My 30 Minutes with an American Hero

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This past week H. Ross Perot passed away. Much has been written about how he amassed his billions and perhaps was single handedly responsible for George H. W. Bush being a one term President. The portrait that they all paint is of an anachronistic business leader who demanded that his employees dress in appropriate business attire and even going so far as to measure the length of his female employees’ skirts.

Thirty years ago as a second-year student at Harvard Business School I had the privilege of interviewing Perot for the school newspaper, The Harbus News. I still have a micro cassette of the interview, but alas no player on which to listen to it. However, the book shelf in my home office sits a large format coffee table book that was gathering dust. In it was every issue of The Harbus published between February 1988 and January 1989. It took a lot of page turning, but I found the interview. (You can see the full text of the interview below)

Though I was surrounded by a few of my peers, I recall feeling quite nervous and intimidated. Cartoonists have had fun making note of Perot’s large nose and ears, but it was the way he stared at you with steely blue eyes that rendered one speechless.

Re-reading the article I realize that he could be here saying the same words today and they would still ring true. He railed against the lack of commitment of corporate boards that failed to employ outsiders to represent the shareholders. He railed against HBS for encouraging too many graduates to head to Wall Street and participate in LBOs that would destroy jobs rather that create them. He railed against the arrogance that had overtaken the U.S. post World War II citing it as the cause of many of the problems of the day.

However, the most interesting part of the interview came when I asked him to reflect on his success. His answer was unrehearsed and revealed a Ross Perot that few wrote about last week. “I’ve always said that I won’t feel successful until my children turn out to be responsible productive individuals with a deep concern for other people, and more important, a willingness to do something about it.”

Perhaps Perot was anachronistic - a patriot, successful businessman, parent - but with an understanding that “man’s greatest enemy is cockiness and arrogance.” It might have been interesting to see what a Perot presidency would have meant for the U.S.A.