Fueling the buzz about him is the publication this month of a book, "The World's Banker," with Wolfensohn's face on the cover. Authored by Sebastian Mallaby, a Washington Post columnist and editorial writer, the book hails Wolfensohn for directing his enormous dynamism at shaking up the bank and steering it toward much greater effectiveness in its mission of alleviating global poverty. But it also depicts his leadership as often counterproductive, recounting numerous episodes in which the Australian-born former investment banker cursed out high-ranking bank managers, bullied members of the bank's board and dragged its skeptical PhDs into half-baked initiatives.
The unflattering portions of the book have piqued Wolfensohn's wrath. He declined to get into a point-by-point rebuttal and acknowledged that "it makes a lot of points that are very valuable about the bank." But he said: "I think it's a caricature of me."
James D. Wolfensohn has served two terms as president of the World Bank.
(Wolfram Steinberg -- AP)
Wolfensohn has been a formidable force in Washington and New York circles, with a capacity to charm and rally support from allies around the world to the degree that even Bush aides give him a fighting chance at reappointment.
He fiercely lobbied to win President Bill Clinton's backing for the job in 1995. Wolfensohn, then the multimillionaire head of his own investment banking firm and chairman of Washington's Kennedy Center, marshaled a well-orchestrated campaign that, according to the book, included most of the Clinton cabinet, business tycoons, network TV anchors, presidential golfing buddies and an array of other friends in high places.
Wolfensohn acknowledged that when he first arrived at the bank, determined to launch it in a new direction, "there was a lot of screaming and yelling, because I couldn't move the place." The internal discord has diminished significantly in recent years, he contended, as he has built his own more cohesive management team; he cited a recent survey showing that an overwhelming number of staffers say they are proud to work for the bank and are clear on its objectives. But at the beginning, "I have no doubt, I raised my voice more than once. . . . I had a pretty tough job."
At that point, the bank had been run for 15 years by a succession of relatively straitlaced men, and it was under attack from critics on both the left and the right who accused the institution of imposing austere economic policies on poor countries and propping up corrupt governments with its loans. Although previous presidents had formally declared the bank's mission to be poverty alleviation rather than a broader concentration on economic growth, the leadership in the 1980s and early 1990s had demonstrated little passion for the task, and within the staff many felt stifled by bureaucratic pressures.
Wolfensohn swiftly demonstrated a different style, rhapsodizing about the need for the bank to "walk with the poor" and "put a smile on a child's face;" he followed through by traveling to impoverished villages where he hugged and danced with people living amid squalor. Some members of the bank's old guard were put off by what they viewed as a naïvely sentimental approach to development, but others were inspired by Wolfensohn's struggle to make the bank less arrogant, less "top-down" and more responsive to the expressed needs of its client countries.
The results included substantial changes in the way the bank operated, such as moving about two-thirds of the country directors from the bank's 19th Street headquarters to the field. Moreover, Wolfensohn insisted that the staff must actively engage and consult with the non-governmental organizations that had been the bank's most militant critics. As a sign of his success, he gave the featured address a few months ago at a meeting of the environmental group Greenpeace.
"They can and should continue to criticize us, because it keeps us on our toes," Wolfensohn said of the non-governmental organizations groups.
In another major initiative, Wolfensohn successfully fought to give several dozen of the world's poorest countries, most in sub-Saharan Africa, substantial relief from the billions of dollars in debt they owed the bank and the IMF. The bank and the fund had long refused such a move, in part because of fears of undermining their own financial conditions. Wolfensohn also declared corruption a "cancer" on the developing world, tackling a subject that the bank had always tiptoed around.
But even those triumphs were often punctuated by tirades. One result, according to people who work for Wolfensohn, was that bank staff members were worried about their own careers instead of concentrating on poverty alleviation; another problem was that many of Wolfensohn's top managers were afraid to give him frank counsel.
Wolfensohn also had a penchant for becoming enamored of new initiatives that, critics contend, wasted money and kept the bank from developing a long-term strategic direction. Examples included plans to establish a "dialogue" among religious leaders, provide loans to preserve important cultural treasures, and create a high-tech communications system, complete with videoconferencing facilities, linking the bank's offices around the world.
Referring to the culture and religion initiatives, Wolfensohn acknowledged, "those were two things for which I was vigorously criticized, and was told, 'These are just his latest whim.' " But he maintained that both were nonetheless integral to "a very clear strategy . . . that poverty alleviation involves an interconnected set of issues and that it is impossible to solve it with three things or five things." As for the telecom system, he said, "jokes were made," but "we now happen to be at the cutting edge of global communications, and there isn't a person in the place who doesn't rely on it."
Wolfensohn mused that when he writes his own book, "You'll have the picture of my warm and endearing personality."