A great Old Man

"The moment that this Company forgets that its duty is to be at the head of the list of carrying companies of the United States and ceases to have the ambition to become the first in the world, that moment do I wish to pass from its management."

George B. Roberts, President of the Pennsylvania Railroad, 1880-1897

What qualities tend to be found in a great leader? How many of those desired attributes are innate and how many are instilled? Might leadership be a sort of "one size fits all" ability, or can one's background and experience make a profound difference?

These (and other) questions recently crossed my mind as some began discussing (and dissecting) our current crop of industry C.E.O.s.

I suppose it's only natural for many of us to believe in our own abilities, perhaps to the point where a sense of superiority develops and we favourably compare ourselves to those who're actually getting paid to do the work - a sort of railway-oriented "armchair quarterback." Such an ego may even be healthy, when firmly harnessed.

Certainly, it doesn't hurt to pass judgement upon the accomplishments (or failures) of others, especially if a uniform set of rules encourages introspection and demands personal accountability.

In my private study, two walls stand adorned with images. Many of the pictures are fairly simple; some nothing more than routine photocopies. All depict specific individuals.

One set represents my "Wall of Fame," honouring railroaders from the renowned to the obscure. These are the greats that offer consistent inspiration; dedicated professionals who, through a combination of talent, determination and spirit, were able to make a real difference.

The second group portrays my "Wall of Shame."

Undoubtedly, the electoral procedure is at least somewhat subjective. Personal experience, seasoned with bias and a bit of raw emotion thrown in for good measure, constitutes part of the flawed (but sincere) decision-making process. The remainder, though, revolves around objective, quantifiable standards.

Integral to an Old Man's world is the balance sheet. Make a profit and you stay in business - and maintain your position (along with everyone else's). Fail to make a profit and you, well, FAIL! It seems pretty simple.

Still, a railroad company's bottom line cannot be all-important; it is but one concern among many.

Nor can a railway be solely interested in the running of trains, even though that's quintessential. Surely, if our industry doesn't care about its infrastructure and rolling stock, no one else will; however, we should never confuse our tools with our goals.

The Old Men included on my Wall of Fame were most definitely leaders who transcended both the physical and fiscal.

And what of a Chief Executive's front-line employees? Is a fair compensation package adequate in itself, or should there be something more - something that can originate only from members of a hierarchy who were once peers?

The history of George B. Roberts offers some insight regarding these matters.

His entire professional life was spent in our industry, in the employ of the Pennsylvania. A Professional Engineer, he began his service as a rodman for a construction gang along the Pennsy's Mountain Division in 1851 - just two years after the first phase of what became the famed Juniata Shops was opened in Altoona. He ended his career as that road's President, acknowledged by The New York Times to be "the foremost railroad man of the present day."

In fact, no less than the New York Central's own Chauncey M. Depew once referred to Mr. Roberts as an "actual genius."

When it came to the men under his command, it was Mr. Roberts' invariable custom to receive any employee who wished to visit. Roberts was known to loathe what he called "extravagance in corporation expenses," yet he established a deserved reputation for fairness when dealing with the Brotherhoods. While celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of the Pennsylvania's birth, he reminded his fellow stockholders to treat the rank and file with respect. "Let me ask of you," he said, "as the years pass on, a fair and honest treatment of those men, and to you, rest assured, they will always give a fair return for all you give them."

Roberts was described in a contemporary account as being "exceedingly democratic, with no affectations, no fads, no whims, and no desire for personal fame." He was simply who he was: a sincere Christian, husband, father, and friend - a true gentleman. He was also what he was: a railroader's railroader.

Now, having said all that, let's pay special attention to the statement I quoted as we began.

"The moment that this Company forgets that its duty is to be at the head of the list of carrying companies of the United States and ceases to have the ambition to become the first in the world, that moment do I wish to pass from its management."

Please note that Mr. Roberts' comment never specifically mentioned railroad technology. For that matter, he also said nothing about money.

So, what was his ultimate goal? More to the point, based upon his example, what should be our "ultimate goal"?

In a phrase? To be the best.

The "first in the world"!

That includes profitability. Money is a necessary part of the equation. Far from being evil in itself, it is a commodity which represents success on many levels. It only becomes a bad thing when we fall in love with it, making it our master (Matthew 6:24; I Timothy 6:6-10).

It also includes technology. Railroad tracks and the trains which run upon them are absolutely vital to the performance of our duty. Unfortunately, no one pays us to run trains; they pay us to carry goods! When we forget that, we begin to die.

You know, we really have a head start on all of this, for it is our technology which sets us apart. The efficiencies brought forth by the steel wheel on the steel rail should make us a leader in a world concerned with energy consumption and environmental stewardship! By effectively using that technology - building on the past, yet embracing the future - profitability should follow.

Fold technology and profitability into an environment of equitable team spirit and high ethical standards, and "first in the world" becomes a reasonable target.

At such a point, we only need remember that being the best isn't a singular achievement; it's a way of life. Our responsibility is to always remain on the right path - the very sort blazed by an exemplar like George Roberts.

A great Old Man.


  • A splendid essay, Garl.  I quibble only slightly.  We (railroads) are paid not to carry goods, but to deliver them efficiently and safely.  That's perhaps the biggest change railroads have gone through since deregulation.  Before 1980, they were inhibited by government from being creative and establishing good relations with customers.  Customers weren't even called that, but were shippers, a regulatory term.  Today, for the most part, railroads are in the hands of executives who have a clearer view of why their companies exist.

    Your walls sound interesting.  In the days when there were more journalists who made their careers writing about railroads, there were plenty of sessions in hotel cocktail lounges at which we named and justified the men considered among the 10 best railroad CEOs.  On other evenings, it was naming the 10 worst.  Most of those journalists no longer are active in the business, if they even are still alive, but with only seven Class I railroads existing, no one cares who the 10 est or 10 worst are or would be.

  • Who'd you choose for top 10, ever?

    (After Hill, of course.  That goes without saying.)

  • It's easier to remember the 10 worst than the 10 best.  That list included Tom Rice, Stewart Saunders, Denman McNear, Pat somebody or other, who was CEO of the Boston & Maine, and others whose names escape me at the moment, as we haven't played that game in a lot of years.  The 10 best included Graham Claytor, Al Perlman.  Hill didn't make it unless we were going far enough back in history.  John Budd did make it, as did John Reed, the SP CEO before Biaggini.  Sorry to be so hazy, but it's been a long day.

  • Pat someone or other was Patrick McGinnis.