Greatness is a trick of fate; part timing, discipline, and passion. No one has any idea which comes first. --Jeff Cunningham

Posted by professor Jeff Cunningham in series

(This is an edited version of a book review on JP Morgan's Reading List, by Caryl M. Stern, President and Chief Executive Officer U.S. Fund for UNICEF)

In his latest book, From Silk to Silicon, Dr. Jeffrey Garten reveals that while globalization is a recent term, the idea is not new, as he cited the example of Cyrus Field, creator of the transatlantic telegraph. The impact of that instrument on the instantaneous flow of global information was tantamount “to the creation of the internet.” 

It's a small, small world

While many have written about globalization, no one examined this trend from the perspective of those who helped create it. This is why Mr. Garten began his study with the story of Genghis Khan. “He made the globe smaller: He put East and West under one roof, and though information traveled more slowly then, people began to realize what was going on across the world.”

Garten, former dean of the Yale School of Management, and who has held senior positions in the Nixon, Ford, Carter and Clinton administrations and was a managing director of Lehman Brothers and the Blackstone Group, identified 10 individuals who, like Khan and Field, “did something so spectacular that they changed their world—and what they did continues to this day.” 

In the course of his exploration, he realized these movers and shakers shared several qualities that enabled them to effect lasting change.

1) They were hedgehogs. Citing the ancient Greek poet Archilochus, Mr. Garten says the leaders profiled in his book were hedgehogs: “Unlike the fox who knows many things, the hedgehog knows one big thing. Everyone in my book was a hedgehog, driven to pursue one big idea.” (for those interested, the hedgehog concept is taken from Isaiah Berlin, the famed historian of ideas).

This quality saw them through long periods of trial and error, “overwhelming any sense of despair. Thus, when Cyrus Field’s fourth attempt to lay the transatlantic cable failed, he immediately told the crew, ‘This thing is to be done,’ and commenced planning the next mission.”

2) They capitalized on ideas already in motion. The leaders Mr. Garten studied “swam with the stream rather than against it.” This might be a surprising finding, and in this sense, they do not align with the “great man” theory of history. Rather, each of them picked their moment during a time of revolution and change, when things were in flux. 

For example, Prince Henry transformed 15th-century Portugal into an empire built on the oceanic discovery, especially along the western coast of Africa. “He came to the fore at a time when the spirit of exploration was growing, and the European hunger to find a sea route to Asia was becoming an obsession,” says Mr. Garten. 

While the era of exploration would have occurred without Prince Henry, notes Mr. Garten, “it was Henry who seized the moment.”

3) They were accidental globalists. To Mr. Garten, the leaders in his book were not visionaries. On the contrary, he observes, “they saw a problem that they wanted to solve, and they pursued it pragmatically. The fact that they ended up where they did was an accident that they never envisioned.”

Rather than setting out to change the broader world, they focused on the smaller personal one they could see and understand. “Accelerating the interconnectedness of nations was never their motivation,” says Mr. Garten, who notes Genghis Khan was driven by “power, greed, and lust for revenge,” while Mayer Amschel Rothschild’s ambition was to become rich when he began managing the finances of a wealthy German prince.

4) They managed details and didn’t act alone. Mr. Garten’s subjects all possessed a capacity to oversee complex projects, which they did while getting “deep in the nitty gritty.” Semi-conductor pioneer Andrew Grove’s “most outstanding trait was managing every aspect of high-technology manufacturing down to data on how quickly the janitors could clean restrooms.” 

While they typically focused on details, none of these 10 leaders acted alone. In fact, each was careful to enlist talented people. For example, John D. Rockefeller surrounded himself with “very strong people with enormous experience,” in both his business and later, when he pioneered global philanthropy.

Both sides of the ledger

In identifying these common traits, Mr. Garten found that his subjects were certainly not perfect, and at times could display competitiveness, duplicity, callousness and even brutality. And while they helped usher in far-reaching change, their accomplishments gave rise to enduring challenges. 

For example, Prince Henry helped open the Age of Exploration, but “also found slaves in Africa and you could attribute the growth of the global slave trade to him,” says Mr. Garten. “So here you have two different things that are really on both sides of the ledger.”

A view forward

The world, acknowledges Mr. Garten, has become more complex and poses the question of whether it is too complex for the same kind of leader to emerge. His answer is an unequivocal “no.” 

“For better or worse, these leaders dominated the group that they were in charge of; they set a direction; they were great executors, and they left nothing to chance. And I would say that’s going to characterize the leaders of the future,” added Mr. Garten. 

About Jeff Cunningham

Professor Cunningham is a global leadership advocate, which he calls the most valuable natural resource in the world.

He is a Professor at ASU’s Thunderbird School of Global Management.

Previously, he was publisher of Forbes Magazine; founder of (NACD) Directorship Magazine; CEO of Zip2 (founded by Elon Musk), CMGI’s, and Michael Milken’s CareerTrack; venture capital partner with Schroders, and advisor, Highland Capital.

He writes, published on LinkedIn and Medium, and interviews mega moguls for his YouTube series, IconicVoices.TV.

He has also served as a board director and an advisor to chief executives of 10 public companies: Schindler, Countrywide, Data General and Genuity and has served as chairman of Bankrate, EXLservice, Sapient, and vice chair of Premiere Global.