John W. Gardner Snippets

For context on John W. Gardner, I was searching for the answers around leadership for the longest time in sooooo many HBR books but could never find it. Gardner’s work spoke to me because it has no answers — it only has great questions. PBS has a micro-site on Gardner (because he created PBS) that is decaying over time, so I like to ferret away pieces on my own sites so that the work will never go away. Well, at least for as long as I’m around. You can watch the PBS special on him in 1993 over here.

John W. Gardner (1912 – 2002) Quoted

  • Cities
  • “Is it surprising that cities so fragmented have great difficulty in solving their problems, great difficulty in even formulating their problems? Long before the riots of the late 60’s, it was apparent to everyone who studied these matters closely that communities so riven could not weather a storm without cracking.”
    –John Gardner, 1969

  • Civil Society
  • “The great conservative ideas, the great liberal ideas — and the public policy alternatives based on those ideas — almost invariably nursed to maturity in the nongovernment sector. Both the Reagan Administration and the Kennedy Administration came in with seminal ideas drawn mainly from nongovernmental seedbeds.”
    –Speech at the Commonwealth Fund Board Retreat, Camden, Maine, 1987

    “If you can’t find a nonprofit institution that you can honestly disrespect, then something has gone wrong with our pluralism.”
    –Speech to Independent Sector membership, New York City, 1983

    “Everybody’s organized but the people. Now it’s the citizens’ turn.”
    John Gardner, 1972 speech

    “Our tradition of voluntary association is still vital. And its vitality is rooted in good soil — civic pride, compassion, spiritual commitments, a sense of individual responsibility and, whatever cynics may say, a commitment to the great shared effort to improve our life together and to ensure a good future for our children and our children’s children.”
    John Gardner, 1979

  • Education and Excellence

  • “We don’t even know what skills may be needed in the years ahead. That is why we must train our young people in the fundamental fields of knowledge, and equip them to understand and cope with change. That is why we must give them the critical qualities of mind and durable qualities of character that will serve them in circumstances we cannot now even predict.”
    John Gardner, “Excellence”

    “We must learn to honor excellence in every socially accepted human activity, however humble the activity, and to scorn shoddiness, however exalted the activity. An excellent plumber is infinitely more admirable than an incompetent philosopher. The society that scorns excellence in plumbing because plumbing is a humble activity and tolerates shoddiness in philosophy because it is an exalted activity will have neither good plumbing nor good philosophy. Neither its pipes nor its theories will hold water.”
    –John Gardner, “Excellence”

  • Gardner on Gardner

  • “I was born in Los Angeles, California. When I was about a year old, my mother decided to move out into the country eleven miles west of the city. There, in an area of lima bean fields as far as the eye could see, one of the first legendary California real estate developers had laid out a pattern of streets and had built the Beverly Hills Hotel nestled against the foothills.

    “We moved into the hotel, and my mother bought the 19th house in the development. It wasn’t even a town yet. It grew rapidly and soon has its own school, but there were still only three or four stores and one policeman, Charlie Blair. It was a very small country town. Everyone knew everyone else. There was no way for small boys to get into trouble. It was a great place to grow up.

    “But it wasn’t your typical American small town. Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford were building a large place in the foothills. Movie stars were glimpsed from time to time, and the film companies shot some of the scenes on the streets of that peaceful place.”
    –Personal Journals

    “As a boy in California, I spent a good deal of time in the Mother Lode country, and like every boy of my age I listened raptly to the tales told by the old-time prospectors in that area, some of them veterans of the Klondike gold rush. Every one of them had at least one good campfire story of a lost gold mine. The details varied: the original discoverer had died in the mine, or had gone crazy, or had been killed in a shooting scrape, or had just walked off thinking the mine worthless. But the central theme was constant: riches left untapped. I have come to believe that those tales offer a paradigm of education as most of us experience it. The mine is worked for a little while and then abandoned.”

    “One day during World War II, there occurred a wholly unexpected turning point in my thinking about life and the world. I was a Marine Corps officer stationed in Italy, 32 years old. There was a saying in the war-time military that life was ‘Hurry up and wait.'” At times you had to act in a desperate hurry, and other times you just had to wait. In one of the moments of waiting, I was walking along a hillside when it occurred to me that my life had been turned upside down twice by events in the outside world — the Great Depression and World War II — yet I had never studied the economic, political, social forces that produced such events. As a psychologist, I had confined myself to individual behavior, leaving it to others to worry about the big world. I had concluded that I hadn’t been very smart in that neglect, and I wrote home for a couple of books, beginning a course of study that broadened and deepened over the years. In a sense, that day laid out an agenda that changed my life.”
    Personal Journals

    “When I first arrived in Washington in 1942, I was asked to head the Latin American section of the Foreign Broadcast Intelligence Service (FCC). Since I had a good knowledge of the Spanish language and of Latin America I had no doubt of my intellectual capacity to handle the job. But I was astounded when I began to receive good marks on my management skills. It was wholly contrary to my image of myself, wholly at odds with my plans for the future. I was 29 years old and had never run anything. I had no ambition to run anything. From my earliest years, I had thought of myself as a student, an observer, pleasantly detached from the mainstream of the world’s action. From that point on, my life was to be governed by constant conflict between the life of action and the life of reflection. (Irving Stone,There Was Light (Anthology) 1970) And I learned that it was a fruitful conflict: action and reflection fed one another. It was a big, big change in my life.
    –“There Was Light”

    “It was November of 1967 when President Johnson told his cabinet that he was planning one or more cabinet dinners at which they could share ideas concerning the presidential election of 1968. How might we make the strongest case for the re-election of Johnson?

    “As I thought over the major accomplishments of 1965-1967, I believed that a strong case could in fact be made and sometime shortly after the first dinner I wrote a memo to Jos. Califano [special assistant to Johnson] laying out the case, building primarily of course on the segment of the Administration I knew best.

    “But focusing my mind on what should happen next had a truly disruptive consequence. It dawned on me — slowly, but powerfully — that I did not believe that Lyndon Johnson should run for re-election. It was not a half-formed thought; it was a solid conviction. During the second dinner, I was virtually silent. I knew then that I had to resign my post — and quickly.

    “Before I did so, I wanted to produce a summary of the Department’s achievements during my tenure. Then, in early January, I wrote a very brief letter of resignation and delivered it by hand to the President. He read it and asked me why. I said that in my judgment the course of events had so damaged his capacity to lead that he could not unite the country in the struggles that lay ahead. I did not know that within three months, Martin Luther King, Jr. would be assassinated, and two months after that, Senator Robert Kennedy would meet the same fate. But I was intimately familiar with the urban riots and the campus disorders, and I knew that the nation needed — desperately — a steadying hand. I was dead certain that President Johnson could not provide that steadying hand.

    “I explained this to the President as best I could. It wasn’t easy. I gave him great credit for what he had achieved in my Department, but I kept returning to my point. I said that in an election year, a president contemplating re-election deserved the wholehearted backing of his entire team, and that I could not give it.

    “He spent a half-hour cross-examining me to find out if I had some grievance that he could deal with, but I stuck to my one point. There were other matters on which we might have debated our differences, but I didn’t want anything to detract from my main message.

    “Finally, he sighed and said that he and Lady Bird had discussed seriously whether he should withdraw, and he uttered sentences that he would use in much the same form when he finally announced his withdrawal. In other words, it was not a new thought to him. He was not fumbling for words.”
    –Personal Journals

    “My mother, who passed the 100-year mark two months ago, lives in the Carmel Valley. She called me the other day and said, ‘You know this business of aging bothers me so, I can hardly stand it. I find it terribly upsetting.’ I said, ‘But think how lucky you are that you’re physically healthy and mentally alert.’ And she said, ‘Oh, I’m not talking about myself. I’m talking about you and your brother.'”
    –Speech 1991, Washington, DC

  • Government

  • “So now we have a new Administration. The venal and obsequious gather round. But fortunately, so do some very able people. And sometimes, of course, they are indistinguishable.”
    –Personal Journals

    “In Washington the person who rushes to put out every minor blaze is ‘a man who gets things done.’ If he pauses to think about next week’s fire, he’s ‘an impractical visionary.’ If he strikes a pose as he pours water on last week’s dead ashes, he’s a statesman.”
    –Personal Journals

    “I want the Department of Health, Education and Welfare to live in an environment of ideas. I want discussion of where the Department is headed and why, and what that means for government policy and for the future of the Nation. I want arguments about what the most important problems are, and whether we’re turning our backs on them or solving them or making them worse. I want criticism of our basic assumptions.”
    Departmental Message, 1967

    “In a democratic society the sovereignty of the people gives power an innocent face, but the reality is there. Every government program generates power: favors to give, favors to withhold. Every government licensing procedure generates power in the capacity to grant, deny or delay. Every contracting office generates power. Our federal government is the biggest carrot-and-stick warehouse in the world.”
    –“On Leadership”

  • Hypocrisy

  • “For most of the 20th Century we have been in revolt against old-fashioned hypocrisy, all the while proving ourselves endlessly fertile in creating new hypocrisies.”
    Personal Journals

    “If you set as your goal the unmasking of hypocrites, you will be ladling up the ocean with a teaspoon. Perhaps you have something more productive to work on.”
    –Personal Journals

    “Some lies are necessary. If you wonder how many, the answer is, ‘Fewer than you now tell.'”
    –Personal Journals

  • Journalists

  • “A good many top executives go through their whole careers without ever understanding journalists as human beings. Journalists have been exposed to every form of guile and humbug. It is their business to detect duplicity and dissembling. They live with the frustration of not getting stories they know are there. And at least for some of them, the more powerful one is, the more one stirs the natural predator in them.”
    “On Leadership”

    “If a journalist had been present at the Sermon on the Mount, the caption in the morning papers would have read, ‘Cleric Sees Take-over By Meek.'”
    –Personal Journals

    “My friend’s reputation suffered a grave blow when a journalist described him as vegetative. Among bright, high performance people, there could hardly be any judgment more damning. But why? He’s brilliant and his judgment is superb. Somewhat lethargic? Yes. But must we all be scramblers and rope-skippers?”
    –Personal Journals

  • Leadership

  • “At the time this nation was formed, our population stood at around 3 million. And we produced out of that 3 million people perhaps six leaders of world class — Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Franklin, Madison, and Hamilton. Today, our population stands at 245 million, so we might expect at least 80 times as many world-class leaders — 480 Jeffersons, Madisons, Adams’, Washingtons, Hamiltons, and Franklins. Where are they?”
    –“On Leadership”

    “If the man in the street says, ‘Those fellows at the top have to be good, but I’m just a slob and can act like one’ — then our days of greatness are behind us. We must foster a conception of excellence that may be applied to every degree of ability and to every socially acceptable activity. A missile may blow up on its launching pad because the designer was incompetent or because the mechanic who adjusted the last valve was incompetent. The same is true of everything else in our society. We need excellent physicists and excellent mechanics, excellent cabinet members and excellent first-grade teachers. The tone of our society depends upon a pervasive an almost universal striving for good performance.

    “And we are not going to get that kind of striving, that kind of alert and proud attention to performance, unless we can instruct the whole society in a conception of excellence that leaves room for everybody who is willing to strive — a conception of excellence which means that whoever I am or whatever I am doing, provided that I am engaged in socially acceptable activity, some kind of excellence is in my reach.”

  • Life and Living

  • “Take the statistical view of rascals and fools. There are so many per thousand in the population; you have to meet your share. If you seem to be meeting more than your share, lie down: you may be tired.”
    “No Easy Victories”

    “When people, looking back on their lives, say, ‘I have no regrets,’ I always wonder what spared them that burden. A weak memory? A sluggish conscience? A stubborn intent to deny? Everyone should have some regrets.”
    –Personal Journals

    “The process of learning through life is by no means continuous and by no means universal. If it were, age and wisdom would be perfectly correlated, and there would be no such thing as an old fool — a proposition at odds with common experience.”
    –Speech at Oberlin College, Ohio,1958

    “Occasionally I find myself passing a slightly unfavorable judgment on my successful friends in their forties, even their thirties. The judgment is “prematurely comfortable.” They’ve moved into a mental retirement home.”
    –Speech at the Johnson Foundation, Racine, Wisconsin, 1989

    “Virtually everyone condemns the evils of the modern world. But it’s not clear what era we should wish to go back to. If we went back to the England of, say, 1800 we could read the poetry of Wordsworth and send eight year old children to work in the coal mines. If we chose the Golden Age of Greece, we could frequent those lovely temples and hold slaves. If we chose the glories of ancient Egypt we could build pyramids and worship cats.”
    –Personal Journals

    “Some men and women make the world better just by being the kind of people they are.”
    –Personal Journals

  • Organizations

  • “Organizational self-congratulation is habit-forming, and most human institutions are far gone in addiction.”
    “No Easy Victories”

  • Potential

  • “No doubt there is something good in everyone; but, in particular cases, discovering it may involve more time and hazard than you can afford.”
    Personal Journals

    “In 1967, I had a conversation with Martin Luther King, Jr., at an educational conference. An African American had just presented a paper entitled, if I remember correctly, ‘First, Teach Them To Read.’ King leaned over to me and said, ‘First, teach them to believe in themselves.'”
    –“Excellence” (Rev. Ed.)

    “If we accept the common usage of words, nothing can be more readily disproved than the old saw, ‘You can’t keep a good man down.’ Most human societies of which we have any historical record have been beautifully organized to keep good men and women down.”

    “What we have before us are some breathtaking opportunities disguised as insoluble problems.”
    John Gardner, 1965 speech

  • Renewal

  • “When organizations feel they need an infusion of new talent, they look to their recruitment process. But the largest untapped reservoir of talent is in people already recruited but thereafter neglected.

    “The quickest road to renewal is the mining of that untapped resource. Among other things it would solve the problem of maintaining an organization that is responsive to both leaders and the people it serves. Vital people, using their gifts to the full, are naturally responsive. People who have stopped growing, who no longer have confidence in the use of their own powers, build bastions of procedure.”
    Speech at the U.S Civil Service Commission Anniversary, Washington, DC, 1996

    “Exploration of the full range of our own potentialities is not something that we can safely leave to the chances of life. It is something to be pursued avidly to the end of our days. We should look forward to an endless and unpredictable dialogue between our own potentialities and the claims of life — not only the claims we encounter, but the claims we invent. And by potentialities I mean not just skills, but the full range of our capacities for sensing, wondering, learning, understanding, loving, and aspiring…

    “A society whose maturing consists simply of acquiring more firmly established ways of doing things is headed for the graveyard — even if it learns to do these things with greater and greater skill. In the ever-renewing society what matures is a system or framework within which continuous innovation, renewal and rebirth can occur.

    “Our thinking about growth and decay is dominated by the image of a single life-span, animal or vegetable. Seedling, full flower, and death…But for an ever-renewing society, the appropriate image is a total garden, a balanced aquarium or other ecological system. Some things are being born, other things are flourishing, still other things are dying — but the system lives on.”

  • Self-Doubt

  • “Self doubt undermines the possibility of high performance without leaving a fingerprint.”
    –Personal Journals

  • Social Justice

  • “In the struggle for social justice, impatience is essential. But when it leads us to deny that any progress at all has been made, it deprives us of confidence to face the hard battles ahead. Past successes give people the courage to go on.”
    –“Recovery of Confidence”


I recommend Excellence and Self-Renewal as super-inexpensive “John W. Gardner” starters. And On Leadership is a great overview of all of his writings and thinking. —JM