Former Deputy Secretary of State John C. Whitehead: "We No Longer Have Great Leaders"

Eminent alumnus John C. Whitehead (MBA ’47) urged the next generation at HBS to aspire to lead and not drop out of the leadership challenge in a talk given to students last week on campus.

Expressing his disappointment that “we no longer have great leaders” in the world of politics, business and religion, Mr. Whitehead was keen to emphasize that the world is “crying out for great leadership.” He was diappointed, for instance, at the quality of the presidential candidates for the 2004 presidential elections, which served to illustrate his point that leadership material is lacking at the highest levels. He passionately exhorted us not to be complacent and to find reasons for refusing leadership opportunities. “You are all leaders,” he said, “Not just in your first job, but in your life. Aspire to it, don’t drop out!”

Former co-chairman of Goldman Sachs and former deputy secretary of state during the Reagan administration, Mr. Whitehead is the founder of the Committee to Encourage Corporate Philanthropy, and the current chairman of Lower Manhattan Development Corporation. With a lifetime interest in the social responsibilities of corporate America, Mr. Whitehead was instrumental in founding the Social Enterprise Initiative at HBS and one of its earliest supporters.

Addressing a packed audience in Spangler Auditorium last Tuesday, Mr. Whitehead touched on a wide variety of topics over the hour-long question and answer session, which was moderated by Professor Bill George. One area discussed was his preference for consensus in the decision-making process. While acknowledging that compromises are inevitable when using a consensus-based approach, he felt consensus-based decisions often work better since the divide between “winners” and “losers,” and the potential loss of commitment from the “losers” can be avoided. However, he conceded that such compromises do not often work in competitive environments with a culture for combative arguments. In his work as chair of the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation for instance, he admitted that he needed to lead the largest and most challenging rebuilding project in Manhattan’s history by making key decisions himself, since ruling by committee proved impossible.

Touching on his eight-year partnership with his fellow co-Chairman at Goldman Sachs, John Weinberg, Mr. Whitehead was candid about his initial reluctance to share the leadership role. However, the co-chairmanship worked well for several reasons. First, they were friends, had implicit trust in each other and shared a common vision and objective for the firm. Secondly, they realized the importance of complementing one another’s strengths and weaknesses and made crucial management decisions as a team. A surprising fact emerged: they were very close, and never once went 24 hours without speaking over the phone for instance.

While keeping the audience spellbound with stories behind major diplomatic crises during his tenure as deputy secretary of state, Mr. Whitehead made the point that the transition from the corporate world to public service proved much easier than he had expected. He believed many of the skills one gains working in the private sector are easily transferable, particularly analyzing and handling problems, and managing people. With his own experience behind him, Mr. Whitehead urged us to think beyond our first job and corporate careers to think of alternative ways to serve the community.

His message was clear: Leadership is a calling and an aspiration. If nothing else, John Whitehead’s extraordinary life serves to remind us to think beyond ourselves to take on the gauntlet of leadership in serving others.

December 12, 2005
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