How to get ahead on Wall Street: Act like a two-year-old

Lehman's last CEO, Dick Fuld, knew how to get ahead: By acting like a baby

By Andrew Leonard

Published October 21, 2009 2:14PM (EDT)

So what does it take to be a successful CEO of an investment bank? In "The Murder of Lehman Brothers," the pseudonymous Joseph Tibman, a Lehman veteran, offers an instructive look at the young Dick Fuld, an aggressive trader who went on to helm the company, and ultimately lead it to its demise.

Fuld needed a senior executive named Allan Kaplan to sign off on a trade. Kaplan, however, was busy dealing with a pile of paperwork on his desk.

Kaplan lifted his head, placed his half-smoked Cohiba in an ashtray and blankly looked at the impertinent, headstrong Fuld. Moving only his lips, he informed Fuld in crisp words that seemed to disappear into the pile of the carpet, that he, Kaplan, from his mile-high aerie, would consider approval of Fuld's trade once his desk was clear of the many piles.

...Kaplan, still ignoring him, had become an intolerable brick wall. And so, acting on pure impulse and instinct, the very innards of the best traders, Fuld cleared Kaplan's desk with a single sweep of his arm, scattering the exalted one's neat piles around his desk. Sucking in his breath, Fuld told the implicitly fearsome Allan Kaplan that now he could approve the trade; his desk was clear.

Tibman himself did not witness this scene, but one assumes that over the years it became a legendary part of Lehman culture -- proof of the great Fuld's decisive, aggressive, full-speed-ahead-and-damn-the-torpedoes executive style. Instead of blowing up, we are told, "Inwardly, Kaplan smiled puckishly.... This Fuld had potential."

Potential! Acting like an asshole and a jerk earns a puckish smile! I don't know -- to me, Fuld's behavior seems more like that of a two-year-old in dire need of a time-out. But I'm not a successful Wall Street trader. I assume I will learn more about why Lehman Brothers was "murdered" as I dig deeper into Tibman's tale, but for now, the Fuld anecdote is enlightening. In the case of Kaplan's desk, Fuld's reckless behavior paid off. But writ large, Wall Street's reckless behavior did not. Maybe we should think about rewarding a different set of values.

Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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