When one sits in an office every day, as I do, under the photo of a great, visionary leader such as Andrew Carnegie, it is impossible not to wonder how to do justice to that individual. It requires a great deal of discipline, drive, and action to live up to Mr. Carnegie’s legacy, because when you are in the presence of Andrew Carnegie, you are in the presence of history.
The challenges are constant but the opportunities are many, because his legacy is not a burden—it is a constant inspiration that one is always aspiring to realize. After all, having been entrusted with carrying out the mission that this extraordinary man gave us, which is nothing less than “the advancement and diffusion of knowledge and understanding,” one has to ponder how to reconceptualize that historical mission to meet contemporary needs.
Among the most important issues a current-day philanthropic leader has to grapple with is how to become the instrument of others, including not only the founder of one’s institution but also colleagues with whom one collaborates in order to advance a shared agenda. This requires belief in the institutional mission and genuine passion for that mission, but also transparency in all activities related to the mission along with continuing critical analysis of results. It requires that one put ego aside while also understanding that doing so does not diminish the quality of one’s leadership. Indeed, it holds out the promise of enhancing that leadership while at the helm of an institution that must constantly evolve as times change.
Andrew Carnegie, in particular, understood that the Corporation would have to adjust its work to meet new challenges. Hence, in the letter of gift with which he endowed our foundation with the bulk of his fortune, Mr. Carnegie wrote that since “conditions upon the [earth] inevitably change,” he wished his trustees to use their judgment to change policies or causes in whatever way would best advance the welfare of society.
What I have outlined above are ideals that are not easy to live up to, but one must certainly try. It helps to know the history of the foundation one leads and both its successes and failures. Having the self-confidence to analyze failures is critically important, because much can be learned about how to take the right path from going down the wrong one from time to time. Effective leadership also requires an understanding that leaders can always hire managers—as Andrew Carnegie did—but managers normally do not hire leaders. Always bearing this context in mind provides continuity of mission. It also strengthens what Andrew Carnegie saw as a great chain of humanity that has the responsibility to pass on knowledge and wisdom from one generation to another.
As John Gardner, another remarkable man—and incidentally, a former president of Carnegie Corporation—once said, when trying to solve the problems confronting our nation, its people, and even of men and women around the world, it is important to be both a critical lover and a loving critic. The only crime is indifference. The opposite of indifference is engaged leadership. For the field of philanthropy, leadership that is rooted in humility but has the confidence to envision a better future for all is the most important mission any individual can aspire to.
Vartan Gregorian is president of the Carnegie Corporation of New York and the recipient of the 2013 Distinguished Service Award from the Council on Foundations.