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Standard of Excellence: How John W. Gardner Inspires New Generation of Leaders

November 16, 2012
By staff at the John W. Gardner Center for Youth and Their Communities
John W. Gardner
John W. Gardner
On the centennial of the birth of one of the giants of public service, philanthropy and education, a conference at Stanford discusses his legacy.

John W. Gardner was remembered, his words and his legacy were celebrated, and over 300 friends and admirers of all ages were reminded why Gardner remains their “standard of excellence” at a celebration on Oct. 6 marking the 100th anniversary of his birth. 

Speaking at the time of Gardner’s death in 2002, Stanford University President John Hennessy said: “John Gardner stands as an exemplar of the power of one individual to have a positive impact on society. His life should remind all of us that education and public service can work together as a powerful force to improve the world in which we live. At Stanford, we are exceedingly fortunate and proud to have called him our colleague — his name and good works will continue to inspire students, staff and faculty for years to come."

Gardner’s long and influential career spanned the fields of government, philanthropy, education, and advocacy. He served as president of the Carnegie Corporation; in President Lyndon B. Johnson’s cabinet as Secretary of Health, Education and Welfare; and as chair of the National Urban Coalition. He founded Common Cause and Independent Sector. His views and activism shaped many groundbreaking endeavors including the White House Fellows Program, the public television network, Medicare and Experience Corps. He was a Stanford alumnus, professor and trustee. In September 2000, Gardner lent his name and support to the John W. Gardner Center for Youth and Their Communities, a center at the Stanford School of Education that incorporates his beliefs and values.

Hosted at Stanford by the John W. Gardner Center for Youth and Their Communities, the School of Education, the Graduate School of Business, and the Haas Center for Public Service, the centennial celebration featured five leaders of organizations deeply influenced by Gardner in conversation with Robert Joss, Philip H. Knight professor and dean, emeritus, of the GSB. Panelists included Diana Aviv, president and CEO, Independent Sector; Robert Edgar, president and CEO, Common Cause; Marc Freedman, founder and CEO, Encore.org; JGC founding director Milbrey McLaughlin; and Senator Tim Wirth, president of the United Nations Foundation. Donna Michelle Anderson, ’86, delivered welcome remarks on behalf of the John Gardner Fellows Association.

Milbrey McLaughlin recalled that Gardner advised her to think about the broad investment when it comes to youth.  McLaughlin said, “He was very committed to youth and to young people and saw them as really the resource for community-building, but he said you’ve got to go beyond those institutional boundaries. It’s not about schools, and it’s not about health, and it’s not about silos that have youth moving through them — the role of the Gardner Center is to look across those institutional boundaries.”

A prolific writer, Gardner is remembered for his many essays, speeches and books including Excellence, On Leadership, and Self Renewal.  A decade after his passing, Gardner’s words continue to influence and inspire. Joss was often reminded by Gardner that “leaders find words,” and marveled at Gardner’s incredible gift for finding the words that would really move us. Wirth talked about the power of Gardner’s use of “renewal” as a word that can knit people together and not polarize them. In preparing for her first address in 2003 as CEO of Independent Sector, Aviv, who never met Gardner, read everything he had written and was struck by “the degree to which everything he said continued to be relevant and inspiring and enabled me to think about how I was going to do the work going forward,” she told the attendees.

Anderson brought a distinctly 21st century perspective. “I still, to this day, carry with me dog-eared copies of his books, of his essays,” she said. “They inform me in my career now, and I think what exceptional reach he could have had today, in the era of Wikipedia and Google.” Anderson imagined Gardner tweeting about leadership.

Freedman, who with Gardner spearheaded the creation of Experience Corps, remembers peppering Gardner with questions about his past accomplishments, but Gardner “constantly tried to change the subject because he was really more interested in the future than he was in the past,” he said. “It dawned on me over time that he was more interested in a future that he wouldn’t even see.  He had left this great legacy, but he was more interested in living a legacy than just leaving one.”

In an essay that appeared in the centennial event program, Jacqueline Novogratz, founder and CEO of Acumen Fund, wrote: “He had an enormous impact on my life… encouraging me to focus on being interested rather than interesting, and to commit to something bigger than myself. I know that I’m among hundreds, if not thousands, of people who feel that way and together we form an army working toward similar ends. There can be no greater legacy than that.”

To view the panel of national leaders who discussed Gardner's legacy on Oct. 6, watch this video: