01 Mar 2011
A Man without a Pauseby Sean SilverthorneTopics:
Between the ages of 30 and 40, James Wolfensohn (MBA ’59) lived a life most would find enviable. An Olympic fencer and graduate of both law and business schools (he cofounded a laundry service at HBS), Wolfensohn landed in London during the “Eurodollar revolution” as a director at the merchant bank Schroders, later to become the very successful president and CEO of its New York–based banking arm, known as Schrobanco. He made friends with some of the most powerful businesspeople and artists of the day. He belonged to exclusive clubs, ate in expensive restaurants, and vacationed in exotic locales with his family.
So it was jarring to read a third of the way through his recent autobiography, A Global Life (PublicAffairs), that Wolfensohn was in despair on his 40th birthday. “I used my birthdays to reflect on my life, and at the end of four decades I felt confused and in some way unfulfilled. I was too busy on all fronts, frenetic in my approach to life, and certainly without balance or vision. All I wanted to do on this occasion was to hide and go to bed.” Thankfully, he chose instead to steer his life in a new direction.
Over the next three decades, the native Australian would establish himself in investment banking and play a major role in the arts, philanthropy, and even diplomacy, as a special envoy to the Middle East. But he is best remembered for his ten-year run as president of the World Bank.
Taking over a sclerotic, insular institution with 10,000 employees, he remade it into a far more effective organization, championing such causes as debt relief for poor nations and the opening of rich countries’ markets to exports from developing nations. For him and his wife, Elaine, the service was “the most important period in our lives . . . my decade at the Bank was the reason for my life.”
Wolfensohn emerges from these engaging pages as thoughtful, compassionate, hugely entrepreneurial, and very well-connected. But you don’t want to get on his wrong side, as his description of a blowup with an “imperious” Condoleezza Rice demonstrates after she upbraided him and then tried to calm the waters: “I stopped her. ‘I’m 72 years old. I have been negotiating at a reasonably high level for forty years. I know when I am in, and I know when I am out, so please don’t tell me that I am in. Don’t tell me that I’m a trusted adviser.’ ” Spoken like a true player.
Class of MBA 1959, Section C