Former president John Hennessy shares leadership lessons learned

John Hennessy
John Hennessy will talk about Leading Matters at 6 p.m. Tuesday, Oct. 9, in CEMEX Auditorium.

In his new book, Leading Matters: Lessons from My Journey, John Hennessy describes the four pillars that bolstered his courage at key moments during his tenure as president of Stanford: Remember the core mission; step up when the community needs you; sometimes courage means standing firm; and don’t be afraid to take risks.

In the 186-page book published in September by Stanford University Press, Hennessy devotes an entire chapter to courage. He wrote:

“As a leader, you may need to draw on personal courage to respond to events outside your organization, such as a natural disaster or a national tragedy. You also may need to call on your courage to address internal events, to take necessary risks, to change our position, to admit a mistake or to recover from a failure.

“To different degrees, each of us has that courage in our character. How much we’re willing to exercise it, I believe, is a product of how many times we’ve flexed and strengthened that muscle in the past. Courageous people are no less fearful than everyone else; rather they’ve learned to live with their fears while taking right action. As anyone with gray in his or her hair (or white, in my case) knows, the learning curve is long and punctuated by moments of terror. Yet acting with courage gets easier with each lesson.”

Hennessy will be talking about Leading Matters at 6 p.m. Tuesday, Oct. 9, in CEMEX Auditorium on campus. The event, a conversation with Isaac Stein, former chair of the Stanford Board of Trustees, is free and open to the public.

The first chapters of Leading Matters focus on elements Hennessy considers the foundation of leadership: humility, authenticity, service and empathy. Subsequent chapters focus on collaboration, innovation, intellectual curiosity, storytelling and creating change that lasts.

In the book, Hennessy, who is now director of the Knight-Hennessy Scholars program, said he “doubled down” on his reading after becoming president of Stanford.

“I’d always loved reading histories and biographies to understand the trajectory of great cities, countries and civilizations,” he wrote.

“Now I focused my reading on questions of leadership, historical breakthroughs and historical disasters (especially those that were avoidable). I read the stories of great leaders to examine their habits, to understand what characteristics helped make them successful, to see how they prepared themselves for moments of crisis and to understand how they handled success and – perhaps more important – failure.”

For those who might like to follow in Hennessy’s bibliographic footsteps, the book includes a list of 153 nonfiction books, organized by topic, that he has read and learned from.

The coda of Leading Matters also includes the names of 23 fiction writers, organized alphabetically, who have informed him, “especially about issues of how we choose to live our lives.”

The list of writers, which begins with Dante Alighieri and ends with Mark Twain, includes a shout out to Jane Austen, “for her writing, her characters and the insightful depiction of human emotion, particularly its role in decisions,” and to J.R.R. Tolkien, “for his creative fantasy and deep story of good and evil” in the trilogy The Lord of the Rings.