Up on the soapbox…
We citizens deserve a pat on the back for making and keeping this nation great – and don’t kid yourself or get fooled by others – this is a still great and good place where opportunities are open for people of all types. We have our flaws and some are bigger and more serious than others and we need to keep working on those, but when the rubber meets the road the US leads in ways that can’t always be measured.
That said, on our birthday I ask us all to keep an eye on what we as individuals can do to help others and make things better on a small scale. We don’t have to invent new things or donate huge monies to make positive impacts – sometimes it is as easy as picking up a phone and calling an old friend or acting on whatever opportunity to help another person shows up.
Down off the soap box…
I want to talk about leadership and how things can go well with good leaders, and break bad with poor ones. The thin line that separates the good and bad leaders is sometimes hinged on being able to listen, with ears truly open, to something like a single phone call that comes from out of the blue.
We see small efforts (as mentioned above) being able to impact bigger problems and here is an example of how that happened in the real-life business world in New York city as well as in Pitt football in Oakland.
I was listening to the radio the other day and a wonderful podcast came on about the New York skyscraper “The Citicorp Center” which is a 59 story building that was built, in a unique engineering way, in 1977. The subject of the podcast was the poor structural designs that arose from them because buying the site had a clause in the sales contract that required a smaller building to be built within the same plot.
What this meant was Citigroup had to have their building designed so that it could accommodate a smaller church building underneath, making it unlike other skyscrapers that had solid foundations to build upward from. It had to be carried on stilts as it were.
Hence this strange pillar arrangement (right) that wasn’t built with the main supports in the corners of the structure as was the norm, but needed the pillars to be placed in the center of each wall to allow for the overhang.
All was well and good and the construction finished even with the strange approach to its engineering. Life returned to normal and business was being conducted as happens after all construction of office buildings.
Things then took a turn. Soon after the building opened the Chief Engineer for the project, Mr. William LeMessurier, received a phone call from a NJ undergrad engineering student. The student asked what the technical stress calculations for the structure were if it was hit by “quartering winds”. Those are winds that strike two sides of the building at the same time by being split by the structure’s corner. Her thesis work (later known to be a female student) showed a possibility of critical failure of the support infrastructure.
What did the skilled and highly respected Chief Engineer LeMessurier do? He took the student seriously and ran her calculations over and over again then consulted with other experts and found that this would happen:
According to LeMessurier, in 1978 he got a phone call from an undergraduate architecture student making a bold claim about LeMessurier’s building. He told LeMessurier that Citicorp Center could blow over in the wind.
The student (who has since been lost to history) was studying Citicorp Center as part of his thesis and had found that the building was particularly vulnerable to quartering winds (winds that strike the building at its corners). Normally, buildings are strongest at their corners, and it’s the perpendicular winds (winds that strike the building at its face) that cause the greatest strain. But this was not a normal building.
LeMessurier had accounted for the perpendicular winds, but not the quartering winds. He checked the math, and found that the student was right. He compared what velocity winds the building could withstand with weather data, and found that a storm strong enough to topple Citicorp Center hits New York City every 55 years.
But that’s only if the tuned mass damper, (a 400+ ton concrete block on the building’s roof that is hydraulically moved to offset sway) which keeps the building stable, is running. LeMessurier realized that a major storm could cause a blackout and render the tuned mass damper inoperable. Without the tuned mass damper, LeMessurier calculated that a storm powerful enough to take out the building hits New York every sixteen years.
The student, who only wanted some technical answers for a paper, never called back or made a big fuss over her findings. But she did not hesitate to bring the problem she thought she found to the Chief Engineer’s attention.
Prize #1 for her for being aggressive in doing the right thing and not assuming she was wrong because she was only a young student.
Prize #2 is awarded because a world renown and highly successful Chief Engineer subjugated his ego and took the student’s concerns seriously. In doing that he took all necessary actions to insure that the structure’s framing was properly welded (it had been bolted together before) and that emergency evacuations procedures were in place if a worse case scenario happened. Having a 59 story building in mid-Manhattan topple over and creating a domino effect was not a good thing.
In other words LeMessurier said “To hell with my reputation. Let’s get this fixed!”
But what does this have to do with Pitt football and why should we fans care about a building in NYC?
Because we lived though a period where we had an Athletic Director who wouldn’t, or couldn’t even, put his ego aside and do the right things like LeMessurier did.
Steve Pederson built that flawed skyscraper in Oakland and adamantly refused to listen when problems arose in the construction of it- it being the football program – and watched as the program toppled over on its side.
We all know what he was like – there are many stories and innuendoes about his strange personality and how off-putting he was. So no one is surprised he has left a negative vibe surrounding his tenure as the AD when he was fired last year. What LeMessurier did with his in-crisis decision making couldn’t have been replicated by Pederson even if a gun was held to his head.
A clear case in point was his re-branding of the University’s sports teams from “Pitt” to “PITT” then to “PITTSBURGH”:
Additionally, Pederson enlisted the talents of Peter Moore, one of the world’s top figures in sports marketing and image, to create the Pittsburgh Panthers logo and color schemes. The dynamic Panther logo and standardized blue and gold colors have been adopted by all of the University’s 19 intercollegiate sports.
Moore also created the Panther eyetooth that will be debuted on Pittsburgh’s uniforms this fall.
It was an act of purposefully changing a traditional and beloved logo and image just because he could. Even the image on the right would have been a better ‘Dino-Cat’ then what SP shoved down our throats. He created a crisis instead of avoiding one.
What was just as stupid as SP doing that was Chancellor Nordenberg not calling him onto the carpet and screaming “Who the hell do you think you are?” at him.
Of course we know why that didn’t happen – they were Best Friends Forever and so Nordenberg delegated way too much authority down to Pederson when the two worked together.
That super ego-driven move by Smiling Petey was Pitt’s athletic program’s pillars sloooowly bending at the knees. I do know that he was strongly counseled against it by members of his staff and that got nowhere. It went on and on from there.
His knowing early on that Wannstedt was going to be fired at the end of the 201o season and then not having done the hard work of getting a jump start on a quality replacement was a horrid mistake. I truly believe he actually thought that prospective Head Coaches would be knocking the doors down to work for him.
Well that sure wasn’t true, was it? Instead he sat around with a smug look on his face and then fell flat onto it when the best he could get was Mike Haywood. Leadership? Not.
He then hired Todd Graham under somewhat false pretenses when he didn’t fully explain to Graham how hands-on the administration was going to be in response to the negative publicity we received from the Sport Illustrated’s “Most Arrested ” article.
The AD’s involvement in the day to day operations of the football program was especially evident in the recruiting arena where Nordenberg and Pederson had started a vetting process that was more stringent and intrusive then Graham was led to believe it would be.
We all love to hate Todd Graham but some things he said after he left were just plain true. Of course we applauded Borghetti’s slap back to Graham after his criticism of Pitt’s administration when he wrote “Todd Graham’s credibility problems are well documented. Further comment on that subject would be simply piling on.” but there were some bits in there that were just as Graham said.
The underlying problem with Pederson was his concrete inability to allow others to impinge on his singular ‘vision’ of Pitt football. He alienated the very resources; the player alumni, the big donors and the media, that he needed to position his changes to be well received.
The decision to tear down Pitt Stadium wasn’t his alone, even though most Pitt fans think it was. That was finally decided above his pay grade although he spearheaded the initial effort for the move to Heinz. As written back then:
Pederson and Nordenberg believe opposition to their proposal is driven by emotion, nostalgia and plain old resistance to change. Even Nordenberg’s initial reaction was tepid.
“The first time I broached this idea with him, I was glad that I was under contract,” Pederson said. “He wasn’t real enthusiastically embracing it.”
But while doing all the behind the scene’s planning he never reached out to see how this idea would be received. In leadership parlance that is called “advance damage control”.
I used to grab one of the lowest ranked sailors on the ship and ask him to review my preliminary plans for any project I might be hatching. I wanted to get an opinion straight from the guy who would have to execute those plans before I went onto Step Two. It is amazing at what things we miss if we keep ourselves in a bubble.
Back to the stadium; here is a telling quote from Dave Havern, a Pitt QB alumni:
“We never had that conversation,” said former Pitt quarterback Dave Havern, who worked for Pitt but was fired by Pederson a couple years after his arrival on campus. “I say ‘we’ as the old-guy Panther fans, alumni, players. It was just like an edict he dropped down and any dissent or any questioning was viewed as disloyalty.“
Having serious face to face conversations with the old players – stars and regular players alike, and being inclusive by explaining the dynamics and benefits behind the change would have paid huge dividends for SP to help sell the project. He chose not to go that route and it was a train wreck as far as alumni and student perception went.
We still have fans hating Heinz Field and I think the majority do so on the basis that it isn’t Pitt Stadium. Fans felt hurt and cheated when the news bomb dropped in Oakland. The player alumni, those whose counsel and support he needed the most, felt discarded. Haven saying “…viewed as disloyalty.” is the key phrase there, but that is exactly the atmosphere that is fostered when the Boss can’t be bothered by any dissent – or even discussion – regarding his purview.
Leadership is easy when you order the staff to do your bidding instead of opening yourself up to suggestions and acceptance of criticism for mistakes you had made along the way. But that is exactly what great leaders do – they truly understand they don‘t have all the answers and that sometimes they need to keep their eyes and ears open for when help comes from unexpected sources. The key is to get that info as soon as possible.
I think we have an administration in place now that gets that need and embraces that philosophy. Barnes had a serious misstep with his flippant remarks during the BB Stallings press conference but his actions overall since his hire point to someone who genuinely wants to hear all sides of an issue before he makes the hard decisions.
Pitt pays the AD a lot of money to do the right things the right way – not just what the AD thinks the right way is.
That is a good and necessary quality to have in leadership… at all levels. Keep yourself open to others. To not do so means things can come crumbling down in a hurry. Here is a impressive clip from a New Yorker magazine article that was written in 1995:
In the last few years, LeMessurier has been talking about the summer of 1978 to his classes at Harvard. The tale, as he tells it, is by turns painful, self-deprecating, and self-dramatizing–an engineer who did the right thing. But it also speaks to the larger question of how professional people should behave.
“You have a social obligation,” LeMessurier reminds his students. “In return for getting a license and being regarded with respect, you’re supposed to be self-sacrificing and look beyond the interests of yourself and your client to society as a whole. And the most wonderful part of my story is that when I did it nothing bad happened.”
Well then… “you’re supposed to be self-sacrificing and look beyond the interests of yourself and your client to society as a whole.“…that speaks to truth right there.
It all adds up to Steve Pederson being the Anti-Chief Engineer. He’s the bad leader deaf to any cries that didn’t fall lockstep into his own plans. The shame of Steve Pederson’s hubris is how badly it hurt the football program in the long run. The reality is that we are just now back on a level course.
News: Here is a Trib-Review article about James Conner’s goals for this year and not only those which can be met on the field of play.
Notes: An interesting epilogue to the Citigroup building situation was that somewhat similar problems were found later in the John Hancock building in San Francisco. The person that John Hancock’s engineering firm reached out to for help was none other than Citigroup’s Chief Engineer William LeMessurier. And that is how good leadership pays dividends long after initial problems are met and solved.