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Former Stanford President talks new book, leadership qualities

Emma Smith / The Stanford Daily

Former Stanford President and current chair of Alphabet Inc. John Hennessy held a talk on Tuesday about his new book “Leading Matters: Lessons from My Journey.” The event, held at CEMEX Auditorium, focused on the lessons Hennessy gleaned as Stanford’s 10th president.

Hennessy has held various roles at Stanford over the past 40 years: Beginning as a faculty member in 1977, he went on to become Chair of the Department of Computer Science, Dean of the School of Engineering, Provost of the University and — from 2000 to 2016 — President of Stanford.

Isaac Stein, former member of the Stanford Board of Trustees, moderated the night’s discussion. Stein described Hennessy’s book as “lessons on leadership and its traits, illustrated with stories from his own career and life journey.”

While his book focuses on 10 traits, Hennessy’s Tuesday remarks centered around only four: humility, empathy, collaboration and storytelling. Hennessy shared several anecdotes from his tenure as University president.

Hennessy said the book, in which he draws on his experience developing the new program and finding ways to foster future leaders, was written with Knight-Hennessy scholars in mind, .

“I felt like I needed to organize my own thoughts and get my own experience organized and say what really mattered and what was secondary,” Hennessy told The Daily in a pre-presentation interview. “There are a lot of things in the book that draw on my experience in Silicon Valley starting companies, but they tend to be events that occurred in companies much earlier.”

While discussing the power of leaders in society, Hennessy admitted that there are some challenges with the generation of emerging leaders, including a lack of focus on positive mentors.  

“Maybe we need to have more stories about the successful leaders,” he said. “Instead of having the relentless focus on the messes and the disasters that occur, maybe we need to help develop better role models.”

However, Hennessy made it clear that he believes in the role of universities as institutions that have the ability to foster such change and cultivate successful leaders. Hennessy detailed this belief in students and faculty in describing his “upside-down pyramid” perspective regarding the role of a university. In his model, the president and the deans are at the bottom of the pyramid with the primary purpose of supporting the faculty and students.

Hennessy also noted the need for universities to step-up as innovators in society. One area he mentioned in particular was that of artificial intelligence.

“Universities are the institutions to think about those problems,” Hennessy said. “They have the scholars and the long-term perspective. They are not burdened with conflicts and other business concerns that any corporation is trying to balance. This technology is moving very fast, so universities need to step up.”

Gunnar Mattson, a prospective Knight-Hennessy Scholar, noted the interdisciplinary nature of Dr. Hennessy’s conception of leadership. He appreciated Dr. Hennessy’s “uncommon” description of leadership as “[transcending] into many different things as [Dr. Hennessy] talked about empathy and humility, for example.”

One audience member asked Hennessy how his answer to the perennial Stanford-application question, “What matters to you and why?” has changed over the years.

“What mattered to me early on was my research and my teaching, and what mattered to me later was different because it was shaped by my experiences,” Hennessy said. “Over time, [I came] to the view that what really matters to me is that the University can continue to serve its current students and faculty and future generations of students and faculty.”

 

Contact Michael Espinosa at mesp2021 ‘at’ stanford.edu and Emma Smith at esmith11 ‘at’ stanford.edu.

 

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