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President Clinton, President Mandela, and the Lessons of Leadership

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When preparing to introduce President Bill Clinton at Klick Ideas Exchange in June, I couldn’t help but think of the famous quote often attributed to Mark Twain: "It is better to keep your mouth closed and let people think you are a fool than to open it and remove all doubt."

After all, the President’s mastery of the issues is more than a little intimidating. He shared more insights in an hour than most people have in a lifetime. And his vision is matched by his commitment to seeing it through and making the world better. It’s really awe-inspiring.

President Clinton at Klick IDX 2015

President Clinton at Klick IDX 2015

He’s a hero of mine, and it turns out that an even harder task than introducing the President is extracting all of the highlights from what he said. His talk was far-ranging and relevant, both in terms of the interdependent world in which we live and the rapidly changing technology industry in which we work.

There were, however, two things he said that I think can and should guide us. The first was about what it means to push for innovation.

The President joked that when he was young, being called disruptive wasn’t necessarily a good thing and, in fact, on more than one occasion one of his teachers described him that way. I could totally relate. When I was in school and my teachers said I was causing a disruption, it was hardly a compliment.

Today, though, disrupting the status quo is an imperative. In order for there to be progress, President Clinton said, “we need periodic shakeups…We gotta stay in the future business.”

He couldn’t be more right.

The second thing he said, that really resonated with me, was a story about South African President Nelson Mandela and humanity. President Clinton talked about how they talked on the phone, and about how once President Mandela said he was being criticized by members of his own ANC party.

They were incredulous, according to President Clinton’s recollection, because after Mandela won the presidential election, he insisted on including those who jailed him for 27 years in his new government.

Always the statesman, President Mandela reminded his party members that they just voted for the first time in 300 years, and asked: “Is there one thing in this whole country we can run by ourselves? The answer to that is, no. Maybe some day. Today’s not that day… If I can deal with it, so can you, get over it.”

On the face of it, these stories share little in common. They may even seem contrary to one another. The first is about taking on the status quo and established forces. Some think that is best done as an insular exercise. That might be because of the belief that we risk our competitive advantage if we share our ideas too soon. Or maybe it’s the myth of the sole inventor – the idea a lone genius is the best chance of stumping the experts and changing orthodoxy.

The Mandela story, on the other hand, isn’t about insularity at all, but rather inclusivity. President Clinton said it was a reminder of the human element of leadership. Individual genius and generosity, talent and tenacity, and undaunted courage indeed inspire progress. But being inclusive leads to progress – inclusive technology, inclusive healthcare, inclusive politics, inclusive economics and inclusive leadership.

What does that mean for Klick, or for anyone interested in taking full advantage of the opportunities offered by the unprecedented convergence of technology and medicine and redefining how healthcare is delivered? What does it mean for those of us who understand that despite the sobering statistics in diseases like Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and cancer, we live at a time when we are extending human life at an unprecedented pace? What does it mean for those of us who itch to do even more?

I think it means we must work with partners and remain focused on the future. We must help build environments and workplaces ripe for both collaboration and innovation. And ultimately, I believe we must seek, as President Clinton urged, creative and inclusive solutions in which companies developing new drugs and technologies – and those serving them – are allowed to operate and thrive without burdening the healthcare system.

When it comes to all of that, another quote attributed to Mark Twain comes to mind: “The secret of getting ahead is getting started.”

Let’s get to work.

More About the Author

Leerom Segal

Leerom is a founding partner at Klick and oversees projects at the executive level to ensure client satisfaction with quality and on-time and on-budget delivery. An accomplished strategist and technologist, Leerom is committed to surpassing client expectations and building long-term relationships.

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