The Breakfast Table

Great Man Theory

Dear Joe,

It’s nice to know that reporting does not change. One of the first lessons I learned in journalism school was the old phrase “there is nothing new under the sun,” and I suspect that in five years an exciting new topic will be fascinating us in the same way that the Internet is now and the takeovers of the 1980s did then. I too was riveted by leveraged buyout stories in that time and great characters like T. Boone Pickens.

I was particularly struck by Connie Bruck’s The Predator’s Ball about this time period, which I liked because of just what you were talking about. Business was dramatic, made up of people and not just numbers. I was very cognizant of this when I was writing my book on AOL. It was clear quickly that all the successes and failures there over the years were due more to a particular person than to larger market forces. AOL, born under some kind of lucky star, was able to attract the right person at the right time to cause it to be able to get to the next level. In its earliest days, it needed the craziness provided by a enthusiastic entrepreneur named Bill Von Meister. But it was a diligent and totally focused executive named Steve Case who was able to take his ideas and make them real. And Case needed a lot of help too–often company mythologies focus on one person–from the loud entrance of Ted Leonsis in 1994 to provide the spice and media savvy that Case lacked to Bob Pittman’s entry in 1996, which gave AOL the world-class manager who would turn the company into a “real” one.

The situation with AT&T is a case in point, with its current leader, Michael Armstrong. Whatever you think of the company’s strategy to converge its cable, telephone, and Internet business to achieve some iron lock on the consumer, it is clearly being driven by Armstrong. The same is true of most every Internet company I have written about–such as Jeff Bezos at Amazon and Jerry Yang and David Filo at Yahoo. It’s good, I think, in this speedy and complex age to see that one person still can make a difference. Microsoft’s success, along with its struggles with the Justice Department, is in this genre. Bill Gates, no matter how big that company has become, still hangs over it like a living icon. I wonder if that is a good thing or a bad one as companies grow?

In a completely unrelated topic, were you are disturbed as I was about the stories in the New York Times and the Washington Post about how the FBI has reversed its stance on the Waco incident in 1993? Oops, it did fire in incendiary devices, despite its denials. I swear, I am still so surprised when people or institutions lie like that. Does that make me hopelessly naive? I should remember another old j-school maxim–if your mother says she loves you, check it.