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Gerald Levin's Five Lessons for Today's CEOs


The former chief of Time Warner warns against emotional detachment and other perils.

Ten years after America Online (AOL) merged with Time Warner (TWX) -- in what has been called one of the most disastrous business decisions of the last century -- Gerald Levin, the man behind the historic deal, has a different view of corporate life and the leadership issues that face big league executives.

Since leaving AOL Time Warner, Levin has completely altered his life. The once "hard-driving 25-hour-a-day" CEO is now hidden away at Santa Monica's Moonview Sanctuary, a rehab center he co-founded with his wife, where he helps celebrities and other executives find peace and tranquility. (See So Long, Corner Office: Time Warner Chief Takes Life Lessons to Rehab Center)

Although he will likely be remembered for the rough end to his business career, Levin's departure from corporate life was preceded by more than 30 years of accomplishments as a media leader. Minyanville recently caught up with him to discuss his new life. With a fresh perspective and more than a little distance from the pressures of running a public company, Levin offers today's C-suite leaders some advice:

1. "Pay attention to being congruent in your personal life, your family life, and your business life," Levin says. He warns executives not to put their professional life and personal life in separate compartments. The former Time Warner CEO was famously emotionally detached among colleagues. Levin says this stemmed from him never truly dealing with the tragic death of his son Jonathan; he returned to work two months after his son's brutal murder.

"Recognize that you are in that position as a trustee for shareholders, but that it is not perpetual -- eventually it comes to an end," adds Levin. A little more than a year after the AOL-Time Warner merger was announced, Levin invoked a clause in his contract that allowed him to leave the company with only six months notice. He tells executives to be sure to plan for a successor even when leaving is not yet a consideration.

3. "Be ready to bring other people along who can succeed you who don't necessarily look and sound like you," says Levin. He says that there is no time to waste in planning for the next generation to take over. Levin gave up the AOL-Time Warner reigns to then-Chief Operating Officer Richard Parsons -- someone who was seen as warm and approachable, and a master diplomat, very much unlike the (then) emotionally reserved Levin.

"Try to be emotionally available and open to people in the company, the community you serve, the shareholders, and the customers," says Levin. Look beyond delivering returns to shareholders and focus on also operating in the public interest, he emphasizes. "I think that would have probably forestalled a lot of the government regulation we are about to have," he adds.

5. "I noticed a lot of the difficulties and desperate circumstances that people have been put in due to the decisions of companies, and therefore the CEOs," says Levin. He thinks that today's CEOs should take more responsibility for the decisions made at their own companies. "The thing that bothers me [is] other people pushing blame on successors or their board; saying they aren't to blame," he adds.
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