Leading Matters
Lessons from My Journey
John L. Hennessy, Foreword by Walter Isaacson

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HUMILITY

The Basis for Effective Leadership

“It is unwise to be too sure of one’s own wisdom. It is healthy to be reminded that the strongest might weaken and the wisest might err.”

Mahatma Gandhi

Most people, looking from the outside, assume that confidence is the heart of leadership. After all, if you aren’t confident in your strategy and your role in it, it’s almost impossible to lead others. No one wants to follow a leader who seems unsure of his plans or her own abilities. What lies at the heart of confidence?

I happen to think that real confidence—that is, not a mask of confidence, or phony bravado, or worst of all, misplaced confidence, but a true sense of one’s own skills and character—arises not from ego, but from humility. Arrogance sees only our strengths, ignores our weaknesses, and overlooks the strengths of others, therefore leaving us vulnerable to catastrophic mistakes. Humility shows us where our weaknesses lie so we can compensate for them. Humility makes us earn our confidence.

Where does humility come from? In my experience, two perspectives encourage humility. First, we must realize that much of our success is luck. I distinctly choose the word luck because the alternative we might use, fortune, seems to imply some supernatural intervention aligned with our interests. Face it, those of us born in the United States are lucky. Think how different your opportunities would be if you were born in Haiti, the Congo, Bangladesh, or Afghanistan.

I grew up in a middle-class family, and both my parents had college educations. They taught me to read before I began school, and they provided career-enabling educational opportunities for me. Few of us in the United States, however, are very far from our more modest roots. Most of my ancestors immigrated during the Irish Potato Famine in the first half of the 1800s. My great-great-grandfather started as a hand laborer and later was a cart man, a person who made deliveries around Brooklyn with a hand or pony cart. In fact, all my great-great-grandparents did manual labor for their livings, from bricklayer to tanner to carpenter to farmer. Though they came from an English-speaking country, some of my Irish ancestors could not read or write, and their last wills and testaments are signed “X.”

Two generations later, my maternal grandfather would attend college and eventually become a bank vice president. Those first- and second-generation immigrants lived tough lives, facing unemployment (often annually) and almost always suffering the death of at least one child (and sometimes two or more). I am the beneficiary of their hard work and their dedication to making a better life for their children and their children’s children. My birth in this family, in this place, at this time—it was pure luck, built on the backs of my ancestors. Pondering such facts makes me feel humble.

Being a member of an academic community can also be humbling. There is always someone in the institution, and often in the same building, who knows more about almost any single subject than you do. (Indeed, it is likely there are students who know more about almost any single subject than you do.) This is a second perspective that encourages humility: you simply aren’t the smartest person in the room. The success of the endeavor you are leading depends on the entire team. You need their expertise and assistance to succeed, so it’s best to start by admitting what you don’t know, learning what your team members do know, and humbly asking for their support.

Learning Humility Through Asking for Help

Fundraising is one of the best ways to practice humility while in a position of authority. When one is dealing with thousands of faculty members and staff, tens of thousands of students, and billions of dollars in budget and endowments, the power could go to one’s head pretty quickly. The humble task of fundraising serves as an antidote.

If I include all the preparation that accompanies any successful fundraising effort, I estimate that I spent probably between one-third to one-half of my time raising money for the university. This was a big change for my family. For the first twenty-five years of our marriage, my wife had been accustomed to me coming home from teaching most days around 6 p.m. I didn’t travel too frequently, since I was usually teaching. As president, suddenly I was attending events many evenings and flying off to meet with alumni nearly a dozen weekends per year, and even my daily lunches were mostly booked for some meeting or event—often in the name of fundraising.

Happily, I had lots of help. Typically, the hardworking alumni volunteers and Stanford’s development professionals did most of the heavy lifting, nailing down thousands of smaller donations each year. Both groups are very good at what they do. I came to think of the university’s development office as a matchmaker, finding and matching donors with important university needs, and I thought of the alumni association as caring for the long-term relationship between alumni and the university.

For my part, as university president, I understood I was merely a tool for these operations, not the engine itself. Be it a speech before a regional alumni group, a private meeting with a potential major donor, or an interview in the alumni magazine, my contribution came only at the end of a whole lot of preparatory work done by others. That too was a source of humility: I regularly reminded myself that I didn’t make the deal. Many other people had worked on getting to “yes.” I merely closed the deal. A mistake or wrong impression on my part could have ruined months of hard fieldwork. On top of that, I knew those alumni and major donors weren’t meeting with me, John Hennessy the person, but with the president of Stanford University, a role that would someday be held by someone else.

That said, I recognized the importance of my role as the top representative of the university. Major donors wanted the handshake of the president, not because it’s me, but because they wanted to know that the initiatives they had chosen to support would be backed by the university’s attention and resources. They were asking me to put my reputation on the line beside their money. That was a big ask, and they had every right to make it.

As for the really big donations, those were almost always done one-to-one, often with no other staff in the room. It was just me and that famous, immensely successful, powerful individual who knew what he or she wanted, who was making a gigantic commitment, and who didn’t hesitate to look me in the eye and ask if I was willing to make the same commitment. If that doesn’t humble one, what will?

Humility at Work in the World

Jim Clark is one of the great entrepreneurs in high-tech history, but his early life was marked by great difficulty. His family was poor, he had a terrible stepfather, he dropped out of high school, and he joined the Navy because he saw no other future. Still, he proved to be a brilliant engineer—and a born entrepreneur. Jim first showed that talent when he founded Silicon Graphics, one of the fastest-growing companies of its era. Jim and I had shared an office suite at Stanford, and I had worked with him on a small part of the technology that became the basis for Silicon Graphics. I was also a consultant to Silicon Graphics for two years before I founded MIPS.

Frustrated at having to give away so much of the ownership of Silicon Graphics to venture capitalists, when Jim began building his next company, he did it by bootstrapping. Marc Andreessen (now one of the Valley’s best-known VCs) was the lead creator of Mosaic, the first widely used visual browser. When the University of Illinois, where Marc was a student, decided to license the technology to a company that Marc was not involved in, Jim Clark swooped in, hired Marc, and began building a company that would market the first widely used, commercial Internet browser, Netscape. Largely forgotten now, Netscape was a brilliant play, thanks to Jim’s perfect timing and insightful, strategic maneuvering. Jim had predicted the explosion in the use of the web, and he capitalized on it, creating the first World Wide Web company.

The success of Netscape, combined with his sizable equity in the company, made Jim Clark a very wealthy man. I had kept in touch with Jim over the years, and I knew how difficult his struggle to build those two companies had been. The man the world saw as an “overnight” billionaire I knew as a friend who had a number of personal issues. At one point Jim had been so focused on building the technology that would become Silicon Graphics, he had forgotten to pay his electricity bill, and the power had been turned off in his home. I had never seen anyone work harder; Jim had earned every penny of his fortune.

I thought a lot about Jim in those days. After all his success, I knew he was thinking about what to do with the rest of his life. Netscape was already his second act, so he could take some time to figure out his next step.

In 1999, under the leadership of my predecessor, President Gerhard Casper, Stanford had started a project called Bio-X, to build multidisciplinary collaborations focused on bioscience and bioengineering. As the dean of the School of Engineering, I was an enthusiastic supporter. We understood that making this new center successful would require significant philanthropic support, both for a facility and for research. Stem cell research was one particularly promising area, and it struck me that this activity might be something that would capture Jim’s imagination. What better challenge for a great engineer than to help figure out how to use an emerging technology to solve difficult problems?

I had talked to Jim about doing something for Stanford after the success of Silicon Graphics, but he wasn’t ready. Would he be ready after the success of Netscape? I knew I had to get Jim thinking a bit about his legacy; he had been working with his head down, so focused on immediate challenges that he had barely given himself enough time to think about the future. As it happened, I had just read Titan, the biography of John D. Rockefeller by Ron Chernow (who would later win a Pulitzer Prize for his biography of George Washington and write the biography of Hamilton that was the basis for the hit musical). As Chernow recounted, Rockefeller was a highly competitive entrepreneur who had made himself one of the wealthiest men in American history, but he nearly died in his fifties from a heart attack brought on by overwork.

It was an epiphany. Convinced that his time was short (in fact, he lived to be ninety-seven), Rockefeller decided, “I’m done with trying to make more money. I’m going to become a philanthropist and make the world a better place.” Before long he had founded the University of Chicago, Rockefeller University, and the Rockefeller Foundation, and supported numerous other causes, particularly in medicine. In the process, he helped create modern philanthropy.

Rockefeller is most famous for giving dimes to children, but in fact he gave away billions for the improvement of humankind. One of the most infamous of the Robber Barons, and perhaps the most ruthless and competitive of that group, a humbled Rockefeller chose a very different trajectory for the second half of his life.

I sent Jim Clark a copy of the book. I hoped the story of one legendary workaholic would help another, a century later.

I let enough time pass for Jim to read the book, and then I contacted him and told him about the plans for our new interdisciplinary center and the work on stem cells and regenerative medicine. Jim spent a day visiting the campus and talking to the faculty researchers. Jim is an intellectual and a scientist, and I hoped this interdisciplinary mix of engineering and the biosciences would excite him. It did, and that led to his commitment of $150 million to create the Clark Center, the home for Bio-X.

But that’s not the end of the story.

Not long after Jim made his commitment, President George W. Bush announced that he was severely restricting federal government support of stem cell research. The news came as a shock, not just to those of us in the academic community, but to Jim Clark. He thought the decision was a disaster, one that really would hurt the research program he had just underwritten, and he felt he needed to make a statement. Ultimately, he announced to the world, via an editorial in the New York Times,

Two years ago I pledged to donate $150 million to create a center for biomedical engineering and science at Stanford. Now Congress and the president are thwarting part of the intended purpose of this center by supporting restrictions on stem cell research and cloning. . . . I am therefore suspending $60 million of my remaining pledge.

We dedicated the building in 2003, with Jim in attendance and me in my role as university president. We continued to struggle to raise the $60 million we had lost with the suspension of Jim’s pledge. Fortunately, the other major donor, Chuck Feeney, whose incredible thirty-year philanthropic legacy was made public only in 2012, remained steadfast. So we soldiered on, making the best of the situation, and seeing some real victories in our research. In 2004, in response to a brain drain of stem cell scientists to other countries, the State of California proposed and passed a bond issue to independently fund stem cell research. That staunched the loss of our most talented faculty members in the field, as well as other scientists around the state.

Roll forward to 2013, the tenth anniversary of the Clark Center. Over the intervening years, Jim had come by the university once or twice each year to check on the progress of the program. For the tenth anniversary, we decided to hold a big event, including an all-day seminar, to highlight the research breakthroughs and achievements of the decade. It was also a chance to say a big thank you to Jim and to show him that we had been good stewards of his gift. Jim was scheduled to be the last speaker.

When it came time for him to speak, I was sitting next to Jim. I had no clue what he was going to say. Would he revisit his past frustration? Would he attack the federal government for its shortsightedness? No one could have predicted what happened next.

Jim stood at the podium and said, “I’m so moved by what’s been done here. This research is great. You guys have done a terrific job.” He paused, and then added, “I’m sending you the remaining $60 million of my original pledge.”

It was a stunning moment and a shining example of humility. Despite having made such a public pronouncement about retracting his donation, Jim Clark had reversed himself, because it was the right thing to do. I was hugely proud to be his friend.

Developing a Sense of Humility

Stepping up to the moment isn’t something that came easily to me, or naturally. For the first half of my career, every talk I gave was accompanied by stacks of overhead projections or slides, usually filled with diagrams, text, and equations. Suddenly, as university president, I found myself talking to groups of every imaginable size—from that solitary major donor to twenty thousand guests at graduation—without a single overhead or slide, and occasionally without much time to prepare. Perhaps that comes easily for some people, but it certainly didn’t for me. I had to learn step by step. Initially, at least, I found it terrifying.

Fortunately, though I certainly did not think it “fortunate” at the time, I had been dropped into the deep end earlier in my career. In 1986, I was thirty-four years old. We had founded MIPS Computer Systems two years earlier, and it had enjoyed a fast start. In expectation of that kind of growth continuing, we staffed up just as fast with new employees. Unfortunately, that growth rate didn’t continue. We were still expanding, revenues were still strong, and we were still cutting deals, but our expenses had shot up too quickly. We should have started raising money earlier, an activity precluded by a CEO transition. As a result, we were out of money and facing the possibility of missing the next month’s payroll.

We had no choice but to do a layoff. Out of about 120 employees, we were going to have to let 40 of them go. The executive team decided that we would hold on to engineers, which made the hit fall harder on others. We gave out the pink slips on Friday morning, and those individuals were gone by noon.

It was awful, something I had never imagined we would have to experience, and something I never wanted to experience again. Such moments—if we are humble enough to receive them—give us the opportunity to learn from our mistakes and to change course, but that day wasn’t done schooling me yet.

Next, our new CEO, Bob Miller, decided the best thing we could do was to hold an all-hands meeting for the “survivors” that afternoon. He asked me to get up and give a pep talk. I would have liked not to do it, but as a cofounder, I knew I needed to step up. I started by admitting that we had made mistakes, and then I tried to focus on the bright future that the company had ahead of it. In the end, I’m glad I gave that talk, because—though I didn’t know it at the time—that talk, both admitting the mistakes and rallying the team, was the perfect preparation for my future.

Twelve years later, when my appointment as president of Stanford was announced, I had to get up in front of several hundred people and give a short speech describing my thoughts about my new position and the future of the university. It was, in fact, the first time I had ever given a formal speech in which I didn’t have any audiovisual material as a crutch. I knew I could give a good technical talk or teach a class, but this was different, and I was nervous as hell. How did I get through it? Well, I felt humble about being chosen, so I focused on how honored I was, how much my predecessor had done for Stanford, and how I hoped I could help make Stanford a better university.

Those early experiences prepared me for situations that would arise throughout my professional life, including Stanford’s reaction to 9/11 and the great recession of 2008, as we’ll see in Chapter 5, “Courage.”1 Each of these events both humbled me and required me to rise to the challenge. In the end, they helped me grow as a leader.

Humility and Ambition

Before closing my thoughts on humility, I should add that when I speak of “humility,” I’m not just describing a personality trait some people are born with, although reflecting on the good luck associated with your birth should contribute to your humility. Neither do I mean the sort of humility that focuses on self-deprivation. I mean an artful, directed humility—a practice you develop as a leader, like courage and decisiveness. Leading with humility means letting others announce your accomplishments because you don’t need to, it means realizing and openly admitting that your understanding might not be right, it means willingly soliciting assistance because you know you need the help, it means taking the opportunity to learn from mistakes, and it means stepping up to the moments that challenge and grow you.

This kind of humility does not, however, mean a lack of ambition. Abraham Lincoln had a humble demeanor, but he was ambitious.2 I, too, am ambitious, but my ambition is not focused primarily on personal gain (though I do like to win at games and golf). Instead, my ambition is to make a difference, to benefit the institution and the community I serve. Perhaps the only way to be both humble and ambitious is to be ambitious for the good of others.

Humility as a Basis for Personal Growth

Not long before I stepped down as president, I was reminiscing with one of the trustees who hired me, Isaac Stein, who also served as chair of the board during my presidency. Isaac was in the midst of leading the search for my successor. He said, “You know, John, in retrospect, the characteristic we got when we picked you as president was the ability to grow on the job.”

I took that as a great compliment—and I tried not to cringe too much thinking about how green I had been when I had started fifteen years earlier. To Isaac, this ability to grow had proven more important than anything else, something he said he hadn’t anticipated when I was hired. Now his committee was trying to calibrate that ability, to figure out how to measure it, so they could use it as a centerpiece in the search for my replacement.

How can someone gauge your ability to learn on the job? I suppose by assessing your humility. If you accept that you still have much to learn, that other people are better than you at certain things, and that the ideas of many are almost always better informed than the opinion of one, you can’t help but be humble, and therefore dedicated to learning how to be better at what you do.

In a sense, when we put humility in the heart of leadership, the leader’s role itself changes. I learned this at MIPS. In a start-up environment, where time is so compressed and even the littlest mistakes can be fatal, you have to lead not by separating yourself from your subordinates, but by becoming their equal on the team. Your job is not to tell people what to do, but to dedicate yourself to helping them do better. That’s why at MIPS, when we were getting ready to send our first chip to the factory, and we had a shortage of folks to help with final verification, I jumped in to write a program to generate tests.

Our first CEO at MIPS, Vaemond Crane, operated similarly. He announced that we were going to have staff meetings on Saturday mornings, because he wanted to send a message to everyone in the company that they were expected to work at least a half day on the weekend. By calling those meetings, he made it clear that senior managers (including him) had to do their part too, but he sweetened this demand by showing up at those meetings with a box of donuts. This is the same CEO I saw wiping off the counters in the lunchroom, sending the message that he was no better than anyone else. In the stressful world of a hot new tech start-up, I deeply appreciated that gesture, and my memory of it has lingered all these years, informing my actions as a leader.

Though, like most people, I have a lot to be humble about, I’ll be the first to admit that I’m not, by nature, a humble person. However, I have learned the importance of practicing humility. Perhaps the most important instances when you need to practice humility are when you have made the wrong decision. Mistakes happen to every leader, and it’s better to accept them, to have the courage to admit the mistakes, and to decide how to move on. You will find several examples in this book where I needed to do just that. The process is not necessarily pleasant, but it is a lot easier if you are humble.

Notes

1. See Warren Bennis, On Becoming a Leader, Rev. ed. (New York: Basic Books, 2003), Chapter 3, 91–108.

2. See David Herbert Donald, Lincoln, 1st ed. (New York: Simon & Shuster, 1996), Chapters 9 and 19; Doris Kearns Goodwin, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2006), Chapter 3.