Searching for a Balanced Portrait of EHH

I’m not sure I’ll spend $28 plus tax to buy Howard Green’s book about E. Hunter Harrison titled Railroader: The Unfiltered Genius and Controversy of Four-Time CEO Hunter Harrison.

More than likely I’ll check it out from a library.

Reviews of the book at the Trains and Railway Age websites suggest it would be worth the time to read Green’s book.

If nothing else, I’m curious if Green created the balanced portrayal I’ve been seeking about Harrison.

Harrison is someone about whom there doesn’t seem to be much middle ground although the editor-in-chief of Railway Age, William C. Vantuono, came close to that in an overview written shortly after Harrison’s death.

Much has been written about Harrison over the years in the railroad trade press and business press in the United States and Canada.

No other living railroad CEO approaches the stature of Harrison. Not even Charles “Wick” Moorman the retired CEO of Norfolk Southern and Amtrak who is much revered by railfans has the larger than life eminence that Harrison had.

The cover story of the August 2018 issue of Trains focused on Harrison’s time at Canadian Pacific. A sidebar story asked whether Harrison was the most misunderstood man in railroading.

That piece quoted only railroad executives or investors who had been part of Harrison’s inner circle.

They had some interesting things to say about Harrison, but, of course, they tended to adore him. That’s no surprise. They owed much of their career success to Harrison.

Keith Creel, who followed Harrison into the CEO chair at Canadian Pacific said,”if  you knew him, you loved him. If you didn’t know him, you probably misunderstood him.”

CP chairman Andrew Reardon said that behind Harrison’s gruff persona was a heart of gold.

Mark Wallace, who served as Harrison’s chief of staff at CN, CP and CSX, said Harrison’s charitable nature was overlooked, pointing out that since 2014 CP contributed more than $12 million to charities, including children’s hospitals.

Harrison’s “heart of gold” might be news to the thousands of men and women who lost their jobs due to his cost cutting and obsession with running an efficient railroad.

Creel had it at least half right. Some loved Harrison but others didn’t and it wasn’t because they misunderstood him.

Actually, his adversaries and critics understood Harrison quite well. Perhaps it is Hunter’s supporters who need to understand a few things.

Therein lies the challenge of assessing Harrison’s legacy. What you think of Harrison hinges on how his edicts, personal style and management philosophies affected you.

If he made you a lot of money, you think Harrison is God. If he laid you off, you think he is Satan.

Harrison achieved great success, but at what cost? Harrison is not misunderstood so much as he had the ability to attract attention in ways that few can and do.

To fairly assess Harrison’s legacy will take an analytic mind and an ability to see past the love and hatred that he engendered in so many.

It also will take time, which has a way of putting things into context and helping authors to take the longer view.

All great men and women have abilities and drive that average people lack. They are able to parlay those things to great advantage by seizing the opportunities that come their way and creating opportunities where none seem to exist.

Harrison may have been the genius that his supporters claim he was and at the same time the ogre that his critics considered him to be be. Somewhere between those extremes is another portrait. Maybe Green was able to show that and maybe it is a story still waiting to be told.

I’ll be looking for that when I finally get my hands on Green’s book.

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