes it so they don't even _have_ to perform. As if they're just that innately powerful. That would be even freakier.

I have been described as charming once or twice, does that count for something?

Posted by: Belle Lettre | Jul 30, 2006 1:31:55 PM

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