The real leadership lessons of Dan Edelman

The agency he built was his most important client.

There are some great stories in the new book about the history of Edelman, “Edelman and the Rise of Public Relations”. My favorite is probably the one when Dan Edelman, the firm's founder, who died Tuesday at age 92, made his 27-year-old son head of the New York office.  After struggling to find a replacement manager for the fledgling office, Dan apparently told Richard Edelman, “Why don't you just take a shot at this until I find somebody decent.”

Many ups, and some downs later, Richard is on top of a world-class firm of a scale that even Dan's prodigious ambition would not have fully envisioned. Richard Edelman may now be the most heralded PR agency leader of his generation, but he's still proudly Dan's kid, and he sharpened his business chops at Dan's example and urging – which was not without its unique stress and complications.

Walter Isaacson distilled his book into the “The Real Leadership Lessons of Steve Jobs”. The Edelman book is candid about the highs and lows of the agency business, in the same way Dan was in person, and will prove useful fodder for understanding Edelman's rise, and its founder's contribution to the profession.

For now, one leadership lesson that will no doubt survive is the way Dan Edelman honored his DNA. Not his personal DNA, though it is famously a family firm, but rather, the characteristics that define Edelman's culture and brand. That is, the firm's independent ownership, which has been a hallmark of its success – mainly because independence mattered very much indeed to Dan.

Many agencies have thrived within holding companies. But Dan Edelman literally could not bear it when, in the 1980s, he gave away 5% of the firm to a conglomerate to establish a beachhead in California. Within a year–and-a-half, he had exercised his option to buy back the share. Though he must have enjoyed overtures from the others that came calling over the years, he remained committed to his own vision of how the agency should grow, and so remained the industry's most successful entrepreneur.

There is another lesson I learned from Dan. Any editor within his sphere of interest would have had the experience, at some point, of receiving a long white envelope with a personal letter from Dan inside. In my case, it was usually a sign that he was not happy with our coverage on some Edelman-oriented topic, and they were usually delineated, “Not for publication”. These letters were rare, they were considered, they were constructive, and they were pointedly, passionately Edelman.

The leadership lesson I took from these letters was that, to Dan, Edelman and its future, its reputation, and its relationships mattered as much to him as the clients it serviced. Even when he should have been able to take a break, he never stopped focusing on the firm that he built from nothing. Dan worked incredibly hard for his clients, and his most important client was Edelman.

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