Current fiscal crisis demands leadership

Published 9:44 am Thursday, August 18, 2011

By WAYNE CURTIS / Guest Columnist

Our nation’s fiscal crisis begs for leadership. This brings to mind the sterling example of Amadeo Peter Giannini during the San Francisco earthquake of 1906.

Unfortunately, we see too little of this type of dedication and devotion to duty today.

The earthquake was devastating. In its wake, ruptured gas lines spawned fires that quickly spread across the city.

Giannini — later to become well known for his storied leadership of the sprawling Bank of America — was president of Bank of Italy, a small institution he had founded two years earlier. His fame as a financial visionary would come later.

On the morning of the earthquake, he left his home, borrowed a horse and a produce wagon and went to the charred remains of his bank. Sifting through the ashes and debris, he gathered $2 million in gold, coins and securities.

Hiding this under a layer of produce, he took the bank’s resources home.

At this point, his leadership sprang to life. Giannini saw in the great devastation a chance to serve the citizens of San Francisco.

Breaking ranks with his fellow bankers, most of whom wanted to keep their institutions closed until all the damage was sorted out, he quickly set up operations on the docks near the North Beach area of the city.

He initially ran his bank from a plank placed across two barrels. Using this makeshift facility, he began providing people access to their money, accepting deposits, and extending loans to individuals and small businesses based on a handshake.

Later, Giannini recalled that every loan was repaid. Moreover, within six weeks, deposits exceeded withdrawals.

The psychological implications of his actions were profound. His initiative in the face of great odds created new confidence throughout the city as it struggled to rise from the rubble.

This is the type of bold, visionary and selfless leadership we so desperately need today.

Wayne Curtis, Ph.D., is on the board of directors of First United Security Bank.  He may be reached at