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Interview'You need communication skills, vision, and focus'

What makes a leader? Billionaire author grills Fauci, Bezos, Oprah to find out

David Rubenstein loves talking to pros about what makes them tick, so when Bloomberg TV gave him his own interview show, he jumped at the chance. Now he’s written a book about it

  • Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the first Jewish woman to be appointed to the Supreme Court, talks with filmmaker David Grubin about his PBS series, 'The Jewish Americans,' on January 10, 2008 in Washington. (AP Photo/Kevin Wolf)
    Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the first Jewish woman to be appointed to the Supreme Court, talks with filmmaker David Grubin about his PBS series, 'The Jewish Americans,' on January 10, 2008 in Washington. (AP Photo/Kevin Wolf)
  • Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, laughs while speaking in the James Brady Press Briefing Room at the White House, Jan. 21, 2021, in Washington. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)
    Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, laughs while speaking in the James Brady Press Briefing Room at the White House, Jan. 21, 2021, in Washington. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)
  • This image released by NBC shows Oprah Winfrey accepting the Cecil B. DeMille Award at the 75th Annual Golden Globe Awards in Beverly Hills, Calif., on Sunday, January 7, 2018. (Paul Drinkwater/NBC via AP)
    This image released by NBC shows Oprah Winfrey accepting the Cecil B. DeMille Award at the 75th Annual Golden Globe Awards in Beverly Hills, Calif., on Sunday, January 7, 2018. (Paul Drinkwater/NBC via AP)
  • Dr. Anthony Fauci, left, speaks with author David Rubenstein. (Courtesy)
    Dr. Anthony Fauci, left, speaks with author David Rubenstein. (Courtesy)
  • Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi at the Economic Club of Washington with David Rubenstein, March 8, 2019. (Courtesy)
    Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi at the Economic Club of Washington with David Rubenstein, March 8, 2019. (Courtesy)

When a mysterious infectious disease began ravaging the globe over one year ago, Americans turned to an inspirational leader: Dr. Anthony Fauci.

The head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, Fauci reassured a nation that was reeling from the COVID-19 pandemic. In daily briefings from the coronavirus task force, he explained the national response guidelines, from masks to social distancing to lockdowns. Although much of it sounded unfamiliar, many Americans followed his urgings and continue to do so.

Fauci is one of the many prominent leaders interviewed in a new book, “How to Lead: Wisdom from the World’s Greatest CEOs, Founders, and Game Changers,” by Jewish-American businessman and philanthropist David M. Rubenstein. It rocketed into the best-seller lists after its publication last fall by Simon & Schuster.

“The most visible person [in the coronavirus response] is probably Tony Fauci, because of his leadership and experience in infectious diseases,” Rubenstein told The Times of Israel in a recent interview. “He deserves a great deal of credit — not only for what he’s done, but what he did not do — quit in the face of some public criticism he received.”

The Baltimore-born Rubenstein is the billionaire co-chair of the Carlyle Group investment firm, which he co-founded. He holds numerous philanthropic posts, such as serving as the chair of the Kennedy Center. Among his pursuits is purchasing rare copies of historic documents such as the Magna Carta and giving them on loan to the US federal government.

If a copy of the Magna Carta is a rare commodity, so is leadership. It was in another position — president of the Economic Club of Washington, DC — where Rubenstein got the idea to interview notable leaders in front of a live audience. Several years later, Bloomberg TV suggested he conduct the interviews as host of his own TV show, and “Peer-to-Peer Conversations” was born. Rubenstein selected what he thought were some of the best interviews and made them the nucleus of the book.

David Rubenstein, author of ‘How to Lead.’ (Courtesy)

In one such interview, Rubenstein tells Oprah Winfrey that when she was a TV journalist in Baltimore, it was his mother who recognized that she was something special. There are interviews with tech titans Jeff Bezos and Bill and Melinda Gates, as well as a joint sit-down with two ex-presidents, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush.

Poignantly, Rubenstein interviewed Supreme Court justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg a year before she died in the fall of 2020. Ginsburg died just 17 days after the book was published.

“Obviously, [Ginsburg] was a very articulate person, with a good sense of humor, and very, very smart,” said Rubenstein, who got to know the justice from the operas she attended at the Kennedy Center.

As Rubenstein interviewed leaders on “Peer to Peer,” he sought to find information in their lives that pointed to future success.

For Winfrey, even after she experienced an early-career demotion while a TV anchor in Baltimore, Rubenstein’s mother predicted that she would one day take the national stage. Winfrey explained in her interview that she had a track record of standing up for herself. When she was a child, she showed her aptitude to a teacher by writing down all the big words she could think of — including names of Hebrew prophets from the family Bible. And when the network brass questioned whether viewers would connect with her unconventional name — a misspelling of Orpah from the Book of Ruth — she refused to abandon it.

What makes a leader?

Rubenstein credits overall leadership to a number of factors. In addition to luck and hard work, he cited “a desire to be a leader” and “the ability to communicate to the people who are your followers what you’re trying to do.” He also mentioned “a vision of where you want to take followers” and “a focus on one particular thing at a time,” along with integrity, humility and the ability to learn from mistakes.

Looking to past crises in American history, such as the outbreak of the Civil War and World War II, he said that in both events — which he called “crisis occasions” — the president at the time “rose to the occasion.”

“I think that’s a very important quality as well… if you’re able to rise to the occasion when the crisis occurs,” Rubenstein said.

Of all the leaders Rubenstein spoke with, Fauci was the only one who got two interviews — due to the COVID-19 crisis. They had sat down for a talk in 2019, but when the pandemic began, Rubenstein knew he had to ask Fauci some more questions.

For Rubenstein, Fauci’s special sauce has a variety of ingredients, from “pretty good genes” to hard work to a fitness regimen that includes power-walking three miles a day.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, left, speaks with David Rubenstein. (Courtesy)

“He is fairly fastidious about his health and weight,” Rubenstein said. “He obviously protects himself. He knows how to avoid infectious diseases as well as anyone. He’s in great shape for an 80-year-old.”

A lighthearted moment occurred when Rubenstein asked Fauci about Brad Pitt’s portrayal of him on “Saturday Night Live.” Lorne Michaels, the Canadian-Jewish producer of “SNL,” is another of Rubenstein’s interviewees.

After pointing out that Michaels has produced “SNL” for 40 of its 45 years, Rubenstein said, “Obviously, he has a very good sense of timing and comedy. I would say he’s widely respected.” And, he added, “to do anything well for 40 years is not easy.”

Leaders in it for the long haul?

Many of the leaders Rubenstein interviewed had formed decades-long careers: There was Michaels’s tenure at “SNL.” Fauci has worked nearly as long — 36 years — for the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. Winfrey’s smash-hit “The Oprah Winfrey Show” ran for 25 years. Current Democratic Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi was first elected to Congress in 1986.

‘How to Lead,’ by David M. Rubenstein. (Courtesy)

And yet, Rubenstein notes, many leaders are paradoxically not fast starters in life.

“This may be a rationalization of my own failure to be a great leader,” he laughs. “I observe that many people who are superstars when young often don’t turn out to be superstars later in life. The Supreme Court clerk, Rhodes scholar, president of the Harvard Law Review, student body president — very often, the kind of gods when young maybe don’t work as hard later on. They’re not as lucky. They don’t turn out to be president of the US, [Cabinet] secretary, as much as people who were not that well-known in high school or college.”

Conversely, some of the leaders interviewed in the book have gone on to keep making an impact in the months after its publication. Winfrey landed a rare, attention-grabbing interview with Prince Harry and Meghan Markle in which the Duke and Duchess of Sussex said that a member of the royal family had asked about the complexion of Markle’s infant son. Pelosi kept Congress focused after the January 6 riots at the US Capitol and presided over the certification of presidential election votes in the House — as well as the second straight impeachment trial of now-former-president Donald Trump. And Fauci has continued to explain and defend the US COVID-19 response, including in a memorable back-and-forth about mask-wearing with Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY).

Readers are enjoying the glimpse behind the curtain of leadership, says its author. “It’s made a number of best-seller lists, which I guess is a good thing,” Rubenstein quipped. “It seems to be that people like it.”

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