Even in a coterie of strong leaders, Robert Steel stands out.
As chairman of Duke University's trustees, Steel commands a 37-member board that includes a former speaker of the N.C. House, the president of Shaw University, and the head of General Motors. Fellow trustees describe him as a thoughtful listener and a steady, intelligent leader. He headed the search committee that in 2003 selected the current university president, Richard Brodhead, and he has guided the board during trying times including the 2006 lacrosse scandal.
Steel is skilled at mediating between big personalities, said Frank Emory of Charlotte, a trustee and a partner at Hunton & Williams law firm.
“Right after he helped lead the search for the current president, Coach (Mike) Krzyzewski showed up and said, ‘I'm thinking about going to the Lakers,' and he was very involved in that and gave good steady advice to the administration,” Emory recalled.
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Steel, married and a father of three daughters, is approachable and down-to-earth, trustees said.
“He is scary smart, very steady, good at picking out what's important, not afraid of taking the lead and taking the heat,” Emory said. “My mother would say he's been well raised.”
Wachovia's former CEO, Ken Thompson, was known for his commitment to the Charlotte area. When he was ousted on June 1, some worried that the new CEO would be a geographic outsider with no compelling interest in the area.
They needn't worry about that, said state Rep. Dan Blue, another Duke trustee. “A native North Carolinian coming back to North Carolina? I think it's what ideal stories are made of,” said Blue, a Raleigh Democrat who is also a former speaker of the House. “He's one of the most talented people I know, and also very civic minded.”
Steel is deeply committed to the arts, Blue added: “He's the best gift that the Charlotte arts will ever receive.”
Steel's North Carolina roots run deep. His father, the late Charles Steel III, was a longtime member of the Durham City Council. He attended Durham public schools and, like both his parents, went to Duke University.
He began serving on the university's board of trustees in 1996; he and Lanty Smith, Wachovia's interim CEO, overlapped on the board for six years. Steel has been chairman since 2005.
Kimberly Jenkins, a trustee for eight years, said she admired the way Steel broke the news to the losing candidates after a new university president was chosen. “He met with them face to face if he could, and tried to be personal about it,” she said.
For a while, Jenkins kept a list of Steel's witticisms. “He often says, ‘As my wife tells me, I got one in a row right,'” she said.
Jenkins, who teaches entrepreneurship and leadership classes at Duke and UNC Chapel Hill, worked for Bill Gates during Microsoft Corp.'s early years and for a company founded by Steve Jobs called NeXT. Of Steel, Jenkins said, “He is one of the most extraordinary leaders I have ever worked with.”
She and the other trustees also praised the way that Steel encourages all the trustees to voice their opinions, calling on people who might not otherwise speak up.
“He manages to be sure that everybody gets a chance to speak,” said Janet Hill, a trustee and the vice president of a management consulting firm in Washington, D.C. “That's a skill that not every leader has.”
Hill's son, Grant, is a Duke basketball alum who now plays for the Phoenix Suns.
Last year, when the state cleared the Duke lacrosse players accused of sexual offense, Steel issued a statement to the campus. “There is much to learn from the events that we have lived through, and we intend to put this learning to use,” Steel wrote. “Duke is a great university that steps up to challenges and opportunities, and together we will use this moment to make our community stronger.”
Staff writer Rick Rothacker contributed.