John M. Isaacson

President, managing director, Isaacson, Miller

Company Info: Isaacson, Miller

Web site:

Address: 334 Boylston St., Suite 334, Boston, Mass. 02116

Phone: 617-262-6500


Advice: Young leaders charge down the pathway of their strength—that is their courage, deeply learned courage. Often young leaders confuse courage with natural talent. It is not the same thing. Courage can be learned. Eventually, work will impose an obstacle, often something outside of the comfort zone, something ordinarily evaded, something where the chosen solution is intuitively wrong, where intuition is the enemy. Everyone makes mistakes. The task of adult leadership is learning new fields of courage to fix your own errors, the large errors—the errors of people, strategy, and mission.

Qualities sought in emerging leaders: Over the years I have boiled down the general characteristics we are looking for to these three categories: hunger, speed, and weight. Hunger is fantasy about the self, dreams that a person is prepared to risk in the real world. Everybody has fantasies. Everybody has dreams, but only some people act them out. Hunger, as I use it, means that you're willing to take risks and you're willing to fail. It is the failure that teaches. We learn from our success, but we learn more when we fail. There is no safety net in the positions we are trying to fill, and we want someone who has been swinging on that trapeze for a long time. Speed means intellectual agility, the capacity to learn "foreign languages" quickly, whether those languages are finance, organizational development, or biotechnology. We look for learners not teachers, people who can listen and synthesize rather than lecture—people who ask a different question, who reflexively ask questions, almost avoiding answers. Finally, weight means the capacity to use formal and informal power wisely, accurately and expertly, for moral ends. A heavyweight gets things done, and does it in a way that serves the purposes of the organization and raises its ethical aspirations. Most heavyweights are older; they "gain weight" through experience, but I have met younger people with weight. They understand their power. They understand its value and they understand its use.

Sector specialization: University leadership, academic medicine

Job function specialization: Presidents, provosts, deans, related roles

Geographical Focus: U.S., occasional international

Companies I often recruit for: Univ. of Pennsylvania, New York Univ., Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Univ. of Connecticut, Univ. of Vermont

Favorite historical figure: Fernand Braudel, post-war French historian. He pointed us toward the vast influence of land, culture, demography and the slow evolution of capitalist economics as the precursors to the modern.

Education: Harvard Law School, JD, 1973; Univ. of Oxford, BA, 1970; Rhodes Scholar, 1968; Dartmouth College, BA, 1968

Languages: English, modest French

Employment history: Isaacson, Miller, President and Managing Director, 1982 to present; Pequod Associates, Director of Corporate Development, 1980-82; MA Executive Office of Human Services: Director, Office for Children, 1979-80; Assistant Commissioner, Youth Services, 1975-79; Assistant to the Secretary, 1973-75

Other interests: Special interest in the history of the modern

Professional/Membership Affiliations: American Council on Education

Experience in executive search consulting: 35 years

High Profile Placement: Secretary of the Smithsonian, completed in March, 2008

Other paths I might have pursued: Small business entrepreneur or academic

The global business trend that will most influence corporate performance in the future: The slow decrease in the Asian saving rate in the context of third world growth.

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