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



“Regard your good name as the richest jewel you can possibly be possessed of—for credit is like fire; when once you have kindled it you may easily preserve it, but if you once extinguish it, you will find it an arduous task to rekindle it again. The way to a good reputation is to endeavor to be what you desire to appear.”

Popularly attributed to Socrates (no definitive source)

Few of us live our lives exactly the way we planned. If we’re fortunate, that can be a good thing. Certainly that has been true for me.

In one respect, I have lived my dream. I am still married to my high school sweetheart, Andrea. We have two wonderful sons. I have spent much of my life working in the field of computing, a passion I developed while still in high school, and I have been a professor for forty years at one of the greatest universities in the world, a career I set my sights on when I was an undergraduate.

When I was offered a position as assistant professor in the Department of Electrical Engineering at Stanford, at the age of twenty-five, it was a dream come true. I accepted the offer on the spot (although it was not the best salary offer I received). Choosing my spouse and saying yes to that offer were the two best decisions of my life (in that order).

If, back then, you had asked me my plans, I would have told you that I wished to spend my life exactly where I was, retiring decades in the future, perhaps with some teaching and research awards, some important published papers, perhaps a patent or two, and the title of emeritus.

It was a lovely dream, and I suspect I would have been happy pursuing it. Indeed, forty years later I still love being in the classroom or engaging in an energetic discussion about research. But, as they say, stuff happens. An unplanned and unexpected step, becoming an entrepreneur, took my journey in a different direction, eventually delivering me to the series of leadership positions I have held over the past twenty-five years.

This book is about the lessons I learned along the way, both during my early years as a professor and then as an entrepreneur, but mostly throughout that twenty-five-year leadership journey. These stories recount what worked, and sometimes didn’t work, for me. While a few of the lessons apply most directly either to industry or to the academic and nonprofit worlds, aspects of each prove relevant either way. Similarly, while my experiences range from being a first-level leader to leading an entire institution, most of what I have learned applies to any level of leadership. Yes, the crises get bigger and come faster when you are at the top of a large organization, but the problems, and how they could be best confronted, are similar.

As Walter Isaacson says in the Foreword, “There is no one formula for being a great leader.” Nor do I believe there are many dictates, beyond the obvious and conventional ones. Instead, I offer my thoughts about ten elements of leadership that shaped my journey, along with a set of stories about how I relied on these traits in pivotal moments. I hope others find these reflections helpful in their own leadership journeys.

Before diving in, I want to offer a little more background. I came to Stanford in 1977, a time when Silicon Valley and the information age were young. Apple was only a year old; Intel was still a modest-sized company making primarily memory chips. Personal computers, the Internet, the World Wide Web, and cellular phones had not yet been invented. I began my career teaching and doing research with a focus on Very Large Scale Integration (VLSI) and the emergence of microprocessors. Although I had some early involvement in two start-ups—most important, Jim Clark’s company, Silicon Graphics—my attention was overwhelmingly focused on my Stanford career.

As described in Chapter 2, “Authenticity and Trust,” the key step that changed my career trajectory was cofounding a company (MIPS Computer Systems) based on the research I had undertaken at Stanford between 1981 and 1984. During a leave from the university, I gave my primary attention to that company, and even after returning from that leave, the company took up a considerable amount of my consulting time and summers. Although I flirted several times with the idea of remaining at MIPS, I really missed working with the students, both in the classroom and in research, so I made Stanford my primary home once again.

The five years that passed from the time we founded MIPS until its successful IPO changed me. Having faced several crises in the company, I felt better positioned to handle such challenges. Furthermore, having seen how a small, determined team could change the world by starting something new, I was ambitious to see my department, my school (engineering), and my university make a bigger and more positive impact in the world. I could have returned to simply being a professor: in my view, there is no more noble or rewarding career for an individual contributor. Instead I embarked on what would become a leadership journey of twenty-plus years.

Initially, the leadership demands were modest: I was director of Stanford’s Computer System Laboratory, an interdisciplinary laboratory of about fifteen faculty members in computer science and electrical engineering. There I enjoyed helping find and recruit great new colleagues, as well as mentoring and supporting them as they began their Stanford careers. In 1994, I was asked to chair Stanford’s Computer Science Department, but I still managed to teach and lead a research group doing exciting work.

Two years later, I was named dean of the School of Engineering. The job was much bigger: two-hundred-plus faculty members instead of thirty-five, but my colleagues were all engineers. We spoke a common vocabulary and had similar measures of success. I loved that job. My wife still insists it was the best job of the many I have held. Why? Well, I could know all the faculty in the school, have some idea of what their research was about, individually greet and welcome every new professor we hired, and still teach a course every year and advise a few PhD students.

All of that changed three years later, in 1999, when Stanford president Gerhard Casper asked me to succeed Condoleezza Rice as provost, the equivalent of chief operating officer of the university. I was astonished—and a bit worried. As you will see, accepting that job was a big step.

A few months later, to my surprise, President Casper announced his intention to resign at the end of the academic year that was just starting. I had taken the job to work closely with President Casper, to focus on big institutional challenges, and as an opportunity to learn about my colleagues outside of engineering. In truth, I was still learning the ropes of a challenging new post. Nonetheless, after an extensive search process running from October to March, and many meetings with search committee members, the board of trustees asked me to become Stanford’s tenth president, starting in the fall of 2000.

Despite the vetting process, I was somewhat amazed—and more than a little afraid. I was only forty-seven, my experiences as a senior executive in a large institution were brief, and my knowledge of navigating a vast bureaucracy was limited. I worried that I would disappoint everyone. Yet I was attracted by the challenge of enhancing an institution that had done so much for me. I hoped that I could succeed, if I approached the job with humility about my own skills, a scientist’s respect for the facts, and a stellar team.

While I had my experience from Silicon Valley and a set of colleagues at Stanford, whom I regarded as friends, other than President Casper and a few members of the board of trustees, I did not have many senior people to look toward for advice. So, like any good researcher, I began reading books on leadership, especially biographies of great leaders: how they developed, how they worked with others, and how they overcame adversity. (You’ll see a list of those books in the Coda.) I also resolved to stay intellectually curious and to expand my interests beyond science and technology to encompass the humanities, the social sciences, medicine, and the arts.

Did I succeed as a university president? Did I become a great leader along the way? Did our team make a great university even better? That’s not for me to decide. The metric that the provost, John Etchemendy, and I thought was most important for measuring our success was the quality of the people, the faculty and students that are the university. That’s difficult to measure, compared to simpler metrics such as facilities built or dollars raised. At the end of my tenure as president in August 2016, by most measures of the faculty and student quality (for example, rankings, selectivity, and yield), Stanford was a match for the best universities in the world. In addition, we had established a leadership position in multidisciplinary research and teaching, a goal the provost and I had embraced early in our terms (see Chapter 7, “Innovation”). The longevity of our joint tenure—sixteen years, or roughly double the national average for university presidents—was key to what we accomplished.

By all rights, the story might have ended there. What could I possibly do that could be even a fraction as challenging and impactful as running Stanford University? I sat on the boards of Google, Cisco, and several important foundations. Surely that work, plus perhaps teaching a few courses, would be a fitting conclusion to my somewhat unexpected career.

That’s when the most extraordinary thing happened: a musing of mine about the need to train the next generation of the world’s leaders was suddenly realized with the help of one of America’s great business leaders, Phil Knight, the founder of Nike. Together we would launch the Knight-Hennessy Scholars program, the most ambitious undertaking of its kind since the Rhodes Scholars began more than a century ago.

The Knight-Hennessy Scholars program brought me back to my roots as a faculty member and an entrepreneur: starting a program from scratch and wondering what exactly we should teach a group of brilliant young scholars, if we were to prepare them to be future global leaders.

Needless to say, like a good scientist, I again set about educating myself on the subject. I revisited my old friends on my library shelves. I asked the successful leaders who had become my friends and acquaintances over the previous two decades. Also, for the first time, I was able to look back over my own career as the leader of a great institution.

What I discovered was very different from—sometimes even counterintuitive to—many of the popular views of leadership. I began to see several crucial aspects of effective leadership: a strong foundation of principles, steadfastness to hold to those principles, and a set of methods to transform an institution and take it to a new level. The first four chapters of this book focus on the foundation: humility, authenticity, service, and empathy. Several of these have been associated with servant leadership,1 but in my view these principles are critical to the kind of leadership that transforms an organization.

Chapter 5, “Courage,” links these principles to methods for accomplishing an institutional transformation. Courage is both a characteristic of great leaders and a practice needed in challenging times.2 Courage enables a leader both to stay the true course even when it is difficult and to abruptly alter course when necessary. Courage rests on the foundational principles of leadership as well as the core mission of an organization.

The final five chapters describe the methods I used to create transformational change—to take a great institution to new heights. These chapters cover how we crafted a vision for the future of the university and engaged all members of the Stanford community in pursuing that vision. The chapters focus on collaboration, innovation, intellectual curiosity, storytelling, and creating change that lasts.

Transforming an institution more than one hundred years old requires a compelling vision, a determined team that executes to realize that vision, and steps to ensure that the transformation is long lasting. While the foundational leadership principles covered in the first four chapters were critical to developing and executing the ambitious plan we envisioned for Stanford, I relied on the leadership methods covered in the final five chapters to help us reach our goals.

Outside of Stanford, Phil Knight and I shared a deep concern over a growing leadership crisis in government, corporations, and nonprofits. From failed states to civil wars to famine to dictators made wealthy in poor developing countries to a rise in xenophobia and racism—the crises in government are obvious. In the corporate world, we see numerous examples of the leadership taking corporations astray, from old stories such as Enron and WorldCom to newer ones such as Wells Fargo and Volkswagen. The nonprofit world is not exempt from such crises either—just look at the way scandal-ridden athletics systems in colleges and universities stand in contrast to the lofty educational missions of these institutions.

Whether in government, commerce, or nonprofits, many of these issues arise because the leadership foundation is weak: leaders focus on their personal gains rather than the well-being of the organizations, employees, and customers they serve.

Harder to assess, but perhaps more prevalent, is the gap in understanding how to lead an organization through necessary transformations. Our world is changing at an ever-increasing pace. No matter how strong an organization’s foundation or how long its history, all institutions must renew themselves if they are going to continue to thrive—and to serve—through the twenty-first century.

How do we right the course of leadership? I wrote this book partly to share my discoveries with you, and with the coming generations of Knight-Hennessy Scholars, including those who arrive after I am gone. First, though, I wrote this book for myself, to organize my own (sometimes painfully) acquired wisdom about leadership, and to take another look at key events in my career from a different, more removed perspective. Most of all, I wrote it to begin a conversation about the changing nature of leadership in the twenty-first century—a conversation that will, in some way, help inform the curriculum of the Knight-Hennessy Scholars program.

I offer this book to you, dear reader, from a man who started out with a very different dream but for whom the journey has been both challenging and immensely rewarding. May your journey have the same happy, if somewhat unpredictable, outcome.


1. See Robert K. Greenleaf, Servant Leadership: A Journey into the Nature of Legitimate Power & Greatness, 25th anniv. ed. (New York: Paulist Press, 2002), Chapter 1, 28–60.

2. See John W. Gardner, Living, Leading, and the American Dream (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2003), Part Two: “The Courage to Live and Learn,” 41–112.