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Lou Dobbs’ Hierarchy

There’s nothing worse than watching someone use their station in life to demean those of lower status. Lou Dobbs did it when I was at CNN. Worse, he would skewer people in front of large office gatherings.

He once forced a small, fearful producer named Jon Labe to stand on a chair while he yelled at him because “”Jon–you stand on that chair so I can scream at you man-to-man!” Lou is at least 6’3” and well over 200 pounds. He’s a very smart, intimidating, former marine. People were right to be afraid of him.

Don’t get me wrong–Lou could be fun and very charming. But his overall management style was built on intimidation. And I don’t think that kind of leadership works anymore. In my judgment it did not make the business division at CNN any better. In fact, I think it made it worse–people often overreacted and rushed in their efforts to avoid criticism.

People simply don’t make the best choices when they’re nervous or scared. Great leaders know this. For instance, America’s Cup champion Dennis Conner is a tough guy who works hard to not intimidate his crew mates. Great leaders open the door for others so that even the least tenured feels welcome and engaged. Jack Welch once barked at me, “Formality is the killer of business! Informality is what makes a company work, when everyone has voice, when the quality of an idea is not measured by the level in the organizational box, but only by the quality of the idea, this isn’t just about first names stuff.”

“Don’t You Wish You Were as Smart as… “

Lou’s hierarchical ways surfaced in other ways. He liked to bring more senior people into his office to shoot the shit whenever he was bored. One day I was walking by and got called in. He pushed me for gossip as he paced behind his desk, smoking. (Smoking was strictly prohibited at CNN, by order of Ted Turner but Lou feared no one.) Out of the blue, Lou turned and asked me, “Don’t you wish you were as smart as me?” I demurred with, “I wish I was as powerful as you.” He pressed his point, “Nah… Don’t you wish you were as smart as me?!”

I hesitated and then looked up at him and said, “Don’t you mean, ‘as smart as… I?’”

Lou narrowed his eyes and asked, “What’d I say?”

“As… me.”

Lou looked as if he couldn’t decide whether to thank or hit me. Mercifully, his phone rang and while he picked it up I scrambled out the door. When faced with bullies, a little grammatical judo is one way to use their weight against them.

The best people you’ll meet have what Abraham Maslow called a “democratic character structure.” They appreciate and see the humanity in every human being, “Most profound, but also most vague is the hard-to-get-at tendency to give a certain quantum of respect to any human being just because he or she is a human individual.” This is because the best people see into our hearts, they sense with their own hearts who we each are. And thus they look past or through our superficial differences such as age, sex, race.

Abraham Lincoln the Democrat

As aware as he was of the racial divisions that tore America apart during the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln looked right passed them when he met with individual African Americans. The great black orator of that time, Frederick Douglass frequently commented on how Lincoln acted towards him, “I will tell you how he received me – just as you have seen one gentleman receive another… I tell you I felt big there.” (Team of Rivals, pg 553)

Remember that the healthiest psychologically don’t lump people into groups the way the rest of us do. They have a fresher, baggage-free perspective when they meet people. Not only does this give them a truer view of an individual, it gives them a more egalitarian outlook. This is personality trait #6 of the best human beings. Maslow called them “democratic people in the deepest possible sense… They can be and are friendly with anyone of suitable character regardless of class, education, political belief, race, or color. As a matter of fact it often seems as if they are not even aware of these differences, which are for the average person so obvious and important.” (Motivation and Personality, pg 139)

Surround yourself with people for whom hierarchy means little.

Cheers from Sonoma,


About the author

Donald Van de Mark
Donald Van de Mark is the author of The Good Among the Great: 19 Traits of the Most Admirable, Creative and Joyous People.

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