The Life and Leadership of Janet Yellen with the WSJ’s Jon Hilsenrath

The Life and Leadership of Janet Yellen with the WSJ’s Jon Hilsenrath

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Episode Summary 

What do the life and career of Janet Yellen have to do with automotive leaders? Jan invites the acclaimed Wall Street Journal writer Jon Hilsenrath — author of the new book, “Yellen: The Trailblazing Economist Who Navigated an Era of Upheaval” — to the show to discuss Yellen’s role at the center of the largest American economic crises of the past 30 years. 

“When she became treasury secretary,” says Jon, “she had done something that no person in American history had ever done. She became the first human in American history to be the treasury secretary, the Fed chair, and the chair of the Council of Economic Advisers — and, no less, the first woman to hold those roles.”

Jan and Jon dive into Yellen’s remarkable leadership and humanized approach to economic policy. Yellen’s success in traditionally slow-moving, male-dominated institutions has done more than break a glass ceiling. Her clarity of purpose, humility and gravitas have steered her through some of the most turbulent times in American economic history.

The historical backdrop of Yellen’s career sheds light on many of the present challenges in the automotive industry. Jan highlights lessons from this intimate look at one of the most powerful figures in American politics.

From lessons in building trust to the importance of feeling comfortable in one’s skin, Yellen’s life story has universal appeal. Stay until the end to hear how Jan once danced with the treasury secretary on stage at a conference. What else would you expect?

Themes discussed in this episode: 

  • Finding purpose through humanizing your work
  • Listening well and embracing cognitive diversity
  • How leaders can benefit from skeptics
  • The importance of admitting mistakes
  • Building trust in a politically divided nation
  • The complexities of democratic market-driven capitalism
  • Stories of Janet Yellen’s gravitas in difficult situations

Featured Guest: Jon Hilsenrath

What he does: Jon Hilsenrath is a senior contributor to The Wall Street Journal, a Pulitzer Prize finalist and one of America’s most influential financial writers. Jon’s most recent work is his critically acclaimed biography “Yellen: The Trailblazing Economist Who Navigated an Era of Upheaval.”  

On leadership: “People around a leader can detect if that leader feels comfortable with his or her place in an organization and is comfortable enough to accept challenges from other people, to accept contradictory information, to accept dissonance when it occurs — because that's inevitable.”

Episode Highlights

Timestamped inflection points from the show

[0:58Spotlight on Yellen: Jan explains her admiration for Janet Yellen and introduces this episode’s guest, award-winning financial journalist Jon Hillsenrath and author of “Yellen: The Trailblazing Economist Who Navigated an Era of Upheaval.”

[2:36Economics meets auto: Jon shares his inspiration for writing “Yellen.” The treasury secretary and her husband George Akerlof have been at the center of American economics for the past 60 years. This historical backdrop helps us understand the modern auto industry.

[6:20Purpose in her work: Jon explains how Janet Yellen thrived in inertial, male-dominated institutions and her motivation to humanize economics.

[10:13Market for lemons: Yellen’s husband George Akerlof won a Nobel Prize for a research paper about emotions and information asymmetry in the 1960s used car market. Jon says these humanizing insights are a calling card of Akerlof’s career.

[12:1721 Traits: Of Jan’s 21 traits of authentic leadership, Jon says purpose, gravitas and trust best describe Janet Yellen’s leadership style. He describes how these traits have played out in her career.

[16:50One-on-one: How did Yellen reach consensus decisions as the Fed chair? Jon shares how she leads by listening and embracing cognitive diversity.

[21:12Thoughtful skeptics: Jon explains one of his biggest lessons from writing the book and why leaders should listen to skeptics: “Sometimes, they’re onto something.”

[24:14Ingredients of gravitas: How does Yellen exhibit authentic leadership? Jan and Jon discuss the treasury secretary’s unconventional formula for success.

[29:35‘I was wrong’: Jan and Jon are amazed by Yellen’s willingness to acknowledge her mistakes. Jon shares a story about one of her greatest blunders that she later laughed at.

[35:30Silver style: The conversation turns to Washington’s superficial criticism of Janet Yellen’s wardrobe. Jan feels an affinity with Yellen’s signature gray-haired look.

[37:47Crisis of trust: How involved should the government be in a free market? Jon explains why democratic market-driven capitalism relies on public trust in government institutions — and how Yellen navigates her duties to a country skeptical of its leadership.

[46:36The fun side of Janet Yellen: Jan goes behind the scenes about when she met Janet Yellen and convinced her to dance on stage. Jon has a Yellen dance story of his own and shares his experience meeting her at her Berkeley home.

Top quotes

[8:46] Jon: “Both [Janet Yellen and George Akerlof] got into the field with a sense of purpose. They wanted to use their math skills and their analytical minds to do something for the greater social good, and they saw economics as a way to do that.”

[22:03] Jon: “There are some skeptics who are like broken clocks, just saying the same thing over and over again. But there are others who come at a conversation thoughtfully … you have to listen to these people because sometimes they’re onto something.”

[22:59] Jan: “When a leader who has gravitas walks into the room, you feel it. You feel safe. You know that they’ve got your back. You know that they will challenge you, but that they’ve got you.”

[45:10] Jon: “​​Part of creating trust isn't just securing it with the people who admire you, but convincing the people who doubt you that there's more to you than some political label.”

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