Greatest Generation is passing local leadership torch

  • Article by: BILL GEORGE
  • Updated: April 14, 2012 - 4:10 PM

Today's leaders have a responsibility to cultivate tomorrow's.

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In this Aug. 25, 2011, photo, John Cowles Jr. and Sage Cowles pose for a photo at the Minnesota Shubert Center in Minneapolis. Cowles, a former publisher and chairman of the Star Tribune newspapers and a philanthropist who helped shape the cultural community of the Twin Cities by pushing for facilities like the Guthrie Theater and the Metrodome, has died. He was 82. (AP Photo/The Star Tribune, Tom Wallace) MANDATORY CREDIT; ST. PAUL PIONEER PRESS OUT; MAGS OUT; TWIN CITIES TV OUT

Photo: Tom Wallace, Associated Press - Ap

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In recent weeks three of the Twin Cities' greatest business and civic leaders -- all part of Tom Brokaw's "Greatest Generation" -- have passed from the scene. This trio includes Edson Spencer, who built Honeywell into a great global corporation; John Cowles, leader of Cowles Media and the Star Tribune, and John Morrison, who led Norwest Corp. (now Wells Fargo) into the modern banking era. Their deaths are solemn reminders that great leaders need to be succeeded by new generations of leaders equally committed to building the Twin Cities.

These corporate leaders believed not only in building their companies but recognized a vibrant, healthy Twin Cities community was essential for creating vital organizations.

Although their pursuits were different, their beliefs were similar:

Military service -- They believed in serving their country. Spencer served in the U.S. Navy during World War II, while Morrison left Yale in his junior year to fly C-46s from Burma to China in the Army Air Corps. Cowles was too young for WWII, but served the U.S. Army during the Korean War.

Long-term view -- They built great businesses focused on the long-term. A Rhodes Scholar at Oxford, Spencer transformed Honeywell from a domestic company that exported into a global powerhouse in control systems and computers. From 1959-1964 he led Honeywell Asia, including Yamatake-Honeywell, its Japanese joint venture. Returning to Minnesota, he was Honeywell's chairman and CEO from 1973-1987. Morrison spent 28 years with Honeywell, rising to chief financial officer. After retiring from Honeywell, he restored a foundering Northwestern Bank and later Norwest Bancorporation, paving the way for today's modern Wells Fargo. Cowles expanded his family's newspaper business from the Star Tribune and Des Moines Register into magazines and other media outlets. All three focused on their future visions, moving their companies into new fields ahead of emerging trends.

Quality of life -- They created lasting community institutions enhancing our quality of life. Cowles helped create the Guthrie Theater in 1963, and 40 years later helped lead its revival at its stunning Mississippi River home. In the 1970s he was a prime mover behind the Metrodome to ensure top professional sports teams in the Twin Cities. Spencer was a leading force among business leaders who created the Minnesota Business Partnership and Center for Corporate Responsibility, and he initiated Honeywell's housing project in south Minneapolis. He chaired the boards of the Ford Foundation, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Carleton College and Mayo Clinic. Morrison set the standard for local banks as prime movers in community initiatives and served as a director of General Mills, Northwestern National Life and Macalester College.

Role models -- They served as role models and mentors to the next generation of leaders. Personally, all three reached out to get me engaged in the business and civic communities, as they did other emerging leaders. While I was president of rapidly growing Litton Microwave, Spencer came to visit and later asked me to join Honeywell, offering me the opportunity to be president of Honeywell Europe. Ed was an inspiring and thoughtful boss, mentor and a towering global business leader.

In 1978 Morrison asked me to serve on Northwestern Bank's board of directors, where I learned the vital role local banks play in community-building, a tradition continued by today's local banking leaders. Joining the Guthrie board in the mid-1970s, I was inspired by John Cowles's abiding commitment to the vision of building the nation's leading classical theater. He remained an active and thoughtful member of the Guthrie board until the end of his days.

In knowing these leaders along with contemporaries Kenneth and Bruce Dayton, Winston Wallin and Bobby Piper, I am moved by their unwavering commitment to building this community and their reaching out to younger leaders in order to ensure its future vitality. The torch has now been passed to leaders like U.S. Bancorp's Richard Davis, General Mills' Ken Powell, Cargill's Greg Page, Ecolab's Doug Baker, and Target's Gregg Steinhafel along with foreign-born leaders Inge Thulin of 3M, Medtronic's Omar Ishrak and Carlson's Hubert Joly.

They are focusing on creating jobs, improving workforce education, and enabling the arts and professional sports to flourish while building sophisticated global businesses. Just as the Greatest Generation did, it is equally important that they reach out to emerging leaders in their 20s and 30s who will become the business and community leaders of the future.

  • ABOUT THE AUTHOR

    Bill George is professor of management practice at Harvard Business School and former CEO of Medtronic Inc. His e-mail is Bill@BPGeorge.com

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