washingtonpost.com  > Columns > Tina Brown

Why Can't A Man Be More Like a Woman?

By Tina Brown
Thursday, February 24, 2005; Page C01

Perhaps in the wake of the Larry Summers debacle at Harvard it's time for a study of the missing social gene in men. It's amazing how many executive disasters are caused by the way otherwise smart males crash around in the thicket of interpersonal relations.

There were so many blunders of tone in the first Bush term it needed Condi Rice in her Jackie O pearls to go and suck up to wounded European leaders in advance of the presidential visit. By the end of the week Mr. Bush's diplomatic cholesterol will have spiked from having to feast on the foie gras of Old Europe. Social cluelessness was the root of Howell Raines's problems at the New York Times. All his Big Thinks about Times strategy and Flooding the Zone got torpedoed not by Jayson Blair's plagiarism, which he could have survived, but by his mulish refusal to once in a while stroke the working stiffs who toiled in his newsroom.

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Then there's James B. Stewart's new scorcher about Disney. The glory days of Michael Eisner's rescue of the moribund mouse house have been soured by recurring outbreaks of unchecked masculine pathology. In Disney's case, all the jostling male egos seem to have killed each other off. There are more dead bodies at the end than in "Coriolanus."

The new study about men should focus on the epidemic of testosterone poisoning in the executive suites of America.

As with Raines at the Times, the storm now drenching Summers at Harvard is not really about PC politics. It's an insurrection about his manners. If his pleasingly polite predecessor in the job, Neil Rudenstine, had made some offhand comments about the innate abilities of women in a closed meeting, faculty members would have shrugged it off.

The presidency of Harvard has only magnified characteristics Summers was just barely able to get away with in Washington. Young Turk economists in the Treasury Department could handle the cut and thrust of Summers's ongoing seminar with himself, but academics are more sensitive souls. In Tuesday's meeting with several hundred Harvard professors to discuss faculty criticisms of Summers's stewardship, Caroline Hoxby, one of two tenured women in economics, told Summers the ties between scholars, their mentors and students is a "great shimmering web." "Every time, Mr. President, you show a lack of respect for a faculty member's intellectual expertise, you break ties in our web."

Poor, preposterously brilliant Larry Summers put his web foot in it all the time. He even made enemies for himself during such tension-free occasions as "Memorial Minutes," the short remembrances at faculty meetings of Harvard colleagues who have passed away. According to Richard Bradley in his new book "Harvard Rules," Summers infuriated everyone there by "closing his eyes and drumming his fingers -- as if honoring the dead were keeping him from more important tasks."

Hard-charging men are often stunningly oblivious to their own behavior or their own motivations. Summers is notorious at Harvard for leaving meetings that went horribly, thinking they went really well. Al Gore seemed utterly unaware of his own passive aggression when he endorsed Howard Dean without giving his ex-running mate, Joe Lieberman, a heads-up. It was obvious to everyone but Michael Eisner that when he appointed his best friend and rival Mike Ovitz president of Disney it would turn into an antler-clashing contest to the death.

One of the side effects of testosterone poisoning seems to be an uncontrollable longing to be properly understood. Throughout the Sturm und Drang he unleashed when he forced out Jeffrey Katzenberg and later fired Ovitz, Eisner was always writing to the two of them about his trampled feelings.

He frequently mourned the death of Frank Wells as the only Disney executive he felt knew how to be his real partner, just as Ovitz, at the recent hearings in Delaware, went on about how much he missed and needed Ron Meyer, his old partner and co-founder of Creative Artists Agency, to help him make decisions. Yet both Eisner and Ovitz spent the last 10 years trying to prove to themselves they alone were responsible for their own success. (Eisner may get the Oscar for screwed-up responses when he thought after firing Ovitz that he could still host his 50th birthday party.)

Some of the almost touching obliviousness of smart men may trace to the fact that their gender has narrower options than women for role-playing. Samurai or wimp are the only parts they get offered. Women, by contrast, get a crack at boss lady, taskmaster and office power woman along with mistress, wife, geisha, doormat, chatelaine, vixen, goddess, nursemaid and she-devil -- all in the course of one day.

A woman playing any of these roles is perfectly in her element; a man playing a role feels unmanned. It's easy for Condi to switch from standing on Putin's corns to gazing into Chancellor Schroeder's eyes and laughing coquettishly at his Germanic jokes. That kind of thing is harder for Bush -- and off the table for Rummy.

This suppleness with roles in a fast-changing corporate environment is why women are now doing so well running studios in Hollywood. Stacey Snider at Universal, Nina Jacobson at Disney, Amy Pascal at Sony, Elizabeth Gabler at Fox 2000 and, until five minutes ago, Sherry Lansing at Paramount are more willing than men to acknowledge that they are supported by a team. Not for them the lose-lose mud wrestling with their enemies in public. They find other ways. Everybody in Hollywood can do an imitation of Sherry Lansing calling you "honey" right before she inserted the knife. Still, with all the leg-crossing and lash-batting that went with it, it somehow hurt less.

Harvard now needs to appoint a committee of women to figure out how to redress the innate differences in emotional intelligence by which men feel compelled to shoot themselves in the foot.

©2005, Tina Brown

© 2005 The Washington Post Company