John Donahoe: Be the Best Leader You Can Be

eBay Inc. Staff


This column was originally published on LinkedIn

Leadership is a topic I have spent much of my life exploring, trying to be the best leader I can be… while also trying to be the best person I can be. And for me, the challenges of being a good leader and leading a full life are deeply intertwined.

This past Saturday, I had the honor of addressing Stanford’s Graduate Business School Class of 2013. As a 1986 graduate of the GSB, it was a real privilege to share four leadership principles I’ve learned over the past 25 years. These timeless principles have helped me navigate my work and my life. I now want to share these principles with you.

Principle No. 1: Link your work with a sense of purpose.

It doesn’t matter what industry you choose, what company you join, or what your particular role may be. What does matter is connecting your day-to-day energies to something that is deeply meaningful to you.

That’s what brought me to eBay. At first, I didn’t think eBay was right for me. But then I met eBay’s founder, Pierre Omidyar. And I asked Pierre how he defined success for eBay. He didn’t talk about growth rates, revenues or stock price. Pierre said: “John, it’s not about the numbers; it’s about how much impact we can have in people’s lives around the world.” I knew then that I had found my next opportunity to deeply link my work with a sense of purpose.

Discover what really motivates and inspires you, and make sure you can link this to your work. This will make you a more authentic and effective leader, and it will give you the perseverance required to succeed over time.

Principle No. 2: Never stop learning.

No one will care about your career as much as you do. And only you can be responsible for your learning. It can’t be delegated. One common trait I have observed in the most successful leaders is that they take their own growth and development very seriously. Great leaders are never too proud to learn.

When I was a student, I believed my bosses would impart everything I needed to know to be successful. In the workforce, I quickly learned that the perfect Yoda-like mentor didn’t exist and no one person had all the wisdom I was searching for.

Instead of learning a lot from one person, I now learn a little from a lot of people. Every interaction teaches me something and in this way, everyone is my teacher.

And here’s a secret: The more successful you are, the more you need to learn and grow. Your commitment to learning has to be continuous and unrelenting.

Principle No. 3: The most valuable learning often comes during difficult times.

Tough times teach character — and character is the most important quality a leader can have.

Let me share a personal example from my own career: In the early 1990s, Bain nearly went bankrupt. The whole world had written us off, our outlook was grim, and there was a brief time where we couldn’t even make payroll.

Yet this turned out to be a defining moment in the firm’s history – and in my career. A few leaders came together to make a shared commitment to overcome adversity and build a great company. This was a true character-building moment, both for the organization and for me as a young leader. Over the past seven years, I have had a similar experience leading the turnaround at eBay.

In difficult periods, you really get a sense of who you are, what you’re made of, and what’s really important to you. It is during the difficult periods that you learn the importance of teamwork and commitment, as well as how to persevere and have faith.

Principle No. 4: Build your full life, not just your work life.

Many of you are concerned about work-life balance, and how your employers are going to address it. I would turn the question back to you: How will you create your own balance?

My wife and I have tried to balance dual careers for the past 30 years. We are partners and true equals. There have been periods where I have followed her career, and times where she has sacrificed for mine. At the same time we worked very hard at building a healthy family life, and today we are blessed with four wonderful children. This has meant many trade-offs and lots of second-guessing.

There has been no single moment where we achieved the perfect work-life balance – and that’s okay. We have realized that pursuing a full life and pursuing balance is a journey and not a destination. The fact that we are willing to keep at it is what counts.

I will also tell you that some of my most valuable leadership training has come from my experience being a husband, a father and a friend. The skills you learn in your personal life – listening, empathy, and humility — are invaluable for success at work.

So embrace the challenge of building your full life, not just your work. Real life gives you the stuff to be a real leader.

In summary, I hope these four timeless principles give you some guideposts to staying true to who you are. I want to conclude by sharing some words from John Gardner, who has written extensively on the topic of personal renewal. Over the past 20 years, I have kept a laminated copy of this quote in my wallet and I use it as a source of inspiration:

Meaning is not something that you stumble across, like the answer to a riddle or the prize in a treasure hunt. Meaning is something you build into your life. You build it out of your own past, out of your affections and loyalties, out of the experience of humankind as it is passed on to you, out of your own talent and understanding, out of the things you believe in, out of the things and people you love, out of the values for which you are willing to sacrifice something. The ingredients are all there. You are the only one who can put them together into that unique pattern that will be your life. Let it be a life that has dignity and meaning for you.

(Photo credit: Stanford GSB)