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4 Leadership Lessons from Fed Chairs

Posted on June 6, 2017 at 1:20 AM

The Federal Reserve System (“The Fed”;) was created in 1913. Since then, fourteen men and one woman have served as the chair of the board of the Fed. Their century of leadership has produced several lessons in leadership. Here are the top four:

Stick to Your Tough Decisions – Paul Volker’s two terms as the Fed chair (1979-87) started in one of the worst economic periods in US history known for “stagflation” – stagnant economic growth with rampant inflation that reached 14 percent. Volker decided the Fed needed to take a tough approach and increase interest rates to over 20% to strangle inflation. Unemployment soared and Volker received a lot of criticism, even prompting a protest by farmers blockading the Fed headquarters with their tractors. But Volker stayed strong, and inflation fell below 3 percent by 1983.

Don’t Stay on Too Long – Alan Greenspan was Fed Chair for 18 ½ years from 1987 to 2006. Eighteen months after he left office, the financial markets went into their biggest crash since the Great Depression. Greenspan was criticized for not acting to prevent the bursting of the housing market bubble during his tenure as Fed Chair. Had a fresh set of eyes come in one or two four year terms before, perhaps they would have seen and acted on the warning signs. Perhaps they would not have been so invested in continuity with past decisions.

Preparation Matters – Ben Bernanke’s specialty in his academic career was studying the Great Depression. He was in place as the Fed Chair (2006-2014) when the Great Recession happened in 2008. Bernanke used that knowledge to navigate the economy through the Great Recession. Hopefully future Fed Chairs won’t need that same expertise.

Define the Complex in an Easy Way – William Martin was the longest tenured Fed Chair (1951-1970), serving through five presidents, from Truman to Nixon. When asked to describe the role of the Federal Reserve Chair, he defined the complex topic of monetary policy in a very simple way. He said his job was “to take away the punch bowl just as the party gets going.” In one sentence, he made arcane monetary policy understandable to the masses.

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Categories: People Leadership, Career Planning, Communication Skills