The wisdom of nonprofit icon John Gardner

John W. Gardner (1912-2002) was Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare under President Lyndon Johnson. During World War II he served in the United States Marine Corps as a captain. In 1955 he became president of the Carnegie Corporation of New York and he was also the founder of two influential national U.S. organizations: Common Cause and Independent Sector.

Gardner’s term as Secretary of HEW was at the height of Johnson’s Great Society domestic agenda. During this tenure, the Department undertook both the huge task of launching Medicare, which brought quality health care to senior citizens, and oversaw significant expansions of the landmark Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 that redefined the federal role in education and targeted funding to poor students. Gardner also presided over the creation of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. Gardner resigned as head of HEW in 1968 because he could not support the war in Vietnam.
I am proud that a mentor and hero of mine, Pablo Eisenberg, was awarded the John Gardner Leadership Award–the highest honor bestowed to professionals in the our sector–in 1998.

Gardner is often quoted, with good reason, and here is a sampling from his prolific writing on leadership, excellence, education, and social and economic justice:

Excellence is doing ordinary things extraordinarily well.

For every talent that poverty has stimulated, it has blighted a hundred.  

History never looks like history when you are living through it.

If you have some respect for people as they are, you can be more effective in helping them to become better than they are.

It is hard to feel individually responsible with respect to the invisible processes of a huge and distant government.

Leaders come in many forms, with many styles and diverse qualities. There are quiet leaders and leaders one can hear in the next county. Some find strength in eloquence, some in judgment, some in courage.
Life is the art of drawing without an eraser.
Men of integrity, by their very existence, rekindle the belief that as a people we can live above the level of moral squalor. We need that belief; a cynical community is a corrupt community.

One of the reasons people stop learning is that they become less and less willing to risk failure.

Our problem is not to find better values but to be faithful to those we profess.

Political extremism involves two prime ingredients: an excessively simple diagnosis of the world’s ills, and a conviction that there are identifiable villains back of it all.

We are continually faced with a series of great opportunities brilliantly disguised as insoluble problems.   

The society which scorns excellence in plumbing as a humble activity and tolerates shoddiness in philosophy because it is an exalted activity will have neither good plumbing nor good philosophy: neither its pipes nor its theories will hold water.

It is not easy to be crafty and winsome at the same time, and few accomplish it after the age of six.  

The world loves talent but pays off on character.

Nothing can be more readily disproved than the old saw, You can’t keep a good man down. Most human societies have been beautifully organized to keep good men down.

The ultimate goal of the educational system is to shift to the individual the burden of pursuing his own education. This will not be a widely shared pursuit until we get over our odd conviction that education is what goes on in school buildings and nowhere else.

Every human being who lives within the society’s legal and ethical framework is entitled to respect regardless of his ability or wealth or status.

The idea for which this nation stands will not survive if the highest goal free man can set themselves is an amiable mediocrity. Excellence implies striving for the highest standards in every phase of life.

True happiness involves the full use of one’s power and talents.

Whoever I am, or whatever I am doing, some kind of excellence is within my reach.

Standards are contagious. They spread throughout an organization or a society. If an organization or a group cherishes high standards, the behavior of individuals who enter it is inevitably influenced. Similarly, if slovenliness infects a society, it is not easy for any member of that society to remain uninfluenced in his own behavior.

Creativity within an organization or society is to be found among men and women who are far removed from the fatalistic end of the scale. They have a powerful conviction that they can affect events in some measure. Leaders at every level must help their people keep that belief.

Much of human performance is conditioned by what the performer thinks is possible for him.

Men and women doing capably whatever job is theirs to do tone up the whole society.