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Becoming the Best: What You Can Learn from the 25 Most Influential Leaders of Our Times
Published: February 11, 2004 in Knowledge@Wharton
hen Andy Grove got his PhD from the University of California, Berkeley, in 1963, he was a corporate recruiter's dream candidate. He had a number of job options, perhaps the best of which was with Bell Labs, then the Mecca of research in solid-state physics. But Grove made a different choice. Rather than head for Bell Labs, he joined Fairchild Semiconductor, a West Coast upstart, where he worked under the legendary Gordon Moore, who led the company's research operation. That was an early example of out-of-the-box thinking from Grove, who five years later left Fairchild with Moore and others to co-found Intel.
After he succeeded Moore as Intel's CEO in 1987, Grove took other steps that shunned conventional logic -- perhaps most visibly during the "Intel Inside" campaign of the 1990s. Back then, the most recognized brands in the computer industry were hardware makers such as IBM or software firms like Microsoft. Intel, though it supplied more than 80% of the microprocessors to the world's computers, was hardly known outside a small band of industry insiders. Determined to change that narrow perception, Grove led Intel into an aggressive branding campaign that made the company a household name by the end of the decade. Today, as its products play an increasingly critical role in stitching together a globally networked economy, Intel has emerged as one of the world's top technology companies, with 2003 revenues of more than $30 billion.
Grove's leadership of Intel -- marked as it has been by unconventional thinking, imagination and integrity -- contributed this month to his being named the most influential business leader of the past 25 years by Wharton and Nightly Business Report (NBR), the most watched daily business program on U.S. television. "My life has been intertwined with Intel," Grove told Nightly Business Report co-anchor Susie Gharib. "My proudest accomplishment has been to contribute to the creation of a company that has helped put a billion PCs into people’s hands."
To celebrate NBR's 25th anniversary this month, Wharton and NBR worked to identify the 25 most influential business leaders of the past 25 years. NBR's viewers nominated more than 700 business people from around the world, and a panel of six Wharton judges selected the top 25. The winners are:
Mary Kay Ash, founder of Mary Kay Cosmetics; Jeff Bezos, CEO of Amazon.com; John Bogle, founder of The Vanguard Group; Richard Branson, CEO of Virgin Group; Warren Buffett, CEO of Berkshire Hathaway; James Burke, former CEO of Johnson & Johnson; Michael Dell, CEO of Dell Computers; Peter Drucker, the educator and author; Bill Gates, chairman of Microsoft; William George, former CEO of Medtronics; Louis Gerstner, former CEO of IBM; Alan Greenspan, Chairman, U.S. Federal Reserve; Andy Grove, chairman of Intel; Lee Iacocca, former CEO of Chrysler; Steve Jobs, CEO of Apple Computers; Herb Kelleher, CEO of Southwest Airlines; Peter Lynch, former manager of Fidelity's Magellan Fund; Charles Schwab, founder of Charles Schwab Inc.; Frederick Smith, CEO of Federal Express; George Soros, founder and chairman of Open Society Institute; Ted Turner, founder of CNN; Sam Walton, founder of Wal-Mart; Jack Welch, former CEO of General Electric; Oprah Winfrey, chairman of the Harpo group of companies; and Mohammed Yunus, founder of Grameen Bank.
To arrive at this list from among hundreds of nominees, the Wharton panel employed five criteria. Their goal was to find business leaders who created new and profitable ideas; affected political, civic or social change through achievement in the business/economic world; created new business opportunities or more fully exploited existing ones; caused or influenced dramatic change in a company or industry; and/or inspired and transformed others. The judges includedMichael Useem, director of the Center for Leadership and Change Management; Peter Cappelli, director of the Center for Human Resources; Raffi Amit, director of the Goergen Entrepreneurial Research Program; Barbara Kahn, vice dean of the Wharton undergraduate division; Robert E. Mittelstaedt, Jr., vice dean and director of the Aresty Institute of Executive Education; and Mukul Pandya, editor/director of Knowledge@Wharton.
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Learning from Leaders
In addition to identifying these individuals as influential leaders, the Wharton judges discussed aspects of their character that contributed to their success. Understanding what made these people stand out, the judges reasoned, could help others to become better leaders in their own organizations. In Grove's case, for example, his ability to be open to unconventional ideas was a critical factor. In his or her own way, however, each of these leaders has traits from which others could learn.
Consider Warren Buffett, whom Michael Useem describes as "a man for all seasons." According to Useem, not only is Buffett "an investor extraordinaire" who has delivered enormous returns to investors in Berkshire Hathaway, but he was also highly successful as the hands-on CEO of Salomon Brothers, helping restore confidence in the Wall Street firm when it faced a severe management crisis. These days "Buffett has become the conscience of the Street, offering great wisdom on contentious topics like expensing stock options," Useem says. In other words, in addition to his genius at spotting good investment opportunities, Buffett's influence derives from his moral stature and integrity. In the aftermath of scandals that have rocked U.S. companies in the past few years, it is difficult to overemphasize the importance of ethics as a factor in leadership.
Bogle, like Buffett, owes his influence to having delivered great value to investors -- though his approach was strikingly different. The former CEO of the Vanguard Group has long argued that "owning the entire stock market at very low cost is the ultimate investment strategy." This belief led him to launch the Vanguard Group in 1975. Bogle was a pioneer in introducing and helping popularize index funds -- which kept fees extremely low for investors. Says Peter Cappelli: "One of the reasons why Bogle is on this list is because of the enormous impact he had on the average person."
Sam Walton's approach to Wal-Mart's customers was similar, according to Robert E. Mittelstaedt, Jr. The goal of making a wide range of products available to average people at the lowest possible price enabled him to take the retail company from a single store to a megacorp that is now ranked No. 1 on the Fortune 500. "Walton's legacy is that a single person can make a huge difference in an industry. It doesn't happen overnight, especially in an industry like retail, but it can happen over a period of years. Walton believed in delivering great value at low prices to his customers."
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Welch's leadership, in contrast, delivered great value to GE's shareholders. One measure, according to Useem, is that Welch took GE from being a "$13 billion company in 1981 to a $550 billion company in 2001 in terms of market capitalization." GE's stock price saw a 40-fold increase during Welch's tenure, consistently outpacing the S&P 500. But Welch's greatest strength, says Useem, was spotting and nurturing other leaders. "Welch has written the textbook on leadership. He has often said that he doesn't know how to make jet engines or produce Tuesday night television shows at NBC, the GE subsidiary. But he does know how to pick people with leadership potential, give them the resources to meet their goals, and get rid of them if they cannot. As a result, Welch has built one of the best leadership teams anywhere."
Mittelstaedt notes that team-building also counts among Bill Gates's strengths as a leader. Like Grove, Gates saw the potential of the PC to transform the world, and he built Microsoft into a software powerhouse. In addition, though, he is among those rare entrepreneurs whose abilities have expanded to keep pace with the growth of his enterprise. "Very few successful people who have started as entrepreneurs have led their companies until they grew to a very big size." In Gates's case, says Mittelstaedt, he has had the vision to bring in people and then let them serve the company. "Gates has done this in a way that most entrepreneurs are not capable of doing."
Each leader on the list offers similar leadership lessons. While most of them are recognizable names, a few are less well known or are simply no longer in the public eye. James Burke, for example, was J&J's CEO when the company faced its well-known Tylenol crisis in 1982. Seven people died after taking the pain-killer, and it turned out that someone had introduced cyanide in the pills as an act of sabotage. Burke's handling of that has become a textbook case for companies facing crises for more than two decades. Bill George, the former CEO of Medtronic, has recently written a book about Authentic Leadership drawing upon his experiences. Yunus, the founder of Grameen Bank in Bangladesh, has been a pioneer in the field of micro-finance, providing loans as small as $10 to impoverished people. His great innovation was to recognize that lending could be separated from collateral -- and still be the basis for operating a sound financing business. Micro-lending programs modeled after Grameen's have now spread to more than 100 countries.
If there is one trait that each of these leaders shares, it is tenacity. Unlike so-called serial entrepreneurs who cash out of their companies after a few years and move on to their next venture, these leaders have had a long-term vision. They have been willing to ride out the lows with the highs. This willingness to slog it out and stay in the game for the long haul has been reflected as much in the success of their enterprises as in the endurance of their own influence as leaders. Asked why he never left Intel to start another company, Grove recently replied: "Intel is like a river. It changes every day and behind every bend there is a new start, a new challenge. I cannot think of any place where I would rather have worked."
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