JPMorgan Chase’s Jamie Dimon: What It Takes to Be an Effective Banking Leader

Does a great banking leader need to be a technology ace? Or a genius marketer? Or a peerless risk manager? The head of the largest U.S. bank says none of that is a requirement for running a successful major bank. The leadership qualities that are critical, in the veteran CEO's view, have little to do with banking skill.

What kind of person makes the best choice for the banking leader of the future?

Perhaps not surprisingly, Jamie Dimon has some strong opinions about that. He thinks not many people in the banking industry understand what leadership is really about.

For decades, banking leaders came from commercial lending. Supposedly that background made you a “real” banker. But in the 1980s, the appointment of people with completely different specialties began to get trendy.

Dimon, the outspoken chairman and chief executive officer at JPMorgan Chase, has never been one for conventional wisdom, though.

What Leadership Qualities Does Jamie Dimon’s Successor Need?

At the 2023 JPMorgan Chase investor day, Goldman Sachs analyst Richard Ramsden asked what attributes the bank’s board would be looking for when it began seeking Dimon’s successor. He might have been expecting endorsement of some specialty — a risk management whiz, a master lobbyist, a tech guru.

Instead, he got more than a friendly earful.

“It’s a huge mistake when a company says, ‘What are you looking for in a CEO in the next generation? Is it a marketing person? Is it a risk person? Is it a tech-oriented person?’” said Dimon. “That isn’t what leadership is about. You’re almost guaranteed to fail if you think having a strength, one important strength, is the most important strength.”

To Dimon, the “ideal” banking leader’s specialized skills are less important than more fundamental human skills.

“The most important strength is you’re trusted and respected by people, that you work your ass off, that you give a shit, that you know you don’t know everything,” said Dimon.

Jamie Dimon CEO of JPMorgan Chase says The most important strength is you’re trusted and respected by people, that you work your ass off, that you give a shit, that you know you don’t know everything.

Dimon said true leaders have character, curiosity, grit and courage.

“Are you willing to change direction?” said Dimon. “Are you willing to go in front of your shareholders and say, ‘We screwed up, we made a mistake, we were wrong about that’?”

Dimon said he believes those qualities mean much more than something like being able to program in Python.

“If you’re smart, you can figure that stuff out,” said Dimon. “But if you don’t have grit, you don’t have it. If you don’t have courage, you don’t have it.”

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Be Willing to Be Wrong, Admit It When It Happens and Move On

Dimon expressed discomfort with people who spend time defending decisions that went wrong.

“I don’t think I’ve ever defended a decision. I just want to do the right thing going forward. That’s it — just do the right thing going forward. I don’t really care what we did yesterday,” Dimon said.

“I’m very much of that mindset. I also get over bad shit really quickly. And literally sometimes it would happen to me, it’s like it happened 10 years ago, even though it happened this morning, because that’s how you can move on in life.”

Dimon said he doesn’t dwell on this stuff, and that he tells the board, “I’m just trying to do the best I can.”

He said he spends comparatively little time wining and dining individual directors on the JPMorgan Chase board, “because I’m really busy.”

Dimon also talked about the importance he places on the board being able to meet on its own. While the Dodd-Frank Act demands that bank boards meet once a year without the CEO being present, Dimon said that even going back to earlier CEO posts, before Dodd-Frank, he urged directors to count him out at some point in every meeting.

“If you want to give a board discretion and the ability to talk to each other, it’s necessary to not have me in the room when they’re doing it,” said Dimon. “I have these strong opinions…”

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How Intense Does a Banking Leader Have to Be These Days?

The board discussion stemmed from Wells Fargo Securities analyst Mike Mayo’s comment during the Q&A about JPMorgan Chase’s succession plan.

Mayo said he had talked with outside investors and ex-employees. “There’s a concern here,” Mayo told Dimon, that “when you’re away, the sense is the intensity [that Dimon brings to the job] is not as strong as when you are here.”

Are You Past Your Prime, Jamie?:

The analyst asked Dimon if he was as intense as he once was — in other words, did he still have what it took — and if people on his team had the intensity they’d need to be able to run the entire company once he retires.

“You have fame, you have fortune, you’ve had success,” Mayo said. “Why do you want to still be as intense as you were before?”

On a personal level, Dimon answered: “All human beings are different. And I’m kind of like I was when I was eight, and I’m not going to change. I’m not going to play golf. I love my country. I love my company. I love my family. I’m going to do something.”

On a professional level, Dimon answered: “I can’t do this forever. I know that. But my intensity is the same. I think when I don’t have that kind of intensity, I should leave. I don’t think CEOs should retire in place and just cut back and take it easy for a while. I think that erodes the whole company over time. I think that’s a mistake.”

And Chase-wise, Dimon answered: “I think the management team has tons of intensity. The difference is that when I leave, there’s a deep sigh of relief that they can go do their jobs, as opposed to having me walk in and out and bugging them about something and stuff like that.

“So I think it’s good for management teams when the CEO is away. It’s good for the CEO to be away sometimes. It’s good for both parties, like taking a little bit of vacation time from your family sometimes.”

The pair also traded quips over how much more time Dimon would spend in the job. “Three and a half years,” the 67-year-old banker and 2020 heart attack survivor, riffed. “We’re on the same plan we had before.” [Subsequent to the bank’s investor day, Dimon’s general comment in an interview with Bloomberg’s television operation that after leaving banking he might choose public service quickly became speculation that he might someday run for U.S. President.]

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Praise for the Next Generation at Chase … and Gratitude

Dimon said that analysts at JPMorgan Chase investor day had seen some “pretty damn good” managers in action and that there were others present who hadn’t spoken. He suggested that such bench strength should create no worries about the eventual succession.

“Handing this company over to the next generation, I will feel great about it — literally great,” he said.

Dimon recalled that a month or so earlier an analyst had asked how he shows gratitude to his direct reports.

“A couple of my direct reports who were in the room burst out laughing, because I don’t really on a regular basis show gratitude to my direct reports.”

— Jamie Dimon, JPMorgan Chase

Dimon said he told the analyst he was not particularly good at expressing gratitude.

He explained that, in his younger days, he’d been running investment banks. “I was always worried that if I ever showed gratitude, at the end of the year, they would just ask for more money,” he said.

But, again speaking to leadership traits, he said he hoped that the management team and all Chase employees understood how much gratitude he really felt for what they did for the company and its customers and communities.

“They do know I’d break my back for them. That I give a shit to do the best I can. That I adore them. And I just look at these sessions here and I’m kind of beaming half the time, just watching our people in action, talking about what they do and how they do it. And they’re getting better.”

For interested readers: Since the event, the company has set up a JPMorgan Chase Investor Day page with highlights videos and full videos of each major section, along with transcripts and presentation materials.

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