What David Rockefeller Taught Me about Life and Leadership

Shortly after graduate school I landed a job at Chase Manhattan Bank’s corporate headquarters in New York City. I was part of a management program that developed young employees who were viewed as potential future company leaders. It was then that I first met the legendary David Rockefeller, scion of perhaps America’s greatest family, and one of the greatest corporate leaders our country has ever known. Over the years, I have been blessed to know him and consider him a role model.

This week, David passed away at the age of 101. His life was not just long, but incredibly full. He understood better than anyone the vast power of the CEO to not only lead a company, but also strive to change the world. Astonishingly kind and humble, he was the leader and the visionary that every CEO should aspire to be.

From the first time we met in the executive offices at Chase to our last time together in his home, every moment in his presence was a learning experience for me. As a small way to honor his memory, I thought I would share a bit of his wisdom:

Understand the opportunities and obligations of power

David was highly conscious of the power of his famous name. But while he fully embraced every aspect of his family’s lineage, he was deeply invested in remaining humble and respectful in every interaction. He embodied the saying that “the true test of a man’s character is what he does when no one is looking.” Whether he was dining with a head of state or chatting with a junior employee, he never relied on his name or the trappings of his vast power. As he once put it, “When you have a lot of resources, the most important thing is to have had good parents and to have been brought up by people who gave one the proper values.”

At the same time, he had a remarkable and visionary understanding of how to leverage his power for good. I have talked and written about the “Age of the CEO Statesman,” an emerging era in corporate leadership in which geopolitical dynamics are creating new opportunities for private sector leaders to exert moral power. David was the quintessential CEO Statesman; as The New York Times wrote, “His stature was greater than any corporate title might convey…His influence was felt in Washington and foreign capitals, in the corridors of New York City government, art museums, great universities and public schools.”

Focus on relationships, not networking

David may have had the most extensive personal rolodex system. It contained hundreds of thousands of contacts, all of which included comprehensive personal information, mostly hand-written by David himself. If you were so fortunate to be a “fly on the wall” for any of his countless meetings and interactions, you would hear him inquire about the smallest details of his guest’s life, from a child’s ballet recital to a parent’s recent health concern. This was not done for show or effect, though it never failed to delight and disarm his visitors. To be in the company of David was to have an audience with greatness, but his interactions were always transformational, never transactional.

Give the world more than you take from it

For all his accomplishments in business, David was most passionate and animated when he discussed philanthropy. He never simply wrote a check; he took an active interest in every organization and cause he founded and supported. His philosophy toward charitable giving was ahead of its time; he once described the goal of philanthropy as supporting “innovations that transform society, not simply maintaining the status quo or filling basic social needs…” The manifestation of this philosophy can be seen in the extraordinary legacy initiatives he founded and supported, such as the Council on Foreign Relations and the Americas Society. He also famously almost singlehandedly saved New York City’s treasure, the Museum of Modern Art, from financial ruin in the 1970s, in keeping with his life-long love of art. His dedication to philanthropy lives on in his children, including his daughter Peggy Dulany, who started the Global Philanthropists Circle with her father.

There will never be another man like David. A genuine American legend, he left the world a better place than he found it in endless ways. He never sought credit or attention, always seeking instead to shine his light on others.

When asked about his legacy back in 2003, David simply replied, “I can only say that I have had a wonderful life.” His greatest gift was that he shared his life with so many.

His legacy will burn brightly and eternally through the continued good work of his children, his extended family, and all those who see him as role model.

Alan H. Fleischmann is Founder, President & CEO of Laurel Strategies, a global business advisory and strategic communications firm for leaders, CEOs and their C-suite.

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