Meeting extraordinary leaders is a perk of business journalism for which I'm increasingly appreciative. While the world is full of talented executives doing great work, there are very few with truly distinctive leadership skills that deserve the "extraordinary" label.
My first brush came in the mid-'80s, when I left an interview with Charlotte car dealer Rick Hendrick and thought, "That guy is going to be an incredible success. I should quit my job and go sell cars for him." At the time, he owned several dealerships. Now Hendrick Automotive Group has more than 140.
Since then, I've had some less dramatic but still memorable experiences. The late Ken Iverson's work at Nucor Corp. and Hugh McColl Jr.'s expansion at Bank of America Corp. have sparked business-school case studies. Former BB&T Corp. CEO John Allison built a thriving bank and a corporate culture that has balanced the interests of employees, shareholders and communities for decades.
While working in Atlanta, I met Jim Whitehurst when he was chief operating officer of Delta Air Lines Inc., playing a key role in rebuilding a then-bankrupt company. It's no surprise that Raleigh-based Red Hat Inc.'s fortunes have soared since he became CEO in 2008.
I've also been wrong. In the dot-com boom, I recall leaving a speech by Clarence Chandran, the chief operating officer of Nortel Networks, thinking the telecom company would take over the world. Within a year or two, the now-defunct company had...