Professional Perspectives

Joseph Wharton Lifetime Achievement Award Acceptance Speech

Wharton University of Pennsylvania

Arthur D. Collins, Jr.
Managing Partner

The annual Joseph Wharton Awards Dinner was hosted by the Wharton Club of New York on October 11, 2018. The 2018 awards went to the following alumni of the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania: Award for Young Leadership to Kunal Bahl, ENG’06, W’06, Co-founder and CEO, Snapdeal; Award for Social Leadership to Anne Welsh McNulty, W’79, President, McNulty Foundation; Award for Leadership to Jonathan Gray, C’92, W’93, President & COO, Blackstone.

In addition, I received the 2018 Joseph Wharton Lifetime Achievement Award; following are the remarks I made upon being presented the award by the 2017 recipient, James S. Riepe, W’65, WG’67, HON’10, Retired Vice Chairman, T. Rowe Price Group, Inc.

Thank you, Jim, for those very kind words of introduction. My thanks also go out to the Wharton Club of New York for hosting this event and to all those involved in selecting me for this year’s Joseph Wharton Lifetime Achievement Award. In addition, I want to congratulate Kunal Bahl, Anne Welsh McNulty, and Jonathan Gray for the leadership awards they just received.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge my family for their tremendous support over the years, including my wife, Sophia, who is here with me tonight. Since no leader accomplishes very much on their own, I also must recognize the many colleagues and good friends who helped me at various stages of my career. Without them all, I wouldn’t be standing at this podium this evening.

When I asked the club’s president, Regina Jaslow, why the selection committee initially considered me for this award, she said it must have been because I’d displayed some modicum of good judgment over the years. That reminded me of a story about William Averell Harriman, the iconic businessman, politician, and diplomat who served as Governor of New York, U.S. Secretary of Commerce, Assistant Secretary of State, and Ambassador to the Soviet Union.

During a press conference at the end of his distinguished career, Harriman was asked to what he attributed his great success. He thought for a moment and answered, “Good judgment.” When another reporter asked how he developed good judgment, the one-word response that followed was, “Experience.” Then a cub reported in the back of the room raised his hand and shouted out, “But, Mr. Ambassador, how were you able to get all that experience?” Harriman smiled and immediately replied, “Bad judgment.”

Well, I’ll admit to having made my share of good and bad decisions over the years, but fortunately I learned a bit in the process. I’ve also reached an age and stage in life where I can speak my mind without fear of being fired from my job.

In that regard, I think filmmaker Francis Ford Coppola was right when he said that the things that get you fired when you’re young are the same things that get you a lifetime achievement award when you’re old. In a moment I’ll test that theory. However, before I do, I want to recognize a good friend of the Wharton School who passed away last February.

Jon Huntsman, Sr. was a highly respected business leader and a very generous philanthropist with whom I had the honor to serve on Wharton’s Board of Overseers for 15 years. During Wharton’s 125th anniversary, Jon and I were interviewed together at the Wharton Economic Summit. In that interview, Jon referenced his bestselling book, Winners Never Cheat, when he discussed some of the values that we all learned as children but may have forgotten along the way—and “honesty” was as the top of his list.

I must tell you that I am truly saddened when I see how frequently the truth is being bent or completely abandoned today by some or our most senior political leaders and their surrogates. Civility, simple apologies, and the words “I’m sorry” also have all but disappeared from political discourse.

If I had lied or distorted the truth when I was the chairman & CEO of Medtronic, or if I would have failed to admit and take responsibility for mistakes made on my watch, my board would have fired me on the spot, and they would have been more than justified. So, what’s changed?

Well, for one, too many respected industry leaders and honorable politicians (yes, there are honorable politicians) have lost the courage to speak out when they see facts being fabricated or injustices being condoned. In some circles, saying you’ve been wrong in the past and then apologizing is viewed as an admission of weakness rather than a sign of strength.

Have there been exceptions to this? Sure, as witnessed by the swift and vocal outrage expressed in the wake of the Charlottesville violence in 2017, or this year when thousands of migrant children were separated from their parents at U. S. immigration detention facilities on our southern boarders. Is that progress? Perhaps, but a workable immigration policy still is not in place, our country is becoming more divided day by day, and let’s wait and see if this week’s dire report from the International Panel on Climate Change moves any business or government leaders to speak out and take steps to curb global warming before it’s too late.

Listen, I’m not naive enough to think that politics aren’t “bare-knuckled,” or that CEO’s should sacrifice the best interests of their employees, customers, and shareholders for some lofty social ideal. However, I do believe there are certain common core values that should guide the actions of leaders in government, business, or any other walk of life—and “integrity” and “honesty” are at the foundation of those values.

With that said, it’s getting late, so let me conclude my remarks this evening with one last observation and a not-so-simple request.

My observation is that all of you here tonight are leaders and role models in your own right. When you speak, people will listen. When you act, people will watch and more than likely follow your lead. And when you are silent or fail to act, people also will take notice.

My not-so-simple request follows on the heels of that observation. I ask that if you, as a leaders and role models, witness an injustice or hear the truth being purposely distorted, you summon up the courage to speak out and take a stand. Will it sometimes be difficult or even risky for you to do so? Sure. But will it ultimately make a difference? Yes, more than some of you can imagine!

So, there you have it. And lest any of you think your words and actions may not count for much, remember the wise admonition of Irish statesman and philosopher Edmund Burke. He said, “Nobody made a greater mistake than he who did nothing because he could only do a little.”

Thank you.


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