By Thomas M. Loarie

BOOK REVIEW: Sam Zell: Being Known as Someone Who Makes Others Better is the Highest Praise Anyone Can Receive

April 11, 2019
Column: CEO Learnings

Review of Sam Zell’s Am I Being Too Subtle? — I enjoyed reading Sam Zell’s Am I Being Too Subtle?: Straight talk from a business rebel . Zell, a Chicagoan, is a self-made billionaire who founded Equity Group Investments and helped create today’s $1 trillion public real estate industry. While a distinct personality, he shares some traits with fellow billionaire Warren Buffett. 

Zell has invested in a diverse range of industries – energy, manufacturing, logistics, healthcare, communications and real estate – and he invests for the long-term. He believes that conventional wisdom is merely a reference point and prides himself on “looking right when everyone else is looking left.” 

Am I Being Too Subtle? captures Zell’s life experiences, his investing experience and his philosophy of life. He shares how he catapulted to billionaire status with stories of taking risk, successes and failures (including his well-publicized take-over of the Tribune Companies), and his advocacy of entrepreneurship.

Zell begins the book with his parent’s departure from Poland in the late 1930’s because of rising anti-Semitism and the threat of Hitler. They traveled through Russia and Japan and were among six thousand Jews saved by Japanese Vice-Consul Chiune Sugihara (the “Sugihara Survivors”) who disobeyed orders to save them.

His parents and others who immigrated to the U.S. are the true entrepreneurs who built America. These immigrants took an enormous risk leaving their homelands and everything they knew for the unknown.

Invaluable advice

His father taught him how to be. “There is nothing more important than a man’s honor. A good name and a good reputation are the most important assets. Your name and your character are intertwined”

Think different

Zell learned at a young age that he had a fundamentally different perspective from that of his peers. He was willing to trade conformity for authenticity, even if it meant being an outlier. He has not been motivated by the accumulation of wealth. Money is just a way of keeping score. He has been drawn much more to the experience and what will test his limits. Like many other successful people, Zell loves the adventure and new learnings.

I found him to be much more than an investor.

Like an early mentor of mine, Tom Perkins, Zell has an operational feel and knows what it takes to build a great organization. He knows that culture is the king and takes great care with the way he does things, assuring transparency, alignment and trust.

No one ever leaves a meeting wondering what he meant.

Ethical leadership integrity

Zell values the opinions of others and puts a premium on being a good listener before determining the right path. He is a firm believer in the fundamentals of business – supply and demand, liquidity equals value, good corporate governance and reliable partners.

The foundation of his leadership philosophy is meritocracy with a moral compass.

“Those who believe you can get what you want by beating the crap out of other people are wrong,” Zell writes. “It’s all about long-term relationships.” He believes in leaving something on the table in any negotiation so everyone can share in the stakes.

Results speak louder than words

What are the results of Zell’s approach to business and life? Suffice it to say that he’s been doing deals with many of the same people for decades because they know and trust him. Everyone will come out ahead when he is involved.

Zell claims to approach business the same way he approaches life and closes the book with his key philosophies:

  • Be ready to pivot – Be nimble and be ready to move.

  • Keep it simple

  • Keep your eyes (and mind) wide open – rely on a macro-perspective to identify opportunities and make better decisions. Be a voracious consumer of information. You cannot predict when or how you learn something. Pay attention to people. You never know when opportunities will show up.

  • Be the lead dog – if you ain’t the lead dog, the scenery never changes.<
  • Do the right thing – ethics are a cornerstone. Have a sense of decency and expect your partners to have the same. If you lie down with dogs, you’ll wake up with fleas.

  • You can be both successful and ethical – only underachievers push the contrary view. 

  • Negotiation is not a zero-sum game – know and understand which issues are the deal breakers for those you are negotiating with.

  • Shem Tov – know who you are and do what you say. Be a reliable partner.

  • Prize loyalty – loyalty defines your character. Do you stick with your friend, colleague, or partner when it’s not easy? Do you consider their circumstances as much as you consider your own?

  • Obey the 11th commandment – don’t take yourself too seriously. Ego and pride have their places but when they are not self-regulated, they can be detrimental. We are all human beings who inhabit the world and are given the gift of participating in the wonders around us – as long as we do not set ourselves apart from them.

  • Go all in – tenacity, optimism, drive and conviction are all rolled into one. It’s a commitment to get it done. It’s being an owner. An owner is consumed with making the most of what he already has. He’s all in. An entrepreneur is always looking for a new opportunity. He’s always reaching.

Zell feels that we all have the responsibility to maximize the skills we were given. We also have a personal obligation to have a positive impact on other people’s lives. Being known for doing our best to make other people better is the highest praise anyone can receive. “Excel. Go do it.”



Thomas M. Loarie is the CEO of BryoLogyx, a rotating host of THE MENTORS RADIO SHOW, and a senior editorial advisor and columnist for Catholic Business Journal. He may be reached at

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