James R. Bailey is Professor and Hochberg Fellow of Leadership Development at the George Washington University School of Business, and a Fellow in the Centre for Management Development, London Business School. He has taught at University of Michigan, New York University, IMD, and Helsinki School of Economics, Dr. Bailey is the recipient of many teaching distinctions, including four GWSB Outstanding Faculty Awards. In 2006 he was named one of the world’s top ten executive educators by the International Council for Executive Leadership Development. He has published over 50 academic papers and case studies, and is the author of five books, including the award-winning, best-selling Organizational and Managerial Wisdom and the forthcoming Lessons on Leadership. He has designed and delivered hundreds of executive programs for firms like Nestle, UBS, Conoco-Phillips, and Goldman Sachs, as well as several major law firms and US Congressmen. Dr. Bailey is a frequent keynote speaker who has appeared on broadcast programs for the BBC, NPR, and Fox News Channel, and whose work has been cited in such outlets as the Wall Street Journal, Fortune, Forbes, and Business 2.0. He is a frequent contributor to The Hill, Washington Post, Washington Business Journal, and Harvard Business Review. He is the past Editor-in-Chief of the Academy of Management Learning and Education, as well as the founder and Editor-in-Chief of the online magazine Lessons on Leadership. Professor Bailey has served as a dean, department chair, and program director during his 25 year academic career.
What do you do best?
I've got just five skills. The one I'm best at is talk. I'm a good talker. Always have been, in large part because of my dear father, God Rest his Soul. Dad talked to me like an adult when I was an infant. The cadence and intonation of adult speech was thus formed early. Dad also disdained declarative sentences in favor of explanatory ones. For instance, he'd outright dismiss "I want ice cream." But, he'd give credence to "I want ice cream because it's hot and dry and something cold and creamy would be welcome." When I figured out that vocabulary and imagery and other devices increased the chances of getting what I wanted, I was off to the linguistic races.
Talk is key because it is how humanity relates. Progress is premised on talk. Love, companionship, collaboration, civil and civic exchange, reconciliation, resolution, revelation, reclamation and revolution, are rooted in talking. Talk is a means of collecting and correlating, then correcting and creating, paths of thought and action. It's the most powerful force in history.
Not all talk is productive. A lot of talk is self-absorbed, born of an instinct to assert and be noticed. Talk can be uninformed, dis-organized, deceitful, pernicious, or just plain untutored. The purpose to which talk’s power is put is as important as its expression. It can equally be a force for good as for ill.
The downside to being a good talker is that I'm in love with the sound of my voice. I’m too often dominate and am not always a good listener. It's a classic example virtue and vice being different sides of the same coin, or when strengths are also liabilities. I have to be vigilant and honest with myself about whether the dynamic I’m adding is helping to achieve the desired ends. Oddly, to maximize the positive impact of the best of my five skills, I have to talk better, which often means talking less.
What makes you the best?
I'm very broadly experienced and educated.
I've lived in England, Australia, Finland, and the US, spending time in over 20 countries along the way. I've lived in small towns and big cities, owned pick-up trucks and Porsches, am part red-neck, part urban sophisticate. I have advanced degrees in the arts, sciences, philosophy, and theology. I'm highly trained in quantitative and qualitative methods of inquiry, which are conjoined means of asking questions and speculating on cause and effect. I am a cultural gadfly, following, for example, musical movements like Punk, Heavy Metal, Ska, Rave, Rap, Hip-hop, Funk, and R&B. I read two newspapers a day, one that leans toward the proverbial left, the other to the proverbial right. I'm Irish Catholic, and embrace my cultural heritage and religious background. Neurology, architecture, theater, agriculture, sociology, and spirituality are simply approaches rooted in the universal yearning to comprehend the world, and our place in it.
The end result is that I'm a bit of a poly-math; an intellectual Jack-of-all-trades. That allows me to be acutely aware of origination (past), manifestation (current) and potential (future), all the while articulating and illustrating from different frames of reference. When talking to whatever audience--undergraduates or executives--I can offer something that appeals to their experience and psyches. If one can’t relate to their audience, one might as well shut-up.
I talk to enlighten. Not to preach or pressure, not to intimidate or intimate. As an educator and author, my talk is designed to surface things already known by complementing them with things not know. Talk isn't just to stuff in, but also to draw out.
What are your aspirations?
Personally, I just want to be a good dad to my child. People talk about role-modeling. I'm a terrible role-model. I'm irascible, hot-tempered, judgmental, dismissive, sardonic, insensitive, and selfish. But, all those bad qualities are more than balanced out because I'm there. Lot's of parents talk about "quality" time, as if spending two good hours with their children is enough. That's the definition of delusion. What kids want and need is quantity time. They need to know that you're there. Of my son’s waking hours, I spend one-half with him, about seven hours. The rest of the time they're at school or with friends. Love and safety make a child healthy, both of which require being there. The old adage that half of winning is showing up applies to parenting too.
Professionally, not to put too fine of a point on it, my aspiration is to be a public intellectual. I've spent a career writing for and speaking to academic audiences (aka, other professors). One book was a five volume, 1.2 million word tome that sold for $900. Not much of an audience for that book. My academic research is very rewarding, but I want a bigger footprint, one that could impact the practitioner community. A good 15 years ago I began delivering executive development programs for some of the world's elite companies. About ten years ago I published my first piece in Harvard Business Review. Although slow, there has been progress. Another HBR article here and there, a few Washington Post pieces, Fortune, BizEd, USN&WR articles, quotes in papers and magazines, TV and radio appearances, and lo and behold, And, I've just a leadership column for Psychology Today. Just goes to show you that patience is a virtue, though a damnable one.
Personally, despite my pantheon of flaws, being a good father, son, brother, and friend.
Professionally, it's having enabled people's professional progress. That includes the several thousand students who've sat in my classroom, the hundreds of colleagues I've supported and mentored, and the dozens of staff I've collaborated with. I'm fairly confident that, were I to pass from this world today, all of these people would genuinely report that I was a positive force in their lives; that in some small way I helped them become who they wanted, or needed, to become. Isn't that the ultimate measure of one's career? I'd like my professional obituary to read "He was a force of good." I believe it will.
Most Challenging Moment?
Personally, it was the death of one of my sisters in an automobile accident at 21. She was a remarkable human being. She’d worked on abjectly poor reservations and crime-ridden urban slums. When the emergency team arrived at the scene of the accident, she was conscious and cogent and told them to tend to the others. When the emergency team returned to her, she had died of internal bleeding. I was just 11 at the time. It made no sense to me. You sister isn’t supposed to die. My mother was so deeply affected that she was lost to us kids for a while too. That’s not the way things are supposed to happen. Still, we all got through the experience and are the stronger for it.
Professionally, I was turned down for tenure from the first university I served. This was inconceivable to me, not so much because I was worried about making a living, but because I had a very high—too high—impression of my own accomplishments. Thankfully, it didn’t take long for me to be offered a tenured position at a more prestigious university, going on to have a rewarding and successful career. The primary lesson I extracted was being more tuned into how others viewed my accomplishments and that life’s callouses make for good grit.
Often wrong, never in doubt.
Favorite People/Role Models?
My favorite person on the planet is my nine year old son. He’s already mastered irony and sarcasm, and is making headway into sardonic! He’s got a quick wit and a huge working vocabulary. He’s a bit bossy with other kids and more than a bit of a smart-mouth. But he’s also sensitive and responsive. I like to refer to him as an innocent ancient; new and shiny and well as old and burnished.
My role model is, always has been, and always will be, my father, God rest His Soul. He was patient, kind, forgiving, yet hard as nails when called for. His confidence in his children never, ever wavered. He had a hard-scrabble life, growing up in the depths of the Great Depression. For Christmas, he’d get a bag of oranges (citrus being rare on remote Midwest farms), and iron toy my grandfather had fashioned in the forge, and a pair a work boots. Image that. He fought in World War II, used the GI bill for education, became a high-school principal, and ultimately started his own business.
He was even a role-model in death. He was struck with Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis, a horribly debilitating syndrome where the body wastes away while the mind stays perfectly intact. He was thus perfectly aware of his physical deterioration. But, he kept his spirits high, welcoming his friends and family even when speech had been denied him. He was calm and collected, mainly to make those around him feel the same. His wife and children surrounded his bed at the precise moment of repose.
My Dad lived and died gracefully. The world was a better place for him. He’s my hero.
Love Australia! Particularly Adelaide, in the south. It’s an expansive, weather-worn, largely barren, and enormously dangerous country (snakes, sharks, all that). But it’s breathtakingly beautiful. The Barrier Reef is ineffible. And, the folks that inhabit that good land are lovely. Aussies love Americans, so I always feel welcome there. The food is crazy good; simple preparations of the freshest seafood paired with unparreled wines. They love their wine, for good reason. One night at a wine bar, an aged bushman sat next to me. His face was so worn with wrikles and crevices that it looked like a topographical map. We chatted, and this crusty old man was citing vinyards and grape heritages and the weather in 1999 that contributed or distracted to a certain variety. That mix of country and sophistication doesn’t happen with as much frequency anywhere in the world other than Australia.
And dear Finland. Everyone should go there. The graceful forests of pine and birch and lichen live only in Scandanavia. The sea is as much fresh and salt water, the Northern Pike are a meter long, the Aran Islands stretching west toward Sweden compose an uncomfrimising archipalgo that stretches step by step. The wood mushrooms and light cream sauces and salmon stew are the food of Gods. The sharp Finlandia warms, the Helsinki esplanade is as fashionable as anyplace, and the people as humble as can be. Stop thinking about it. Go!
My home, which is a lovely little townhouse right across the street from the National Zoo in Washington, DC. My 3.2 liter S type Audi. It grinds and flies and is a better car than I am a driver. Maker’s Mark bourbon. Every time I have a glass I feel better (wonder why that is?). Belmont peanuts from the heart of the Old Dominion Virginia. Meaty and not too salty. My two cats, brother and sister, 13 years old, but still spry and magnificent hunters. It’s nice to live with predators.
Does my son count as a product or object?
They are the same as they’ve ever been.
Reading. Into Civil War history right now. Fond of historical novels. Everyting Barry Unger and Donna Tarrt write. I re-read Dickens and Wolfe and Twain and Frost and London regularly. We live better in books, sometimes, than we do in life.
Cooking. Last night I roasted a leg of lamb, tossed roasted asparagus in orzo, garlic, and feta, assembled a salad of cucumber, tomatos, and white onions, cut today-baked crusty bread sprinkled with olive oil and sea salt, and finished up with honey yogurt covered in shaved walnuts. We eat like this almost every night. We eat well. It’s an act of love and communion.
Music. Jazz always perplexes and rewards. Americana—roots music—speaks to my soul. I can’t imagine life without these two American contributions to music.
Baseball. I could write 30,000 words about baseball. It is the most unique sport ever invented and played. It is a metaphor of life with Biblical implications. If you want to understand America, there are three things: the constitution, jazz music, and baseball. Period.