I’ve written here many times about the pressure CEOs feel from employees, consumers and even investors to improve their positive contributions to society. But on reflection, I’ve probably underplayed the change that comes from within the CEOs themselves. There is a different breed of leader in business today. They look at success differently. And that’s part of what’s driving change.
Nike CEO John Donahoe—who Ellen McGirt and I hosted on our podcast Leadership Next this week—is one of those. I’ve known him casually for at least a decade. But my most memorable conversation with him came five years ago. He had been CEO of Bain & Co. and then CEO of eBay. And at the age of 55, he had decided to take a year off, to contemplate how he wanted to spend the rest of his life. His “wisdom journey” included a visit to a Buddhist retreat and conversations with more than 50 wise, older people, whom he asked: How do you maintain vitality, how do you stay young at heart, and how do you remain happy as you move into old age?
I won’t spoil the podcast, but Donahoe shares the five big takeaways that came from that wisdom tour. One of them was to not lose sight of your gifts, and understand what animates you inside and makes you happy. And when his year was over, he decided to return to what he knew he was good at—the job of CEO—but to do it with an increased devotion to “service-based leadership.” That, he said, “is what animates me inside.” He became CEO of ServiceNow before taking the Nike job in January.
So why Nike? “When Mark Parker and Phil Knight and the Nike board came to me and said, ‘Would you consider being our next CEO,’ what struck me was this: The world is more polarized than at any time in my adult life. Polarization is in. Division seems to be in. Sport is one of the few things that still brings people together. Sport brings people together within countries, sports brings people together across countries, sport brings people together on the ultimate level playing field…I feel like the world needs sport more today than at any time in history.”
Of course, even sports has its moments of divisiveness. I asked him about Nike’s decision, made before he took over, to feature controversial athlete Colin Kaepernick in its ads. His answer says a lot about the changing nature of business. It’s worth listening to. Catch it on Apple or Spotify.
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