James B. Lee was a legendary Wall Street banker and one of the world’s greatest dealmakers. 

Called “Jimmy” by those who knew him, if you were to read his resume or review his accolades you might expect a real-life version of the infamous movie character Gordon Gekko.

For example, he combed his hair slicked back and wore suspenders covered in silver dollars. He drove fast cars, lots of them. And, like many titans of industry, he spent his weekends golfing with the world’s most powerful executives.

All of this is what made his inviting, warm, and kind personality all the more surprising when I actually met him.

It was March 2014 and I was three months into my first sales job working at a fitness club in the affluent town of Darien Connecticut.

Located only about an hour away from where I grew up, it might as well have been a different planet compared to the middle-class community I was raised in.

Because of this, I was both excited and anxious to learn I had just sold a membership to a person who could raise billions with a single phone call, was once crowned a “Master of The Universe” by The New York Times, and had snippets like “widely credited as the architect of the modern-day syndicated loan market” and “co-led the two largest IPOs in history” on Wikipedia.

After booking an appointment through his two full-time assistants to provide a tour of our cycling studio I couldn’t help but wonder how Jimmy would treat me:

Would the “Executive Vice Chairman of JP Morgan Chase” even mutter a few words beyond formalities?

Would I have to walk on eggshells, or be made to feel lower than?

I was happy to discover I would enjoy my experience of meeting Jimmy. Better still, I would have the rare opportunity to get to know him over the course of that year. The experience of how he treated me and the lessons I took from him are still with me almost a decade later…

Despite our difference in status, Jimmy always spoke to me the way I imagined he would a colleague, friend, brother, or son.

For instance, I once told him of a recent trip to The New York Auto Show at Manhattan’s Jacob Javits Center. I was especially eager to share how much I loved that year’s Corvette Z06. When I did, Jimmy’s bright blue eyes lit up upon mention of the car. To my surprise, he apologized for not offering to sell me his own model first before trading it in for his most recent upgrade – a Ferrari. (Proof Jimmy was always trying to make a deal.) 

Another time, he invited me to check out an upcoming charity gala at the prestigious Cipriani Wall Street. Knowing I worked in sales he was excited to inform me it was there he would be honored alongside baseball legend Mariano Rivera for being named, get this, “New York City’s Two Greatest Closers”.

Another sweet and wonderful part of being around Jimmy was how he could make you feel 10X bigger than you were. (Is it any wonder he got some many deals done?)

One afternoon that summer I was stunned when he took the opportunity to pump me up ‘wing-man style’ in front of my current girlfriend. 

We happened to be outside enjoying the weather when Jimmy was departing post workout. After getting in his glossy-black Porsche 911 he pulled up next to us, rolled down his window, and proudly announced three words I will never forget: “Mike’s the man.”

(My then girlfriend must have agreed. We’re now celebrating our seventh year of marriage. Thanks for helping me close that deal, Jimmy.)

A final memento I cherish and admittedly do my best to imitate is the way Jimmy orchestrated his personal interactions. They always seemed perfectly timed to establish a genuine connection, yet also end on a high note before the moment could be tainted. He never seemed to linger or allow the energy to dissipate. Once opportunity came he would spring an incredibly witty comment paired masterfully with a laugh, a wink, or a smile, and be on his way.

Unfortunately, Jimmy took leaving on a high note to the extreme when he died one year later at the young age of 62. He was exercising in his home and suffered an irrecoverable heart attack – just like that.

As the memories fade I admit I wish I had more to remember my time with Jimmy by. We did not take any pictures and I do not have copies of the emails we exchanged. I wish I had saved a few of them. Receiving words from a guy so powerful that his Dow Jones-disrupting negotiations required code names made my day each time it happened.

Most important is I can still remember how Jimmy made me feel and the example he set. I intend to live up to his example and continue sharing his story. I believe there are great lessons for those of us intent on following his path up the ladder of dealmaking success.

Treat everyone the same.

Do so with kindness, energy, and enthusiasm. Make them feel like most important person you are meeting that day.

JPMorgan Chase’s CEO Jamie Dimon said of Jimmy, “You had some kind of secret force – you were a nuclear power, a sun of positive energy. You had unbridled enthusiasm and optimism, which you sprinkled, and often poured, on all of us.”

Make others feel confident. 

Confident enough to believe in themselves, and their potential to be more than they are.

After his passing, Sheryl Sandberg, previously the COO of Facebook, reminisced, “(Jimmy) believed in us long before many others did—when we were a small company with little revenue, he told us and anyone else who would listen how much potential he thought Facebook had.”

Leave others on a high note. 

Understand that our personal interactions, however short, can have ripple effects that last for years and even decades beyond the present. At the very least, strive to leave others with a smile, laugh, or encouraging grin to take on their way.

Finally, many like to quote Maya Angelou for saying, “People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

To me, Jimmy was the ultimate proof of this. He demonstrated that success and power are not excuses to treat others poorly. That once we have reached “the top” we can still go out of our way to raise others to our level. I will always be grateful to Jimmy for teaching these lessons. I will never forget him.

Leave a comment

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: