Podcast: Reflections on Practical Leadership – with Chancellor Emeritus at The University of Arkansas, John White

By Published On: March 9, 2023

Hosts: Mike Ogle and Chris Gaffney

In This Episode:

We speak with John White, and our focus is primarily on leadership lessons coming out of John’s new book, Why It Matters: Reflections on Practical Leadership. His book is based on leadership insights from a wide variety of business leaders at the highest positions of their companies. Drawing on his experiences, John shares some of his favorite leadership and life lessons in the book and his thoughts about pursuing careers in supply chain.

Who is John White?

John A. White’s decorated six-decade career in engineering, business, science, and academia includes stints as the Dean of Engineering at Georgia Tech University, the Chancellor of the University of Arkansas, and two terms on the National Science Foundation in the engineering directorate. As the co-founder of SysteCon, he revolutionized the way material handling systems were designed for manufacturing and distribution. White’s new book, Why It Matters: Reflections on Practical Leadership, explores leadership philosophy based on White’s extensive personal experience as well as insights and anecdotes from some of the most innovative and successful business, military, political, and academic leaders of our time.

[00:01:56] John White: That opportunity to create the Material Handling Research Center, interestingly, led to me being asked to go to the National Science Foundation and head up the Engineering Directorate. Because it was the most successful startup center that NSF had in the IUCRC Industry University Cooperative Research Center program. And so, my being there for three years at NSF then led to me being the Dean of Engineering at Georgia Tech, and I did that for six years and then had the chance to come back home to my undergraduate alma mater to be the Chancellor of the University of Arkansas. I did that for 11 years, and then I stepped down and returned to the faculty for 11 years when I retired, but I’m still teaching an online course in the spring semester, but it’s interesting that I’d had 22 years at Georgia Tech and then 22 years at Arkansas. Before that I’d had eight years at Virginia Tech and three years at Ohio State.

And so, I started teaching in March of 1963, I was just, played golf earlier this week with a fellow here, I had not played with him before, and when I said I started teaching in 1963, he said, that’s when I was born. And I realized, oh my goodness, I’m on up there in age. But truth is, I have not only taught over 4,000 students, but I’ve even taught parents of some of the students that I’ve taught before, so I’ve been at this a long time. 

[00:03:25] Chris Gaffney: John. It’s such a wonderful story and it is a wonderful journey. You know, I was at Georgia Tech as a student when you were there. Ironically, one of my children went to Virginia Tech and I’ve done a lot of work over the years with Ohio State. So, you’ve been associated with some wonderful institutions, obviously, Arkansas on top of all of that. You mentioned you’ve taught thousands and you have this wonderful perspective on this field that has just exploded in front of us over these decades. What is your advice for today’s students, to make the most out of their time on campus as they prepare for a supply chain career? 

[00:04:05] John White: Two things come to mind, Chris. One is the importance of networking. It’s interesting that I learned this actually from my son. John only applied for one job in his career. It was the first job he got when he graduated from Georgia Tech. And then it was with Anderson Consulting. Everything thereafter has come because of networking. He’s the best at it that I know. He’s got a process in how you do the networking. He also has a process in how you do mentoring, and he uses those processes. He’s very good about it. He stays in touch with people and it goes all the way back to his undergraduate days, and he stayed in touch with classmates and all over the years. Getting to know people, being active, being involved, be connected to your profession, go to the trade shows, go to the society meetings and all that. To be involved. That’s one. 

The other, and it’s quite a different one, but it’s to take all the courses and all that you can and what we today call data analytics or data science. That data drives it. In fact, that was the thing when we created Systecon, that we wanted to differentiate ourselves from competitors, if you will, in the consulting business. We wanted our designs to be data driven, not experience driven. So many consultants in those times, you could look at one of their solutions, and it looked just like the last solution they did for a very different client, probably with a very different set of requirements. So, we wanted our designs to be based on the requirements, material characteristics, and the throughput requirements of the system. So we gathered a lot of data, did a lot of data analysis, did simulations, did things really well before they became not only accepted, but standard practice now within this field, so staying on top of the data is very, very important I think in supply chain because data drives the systems. 

So that’s the advice I would give. 

[00:06:14] Mike Ogle: It’s excellent advice. I love to berate my students about whether they’re into those kinds of classes or not, and whether they like statistics and try to realize the power of being able to deal with uncertainty and large amounts of data.

[00:06:30] John White: Yeah, it’s key. It’s absolutely key. 

[00:06:33] Mike Ogle: And John, you have a new book out, Why It Matters, Reflections in Practical Leadership, how did that book and your class that you had on leadership evolve, from your original concept, and what surprised you about the process and your final result? 

[00:06:50] John White: Well, thanks for that question. It was never, never on my list of things to do. It was not in my bucket list or anything like that. It’s when I stepped down from being Chancellor at the university and returned to the faculty there in industrial engineering at Arkansas, several of my colleagues said I should develop a leadership course. Well, Mike, I had no idea how to teach a leadership course. I mean, every course that I taught, it was full of equations. How in the world could I teach something, which was just full of words? My goodness, that was going to be a challenge. So I thought, ah, but they kept after it. So I finally, I thought, okay, I’ll go back and talk to my mentor, Paul Torgerson at Virginia Tech. He was my department head. He was my dean. And then he became President at Virginia Tech. In fact, he was a great help to me while I was Dean at Georgia Tech and then when I became Chancellor at the University of Arkansas, he was thrilled. But at any rate, Paul at the time was dealing with cancer and I knew that his days were numbered. I wanted him to know how much I appreciated the impact he had had on me, but also to get his advice one more time. And so, I told him that I’d been encouraged to do a leadership course, and he said, you should. And I said, well, Paul, I don’t know what book to use. He said, use Steve Samples, the Contrarians Guide to Leadership. I said, well, Steve sent me that book. I’ve known Steve for years. At that time, he was the President at Southern Cal. Before that, he had been the President at SUNY Buffalo. In fact, I think he had an interest in me being his successor at SUNY Buffalo, but he never bothered to ask me or my wife if we would consider living in Buffalo, New York. But any rate, that’s a different story. 

So I thought I, I’ll just go back, I’ll read the book and when I read it, I found that Steve and Warren Bennis co-taught a course at Southern Cal on Leadership, and I thought, how interesting. Well, I called Steve’s office. He was on leave at that time. Told his executive assistant what I wanted and why I was calling, what my relationship with Steve had been.

She said, well, there is someone who works behind the scenes with Dr. Sample and Dr. Bennis, let me put you in touch with her. This young woman came on the phone. As soon as I said my name, she said, oh, I know who you are. I grew up in Fayetteville. I came to the University of Arkansas, majored in sociology. I came there just when you came as Chancellor. When I finished, I came to Southern Cal and got my doctorate in sociology with an emphasis on leadership. What can I do to help you? I said, send me the syllabus. And she sent me lots of materials about the course. So I thought, okay, I’ll, I’ll try this. And so, I set up and I offered the course.

And Mike, in my 60 years of teaching, I’ve never had an experience like those offerings of that course. It was the best thing that I ever got involved in. The students said they learned a lot, but I think I learned so much more. In fact, the students said three things about the course when they would post their evaluations online. They said, it’s the most demanding course I’ve ever taken. It’s the best course I’ve taken, and it changed my life. That is up until the last offering of the course. There was a student in the course who said Dr. White said it would be the most demanding course and it was. He said it would be the best course, and it was. And he said it would change my life, but it didn’t. It saved my life, and I knew I needed to follow through and do a book because the students in that particular section, the class in the last meeting we had, they said, would you please write a book and try to capture what’s happened in this course? I mean we caught lightning in a bottle. It was like nothing I had ever experienced of the 16 weeks in the semester. We would have a guest leader come for 15 of those weeks and we would start out the first 15 minutes or so, 20 minutes maybe, of me sitting there in a chair on the floor with the guest leader and just chatting just like we’ve been chatting. Then I would turn to the class and I would say, does anyone here have a question for our leader?

And the questions would begin, and it’s those questions that the students would ask, that’s what really fueled the class. I remember the first time that Greg Brown, who was the chairman of Motorola came. He came into the class and he said, now I know the syllabus says I’m leaving at seven o’clock, but I’m not leaving as long as you’ve got questions, I’ll be here as long as you’ve got questions, because that plane will not leave the airport without me. And finally, at about 8:15, I said, I’m sorry, Greg. I’ve got to stop this. We’ve got some other things we’ve got to do. I gave the kids a break for 10 minutes and he came over. He said, I’ve not had so much fun. I can’t tell you when John, can I come back again this semester? I said, no, no, no. I’ve already got it scheduled. Can I come back next semester? I’ll only do this in the fall. Can I come back next year? Of course you can. He came every time I offered the course. And it was it was amazing. 

And those 15 individuals that would come, at least three of them would be in tears as they would be responding to the kids’ questions. I remember one guest leader, I asked the question, how do you balance family and career? And he said, it cost me my first marriage. Well, I had known him. I knew him and I knew his wife. I thought she was his first wife. He said my second wife, that would be the one that I knew came out of industry and she understood what the demands are on a CEO.

I remember another guest leader who came and the question, his response, I anticipated what it would be because I knew his situation, but he said, I’m the poster child in how not to do to balance family and career. I’m a failure as a husband. I’m a failure as a father. No success at work will offset failure at home. And when he left, I turned to the class and I said, what he didn’t tell you he’ll be in divorce court for the second time on Thursday. 

Now you take those situations and you contrast them with Greg Brown, the Motorola Chairman. His son, I think, was in 315 basketball games junior high through high school. Greg was at all of ’em except one. The one game he missed was because the game had been rescheduled because of weather and it conflicted with his appointment to be with the Prime Minister of Israel. And he thought about changing that appointment so he could be at his son’s game, but his staff convinced him, no, it’s taken us so long to get this appointment. You need to do this. So he missed the one game. 

Or then you take John Roberts, who’s the CEO at JB Hunt, his wife would get with his executive assistant and put all the dates that were important dates for their children on his calendar, and he treated them just like another business commitment. In fact, he came into class and he said, now I know that some of you may think I’m gonna stay here past seven o’clock tonight, but I’m not because my son’s in a baseball game and I’m gonna be there. And he was. So, what the students learned from all of this was that if you make it a priority, it might mean that you’ve gotta start really early, leave during the day for something, come back and work late at night, but you can do it if you give it a priority. 

Now, how my son has done it, being a 4 million miler with Delta is, it was unbelievable to me how he was able to have the two kids with all the travel he did as a consultant, how the military officers did it, and well, with today’s technology you can be in touch with people from literally all over the world. You can stay in touch with them. And what Donnie Smith, the CEO at Tyson Foods said, is my wife and I decided instead of building mansions, we would build memories. And so, recognizing the sacrifices our children had to make because of my work demands, we would take extensive vacations and go all over the world and do those things and let them know that the reason we were able to do those was because of their sacrifices that they made in order for me to be successful in my business. 

And then you have someone like Adriana Lopez Graham who was involved with international IT with Tyson Foods. And when she would have to go to China or Argentina or wherever, she would tell her children, mommy’s going away to help children in those countries have food so they could eat. You need to make it a family decision, a family thing that everybody understands the role they play. Like General Marty Steel with the Marine Corps. His son followed him. He’s went into the Marine Corps. They all understood what their father was doing. In this case, I had two former admirals and then a former Marine General. Their family knew the price they were paying was to help the country stay safe, and so they were all a part of that solution, thus the book. 

[00:15:59] Chris Gaffney: I’ve got a copy of it and obviously you’ve just given a wonderful review, so I’m encouraged that many of our listeners who are both students and professionals will go out and grab a copy. There’s always new words to be written on the topic, so thank you for that.  


[BREAK at 16:13] 


[00:16:37] Chris Gaffney: A question for you, as you have been in leadership positions in both industry and academia, and you have dealt with very senior clients. One thing in my experience, a challenge for leaders as they rise in their career is being aware of their own blind spot. And how do the great leaders you have worked for and with learn and adjust their own behavior.

[00:17:03] John White: I’m not sure how they’ve done it, but one thing that is key to it is you’ve gotta have someone who will be brutally honest with you and give you feedback, and that’s the toughest challenge for anyone is getting honest, objective feedback. There’s the saying that feedback is the Breakfast of Champions, but what they don’t tell you is it’s really hard for anybody to ever give you objective feedback. Why is that? Well, Miles Law, where you stand depends on where you sit. That all of what we see in others is based on our own set of experiences and you could ask three people who have worked with you the same level over time to give feedback. And they’re going to say three different things for sure. Each one is gonna see you differently. So, they’re gonna give you feedback and then you’ve got to try to look beyond those words, between those words, behind those words to get what is the real message, what’s the opportunity for improvement? And as long as you buy into continuous improvement, which says that everyone and everything can be improved and you’re brutally honest with yourself about what your strengths and weaknesses are, then you can have a chance at listening to that feedback and getting some help on it. But I would recommend going in and doing the Myers-Briggs Personality Assessment, or do Strengths Finder, and I’ve done that as well to go through and identify what are your strengths and weakness.

I remember flying back from New Orleans when I was at Virginia Tech and I was flying to Atlanta, changed planes to going into Roanoke. I was sitting in a center seat and the person on the aisle was then the world’s number one handball player. He asked me if I played handball, and I said, no, no, I play racquetball. And he said, well, I’m gonna give you three pieces of advice. If you follow it, it’ll make you a much better racquetball player. What’s that? Number one, play with people better than you. Number two, play to your strengths, and it’s probably your forehand. So, run around and take 70% of your shots with your forehead. And number three, attack your opponent’s weakness every serve, every shot to the opponent’s weakness. So I thought, Hmm. So I go back and a graduate student there had been a linebacker on the football team. He was a really good athlete, and he was a brilliant student. He was so smart that he let me think I could win a game against him, which I had never done. So we go out and we play racquetball, and I decide I will hit every shot to his backhand. I won the first game. I won a game. I had never won a game against Tommy. I was ecstatic. I didn’t know what to do, but I didn’t know what I was going to do. I decided, okay, I’m gonna keep doing this. Well, I had him 10 zero in the second game and did a baby lob to his backhand. He missed it, smashed the racket against the wall of the court, walked off and never played with me again. Well, what I hadn’t realized is those three piece of advice would influence my leadership style and ways that I had not anticipated.

Play with those better than you. While I was Dean at Georgia Tech and while I was Chancellor at Arkansas, even while I was at the National Science Foundation, I had the people on my team do benchmarking, benchmarking against the best in the business, their competitors. Find out what were the things they were doing and how they compare with you and figure out where you were weak and figure out where you’re strong. My big challenge when I came back to Arkansas was getting people to understand that, that while we were good, we were not great. And that in order to go from good to great, we needed to differentiate and we needed to associate, we need to differentiate ourselves from every other university within the state, and we needed to associate ourselves with the best public research universities in the nation and to understand what they were doing versus what we were doing.

So, we had to know what our strengths were and play to that now. So, I’d used that throughout except the third one about attack your opponent’s weakness. I decided that winning that game with Tommy wasn’t worth the price. And so, I really don’t attack my opponent’s weakness. What I do is I continue to emphasize our strengths. Now, I might, on occasion point out an opportunity for improvement within the competition, but I’m not going to attack their weaknesses. You need to understand what your strengths and your weaknesses are and how do you do that? You gotta rely on feedback, either feedback from people or feedback from various tests that you could take, such as Strengths Finder or Myers Briggs.

I think that is the key. And remember, EI, emotional intelligence trumps academic intelligence, if you will, their IQ. That EQ over IQ that in order to be emotionally intelligent, it has to start with understanding yourself. The toughest person you’ll ever have to lead will be yourself. And so, you’ve gotta be able to look deeply within yourself and go to the darkest, deepest corners there and see what is it that you’re all about? It’s a question that I posed to my class. I was teaching a class. I’d hand out index cards and say, put on the one side of the card, what’s the most important thing you learned today. On the other, what you want me to talk about next time in the first 10 minutes of the class, so I’ll talk about anything you wanna talk about. I began to learn that what the kids were really most interested in was getting answers to the question of life.  


But then I got asked one question that I’d never been asked before, and it was, what’s the best advice you could ever give us? I said, to thine own self be true. I said, that’s from Shakespeare. But what I mean by that is look deeply into your eyes and ask who you are and to be true. Who do you want to be? I said, you know, in this class you could cheat and you could probably get away with it, and it breaks my heart. Not that you would get away with it, but because you are creating who you are, you’re establishing your value system. You see, each of us when we’re born, we’re given a big block of granite and every word and every action, every thought we have we’re chipping away at that granite. And in fact, what’s happening is you are defining who you are. That block of granite you’re carving out is gonna be your tombstone. What do you want it to say about you? So those are some things that I tried to get across to the students along the way is that you’ve got to be true to yourself. You need feedback that EQ starts with understanding who you are, what you are, and more importantly, what you want to be and what changes you need to make in order to be that.

[00:23:55] Chris Gaffney: So John, you mentioned mentoring in the context of our prep for this, and I suspect you have a few kind of golden nugget tips for the folks that you have mentored. And I guess what I would ask is have those tips stayed the same or have they evolved over the years? 

[00:24:14] John White: They have certainly changed over time, just as my definition of success has changed over time. Early on my definition of success was all about me. Later in life, my definition of success was all about them. I’ve realized that my goal should not be to be the best leader of the team, but rather to be the leader of the best team. That it should be focused on the team, not on me. In terms of the tips I would have is, number one, is focus on your current job. Do it to the best of your ability. Don’t have your eyes on the next job you want, because if you do, you’re not gonna do your current job very well. As you focus on what you’re doing and you excel in that, then opportunities are going to open up to you. 

And then the other is to learn from everything and everyone just be a sponge and just soak up everything you can. You can learn, actually you can learn more from bad leaders than you can from good leaders. Cause you’re gonna learn what not to do and to avoid that, I mean, I’ve had a couple of people that were really, really bad in my life, but I learned from them of what not to do. I love what Chris Lofgren said to my class. He was the CEO at Schneider National and he said that when he graduated from Georgia Tech, he went to work at Motorola and had an opportunity to be with George Fisher, who was then the CEO at Motorola and he asked Fisher what could he do to perhaps someday be in a position Fisher was in? And he said that to be yourself. You can only be the second best somebody else, but to be yourself. He said, that’s the thing, don’t try to be someone else. Look for things that other people do that are good things for you to incorporate, but you have to define your own leadership style and how you’re going to approach leadership.

So, the big thing is don’t fake it. Just go in and just make it by being who you are, and let people know they can count on you, that you are dependable, that you are playing basically with your cards up. And be honest and straightforward with people. Be yourself. I think those are some of the things that I picked up along the way. 

As I looked back on my career, I realized there’d been individuals along the way who had great influence on me, but at the time I didn’t recognize it. I didn’t realize how they were impacting me. Paul Torgerson, I’ve already mentioned, he’s just one of them. Eric Block at the National Science Foundation was another, I mean, there are just so many I could start naming them. But what it is, is that means from everyone, you’re around, try to pick up something, learn something from that individual or every situation you’re in, learn something from that situation. Everybody makes mistakes. The big thing is to avoid making them repetitively. Don’t be making the same mistakes over and over, but don’t be afraid about making a mistake. Take some risks, my goodness. And don’t think that you have to have answers to all the questions. No, no. Leaders have questions. They don’t have answers. The answers are best if they come from the team, because if the team develops this solution, they’re more likely to implement and invest everything they have in it. Cause it’s a part of them. They helped create it. As Donnie Smith said, when he would take on a new role at Tyson Foods, that he had no experience in, none whatsoever. I mean, suddenly in charge of IT. I’m not sure he even knew about how to turn on his computer, but he would go into a group and he said, okay, I’m gonna ask you three questions. What are we good at? What are we not good at? And if you were king or queen for a day, what would you change? And then he took those things and that’s what drove his agenda. 

So, the big thing is listening. Listening to people. The secret sauce of leadership starts with listen, then learn, then love, and then lead. Okay. Listening. Listening. We all think we’re good listeners, but no, no. Cole Peterson, who was head of HR at Walmart, he had his first job when he graduated and his supervisor was telling him how he wasn’t a good listener and Coleman kept interrupting him and telling him, no, I’m, I’m a good listener. But he kept interrupting him. He finally realized he had to be an active listener. He needed to play back to the person what he had just heard, to confirm that he had actually heard it.

[00:28:48] Mike Ogle: Well, That’s hilarious. Hey, John, I’m gonna throw you a little bit of a curve ball as questions go, and say, if I sent you 20 experienced supply chain professionals and sent them one by one into your office and asked you to triage them into categories of like one, they appear to be a very capable leader now, or two, they have the potential to lead but need some work, or three, you know unlikely to become a good leader. What would be your process to be able to do that kind of triage? 

[00:29:19] John White: Well, the key to that question, I think Mike, is you said they’re experienced. That means they have some experience because I believe in that case, you should be making a decision based on performance, not potential. Cause if they’re experienced, then they should have a performance based, they can draw on. So, I would ask them to describe to me several of the solutions that they’ve developed. Tell me about the problems you’ve solved. How did you do it? Then I would ask about, what are some mistakes you’ve made? What are the things you’re most proud of in your career? On that last question, if the thing they’re most proud of is all about themselves and not about their team, it would give me pause. If they tried to tell me they had not made any mistakes, they’re not on the team at all. If in fact they are a hammer and everything they look at looks like a nail, where they in fact have the same solution regardless of what the requirements are for it, they’re just going in with a cookie cutter approach to how they’re going to solve the problems. I’ve got no use for them either, so I want to know if they’re going to be letting the data drive them, the requirements drive them. I want to know how much they’re listening to the client and all in this case, how much they’re listening to their team. I want to try to pick up on how well they listen. So, if they were like Cole Peterson in the first one, they keep interrupting me, and all, then I’ll know they aren’t listening real well.

But those are some of the things I think that you look at, as to how do they define success? Is it all about themselves or is it all about their team. Those are some keys to me. But let me tell you that you’ll probably be more like a baseball player, but if you’re batting over .350, you’re gonna get in the Hall of Fame. Cause I don’t care how you do it. When you’re going through and doing that kind of triage, you’re gonna make mistakes. But when you’ve made a mistake, don’t think it’s like a fine wine that’s going to get increase in quality over time. Once you realize you’ve made the mistake, you need to do something about it. You need to step up to the bar and you need to make the change.

In fact, as I would ask leaders who’ve met with my class, if you had to do over again, what would you do differently? Most of ’em would say, I would’ve acting quicker. I would’ve defending more on my instinct and gut feel. As Greg Brown said, when you wonder if you know, you know. So, that’s the thing. If you have doubts at the beginning, act on those doubts. If a red flag goes up, understand it was a red flag. 

So those are the only things that have come to mind right now. But as you say, it was a curve ball question. I’d not been asked that question before. But the key to it, is they’re experienced, likewise, where all have they been and how frequently did they leave and why did they leave? I think that the track record matters. 

[00:32:29] Chris Gaffney: John, I’ll give you one more that kind of switches direction on us, but you mentioned when you were at Georgia Tech, you did a lot of industry work and some companies really see the value of working with academia and some miss out on that opportunity. So, what is your advice and how do you think industry should be involved in academia, education, training, particularly in kind of the supply chain area and in leadership development. 

[00:32:55] John White: Well, for sure, they ought to provide internships, to give ’em a chance to be out there with them. Another is, and one of the things that we did at Arkansas in our department, we created mentor circles, and which we had people from that were alumni or people in industry in the area would come and they would meet with groups of students to be mentors to them. We also did mock interviews, where companies that would gladly come in and do mock interviews to help young people learn how to negotiate that interview process. So those are some of the things. 

I think that having guest leaders, come in, do plant tours, I would take my students to, to go to a manufacturing plant and we would go to a distribution center and all of that to go and be able to see it because it’s one thing to see it in textbooks or on slides or even in videos, but it’s quite another to go out and experience it and see it happening on the floor of the plant or the warehouse. And, I think all of those things would really help not only to prepare the students, but also would develop linkages and relationships between those companies and the department where they began to take some ownership, if you will, over what’s going on within the department. 

[00:34:15] Mike Ogle: And John, I wanted to ask you a little bit about your experience with all the students that you’ve taught. What do you think about some of the students that you’re teaching today versus when you were, for instance, a newly tenured professor? What kinds of differences do you see and what gives you the greatest hope and maybe in some cases the greatest concern?

[00:34:36] John White: Well, let me start with the latter part. I do worry. And am particularly worried coming out of the pandemic with so many of the classes having been done virtual or online as opposed to the in-person. The student’s abilities to build relationships, real relationships. I worry about social media creating relationships that maybe are a millimeter in thickness as opposed to deep, deep relationships of people. I think that the working from home, certainly there are some benefits to that, but there are also some costs associated with it. And I think that just being around people and getting to know how to socialize with them, to be professionals with them, to all of that. And then the whole business about networking, of having deep relationships. Because in the end, I think the success you’re going to have as a professional is gonna be based on those relationships. Leadership itself is a relationship, that you have to develop with the people that you’re leading.

So that’s the one. Now I have been encouraged over the years, that I’ve never, I don’t think I’ve ever been able to overestimate what students are capable of doing, that no matter where I would set the bar, it’s amazing how they could get up there and get over that bar. I believe in setting lofty goals in my career and I encourage students to set lofty goals in theirs, and I set lofty goals for them. Now, admittedly, there’s some that don’t get as far as I want them to get, but they all make vast improvements and then they are able to look back and ask them, look at how far you’ve come and what you’ve done in just this short period of time. You are capable of far more than you ever thought you were capable of, and so don’t ever underestimate what your capabilities are. You just go out and do the best you can. So students, they will live up to, and exceed your expectations. So that’s one that I’m very, very encouraged by.

I’m continuing, as I said to teach though I’m doing an online course. People have asked me what’s the difference in teaching the course online and in person? And I’ve said, well, I’ve got good news and bad news. And the good news is the bad news. The good news is that the students do just as well on the homework and the tests when I’m teaching it online, as they did when I was teaching in-person. And I thought that was the bad news too. Cause I thought surely I added some value by being in the class with them. But then I realized that the value that I was adding was qualitative value. It wasn’t quantitative value, it wasn’t the kind of things that you’d put on homework exercises or on quiz questions.

And so, it’s that part that I think that is misses, it’s the spontaneity that will come from being in class with them where someone will ask a question and with me, as you’ve learned through this podcast, when you ask me a question, I go on a walkabout. I tell stories, and in fact, the kids I got they changed the name of the award that they would give. It was called Mother Goose Award for stories, but then they changed it to Raconteur of the Year Award, and I won it every year, cause I teach with stories, I write with stories. And in fact, with this podcast, I’ve relied on stories and I worry about the fact that they aren’t getting so many of the stories when they’re doing it online. And in fact, they need to be around the people to get to know everyone’s story. Cause everybody’s got a story. So, ask about it. As Greg Brown told the students, be interested, not interesting. Don’t try to come across as how interesting you are, but rather you’re interested in them and to learn more about them. Those are just some of the things that come to mind in response to your question. 

[00:38:33] Chris Gaffney: And John, you’ve given us a lot of nuggets. I know some are in the book and some may be beyond the book, and you mentioned in the book that you will always be learning as a leader. What are some of your most recent learnings as you continue on that lifelong learning journey as a leader?

[00:38:51] John White: Good question. In fact, just in the last week, two things that I learned, and it was actually through podcasts that I was involved with. One of them was the interviewer asked about Newton’s first law, because in the book I mentioned Newton’s first law, namely a body at rest, will remain at rest and unless acted upon by a force. And, what that has to do with leadership is that you’ve got to keep some tension within the organization, and the leader’s responsibility is to regulate that tension to where it does not become so great that people cannot function. But also, you have to have some tension to avoid stagnation. Another way to put it is the difference in a pond that’s fed by a stream, and one that’s not, that you don’t want to become stagnant. And it’s hard when a company is doing really well that people will say, well, there’s no room for improvement. Now you’ve got to create some tension there to make that happen. So that was one.  


But then as I thought about it, when I was focused on the first law. Then I thought, wait a minute, if there are leadership lessons from Newton’s first law, what about the second law? The second law, if you might remember, is F equals ma. The force is equal to the product, the mass and the acceleration. Okay, so what does that say about a company that is small versus one that is large. If you want to maintain the same level of acceleration and change in improvement over time, it takes a greater force. In fact, I realized that when I was on the boards of Eastman Chemical Company, Russell Corporation, Motorola, and JB Hunt, I was on their boards at the same time. That in fact, the sum of the revenue growths, year to year of those four was small in comparison with the one year for Walmart. And I thought my good friend Mike Duke, who was the CEO at Walmart, oh my goodness, imagine the tension, the pressure, and everything that he must be under. How do you maintain a 7% growth in revenues with a Walmart as opposed to a 7% growth in revenues with a 10 million or even a hundred million dollar company when you’re up there at the billion dollar level. So I then I realized the second law has some real learnings for leadership. 

What about the third law? Well, the third law, Newton’s third law is for every action, there’s an equal and opposite reaction. Well, of course then why isn’t it that we have this thing called the law of unintended consequences? Why haven’t we anticipated what’s going to happen? We have this engineering law that says, for every solution to a problem, there’s gonna be a new problem. Why is it that we could get caught unexpected, like unawares, like when we do something that there’s something else that happens that it will have some negative consequences. Why is it that leaders will go in and make changes without trying to anticipate as Judith McKenna at Walmart told the students, the second bounce of the ball? What’s gonna be the second bounce? What’s gonna be the third bounce? Try to anticipate, try to look ahead, put yourself in the position to say, if that happened, what would we do in reaction to that. So those are some of the things that just absolutely astound me, and yet I just learned that. 

Imagine what I’ve learned today from this podcast with you guys. I mean, triaging. Triaging. I hadn’t thought about triaging, so now I’ve gotta go back and think more about that and learn some more about that. Thanks for helping me learn something new this week, guys. 

[00:42:44] Mike Ogle: John, thank you for your time and your thoughts on leadership and learning. We hope our audience will also order your book and learn some new perspectives on leadership.

[00:42:54] John White: Well, in addition to the book, let me just say that when I submitted the manuscript to the publisher. They said if they published it, it’d be a 625-page book, and that they didn’t think a 625-page leadership book would sell many copies. They asked me to reduce it 50%. That was tough. So, what I did was I took seven chapters out of the manuscript and I posted them on my website, John A. White, slash Why It Matters. And not only that, but content that came out of chapters to try to eliminate redundancy and over-emphasis perhaps on my experiences at the University of Arkansas or at Georgia Tech that I’ve placed that material out on the website. So, it’s not just about the book, but also, I would encourage those who are interested in what I say and how I say it, to go and look at the website, I think they’ll find an abundance of materials there that hopefully would be of some benefit to them.