HBR: Daniel Vasella's inspiring story
From the Harvard Business Review article (Feb 2007) by Bill George and others. Bill George is a Prof at Harvard, and was the CEO of Medtronics. He has written bestsellers on leadership, including his latest "True North". You can listen to Bill George being interviewed my Michael Krasny on KQED Forum here.
excerpt from his HBR article
[..]Novartis chairman and CEO Daniel Vasella,whose life story was one of the most difficult of all the people we interviewed. He emerged from extreme challenges in his youth to reach the pinnacle of the global pharmaceutical industry, a trajectory that illustrates the trials many leaders have to go through on their journeys to authentic leadership.
Vasella was born in 1953 to a modest family in Fribourg, Switzerland. His early years were filled with medicalproblems that stoked his passion to become a physician. His first recollections were of a hospital where he was admitted at age four when he suffered from food poisoning. Falling ill with asthma at age five, he was sent alone to the mountains of eastern Switzerland for two summers.He found the four-month separations from his parents especially difficult because his caretaker had an alcohol problem and was unresponsive to his needs.
At age eight, Vasella had tuberculosis, followed by meningitis, and was sent to a sanatorium for a year. Lonely and homesick, he suffered a great deal that year, as his parents rarely visited him. He still remembers the pain and fear when the nurses held him down during the lumbar punctures so that he would not move. One day, a new physician arrived and took time to explain each step of the procedure. Vasella asked the doctor if he could hold a nurse’s hand rather than being held down. “The amazing thing is that this time the procedure didn’t hurt,” Vasella recalls“Afterward, the doctor asked me, ‘How was that?’ I reached up and gave him a big hug.
These human gestures of forgiveness, caring, and compassion made a deep impression on me and on the kind of person I wanted to become.”
Throughout his early years, Vasella’s life continued to be unsettled.When he was ten, his 18-year-old sister passed away after suffering from cancer for two years. Three years later, his father died in surgery. To support the family, his mother went to work in a distant town and came home only once every three weeks. Left to himself, he and his friends held beer parties and got into frequent fights. This lasted for three years until he met his first girlfriend, whose affection changed his life.
At 20, Vasella entered medical school, later graduating with honors. During medical school, he sought out psychotherapy so he could come to terms with his early experiences and not feel like a victim. Through analysis, he reframed his life story and realized that he wanted to help a wider range of people than he could as an individual practitioner. Upon completion of his residency, he applied to become chief physician at the University of Zurich; however, the search committee considered him too young for the position. Disappointed but not surprised, Vasella decided to use his abilities to increase his impact on medicine. At that time,he had a growing fascination with finance and business.He talked with the head of the pharmaceutical division of Sandoz, who offered him the opportunity to join the company’s U.S. affiliate. In his five years in the United States, Vasella flourished in the stimulating environment, first as a sales representative and later as a product manager,and advanced rapidly through the Sandoz marketing organization.
When Sandoz merged with Ciba-Geigy in 1996, Vasella was named CEO of the combined companies,now called Novartis, despite his young age and limited experience. Once in the CEO’s role, Vasella blossomed as a leader. He envisioned the opportunity to build a great global health care company that could help people through lifesaving new drugs, such as Gleevec, which has proved to be highly effective for patients with chronic myeloid leukemia. Drawing on the physician role models of his youth, he built an entirely new Novartis culture centered on compassion, competence, and competition. These moves established Novartis as a giant in the industry and Vasella as a compassionate leader.
Vasella’s experience is just one of dozens provided by authentic leaders who traced their inspiration directly from their life stories. Asked what empowered them to lead, these leaders consistently replied that they found their strength through transformative experiences. Those experiences enabled them to understand the deeper purpose of their leadership.