Earl Bakken’s death on Oct. 21 at his beloved Hawaii home sent reverberations back to Minnesota. He leaves behind a powerful legacy that will impact Minnesotans for generations to come.
Having known Earl for 35 years, I was always amazed by the clarity of his vision and his passion to see it realized. From age 8 to his death at 94, he focused on his “high tech, high touch” vision for medicine.
Fascinated by Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein,” he used electricity inside the body to enable healing that allowed people to live a full life. His invention of the world’s first wearable, battery-powered pacemaker in 1957 launched the entire medical-technology industry, which has grown to $400 billion worldwide.
Earl was always two decades ahead of his time, causing many people to doubt his ideas, but he never wavered. In the early 1960s he crafted his “100-year plan for Medtronic,” which showed all the areas of the human body that electrical implants could enable healing from chronic disease. Sixty years later with $30 billion in annual revenue, Medtronic remains focused on Earl’s original vision.
Earl was a strong believer in healing the whole person — mind, body and spirit. In the 1970s he had an artist render “the rising man” coming off the operating table and walking away to full life. He used to tell us, “Our job is not to implant more pacemakers but to restore people to full life and health. Until that person is fully restored, our job isn’t done.”
In 1960, he wrote the now-famous Medtronic Mission, not one word of which has been altered 58 years later. The mission has guided Medtronic and inspired its employees, its customers, its investors and its communities throughout these years. Its impact on the business world is even more powerful today as the business world shifts from maximizing shareholder returns to mission-driven companies that have a positive impact on society while creating wealth for their employees, customers and shareholders.
Because he felt so strongly about the importance of his vision and associated initiatives, Earl was conscious of leaving a legacy that would carry on long after his death. He envisioned that legacy through the Medtronic Mission and its leaders who would carry it out, Medtronic traditions like the Mission and Medallion Ceremony (known as M&M), and the holiday party. He also created living legacies through the Bakken Museum of science, electricity and medical technology; the Pavek Museum of vintage radio and television equipment; and the North Hawaii Community Hospital he founded in 1995 to create holistic health care combining Eastern and Western medicine.
I will never forget my first discussion with Earl about joining Medtronic in 1989. We met for dinner in a small hotel in Phoenix. In three hours he never asked me about my qualifications; rather he spent the evening sharing the Medtronic Mission and values, and assessing whether I was prepared to buy into them. In our first meeting after joining the company that May, he asked me to attend his M&M ceremony. I’ll always remember his words when he gave me my medallion, “Bill, put this on your desk as a reminder of why we work here, especially when you get discouraged or frustrated. Remember you are here to restore people to full life and health, not just to make money for yourself or the company.”
After his retirement in 1994, Earl moved to his new home in Hawaii but often returned to Minnesota to meet with company leaders and employees and to give M&M ceremonies. Until three years ago, he came back every year to the holiday party to recognize the patients who were sharing their moving stories of how new Medtronic products transformed their lives.
Earl’s time with each new CEO has paid off. Omar Ishrak, who became CEO in 2011, is the strongest advocate for the mission I have ever heard. When the company was acquiring Covidien for nearly $50 billion, he insisted that first the deal had to conform to every one of the mission’s six key points. This paid off as 40,000 new employees were successfully integrated into the Medtronic culture.
Earl Bakken’s life is a testimony to the words of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s “Psalm of Life”:
Lives of great men all remind us
We can make our lives sublime,
And, departing, leave behind us
Footprints on the sands of time.
Earl Bakken’s greatest legacy will be in his giant footprints that will enable tens of millions of people to heal from chronic disease. It will be a long time before Minnesota sees another leader like him.
Bill George, the former chairman and CEO of Medtronic, is senior fellow at Harvard Business School.