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Seizing the Moment of Transformation

In his latest book, From Silk to Silicon, Jeffrey Garten reveals that while globalization is a recent term, the idea itself is not new.

“We think the times we live in have elements no one ever confronted before,” says Mr. Garten, citing the example of Cyrus Field. Field’s creation of the transatlantic telegraph escalated an instantaneous flow of information that bears comparison “to the creation of the internet.”

For Mr. Garten, globalization means fewer borders. “It means the movement of people, goods and services, money and most importantly, ideas around the world such that we are increasingly connected as individuals and societies,” he explains.

A historic lens

While many have written about globalization in the last few decades, no one had examined this trend from the perspective of those who helped create it. This is why Mr. Garten began his study with the story of Genghis Khan. “He made the globe smaller: He put East and West under one roof, and though information traveled more slowly then, people began to realize what was going on across the world.”

Mr. Garten, who has held senior positions in the Nixon, Ford, Carter and Clinton administrations and was a managing director of Lehman Brothers and the Blackstone Group, identified 10 individuals who, like Khan and Field, “did something so spectacular that they changed their world—and what they did continues to this day.”

In the course of his exploration, he realized these movers and shakers shared several qualities that enabled them to effect lasting change.

Hedgehogs

Citing the ancient Greek poet Archilochus, Mr. Garten says the leaders profiled in his book were hedgehogs: “Unlike the fox who knows many things, the hedgehog knows one big thing. Everyone in my book was a hedgehog, driven to pursue one big idea.”

This quality saw them through long periods of trial and error, “overwhelming any sense of despair. Thus, when Cyrus Field’s fourth attempt to lay the transatlantic cable failed, he immediately told the crew, ‘This thing is to be done,’ and commenced planning the next mission.”

Capitalizing on ideas already in motion

The leaders Mr. Garten studied “swam with the stream rather than against it.” This might be a surprising finding, and in this sense, they do not align with the “great man” theory of history. Rather, each of them picked their moment during a time of revolution and change, when things were in flux.

For example, Prince Henry transformed 15th-century Portugal into an empire built on oceanic discovery, especially along the western coast of Africa. “He came to the fore at a time when the spirit of exploration was growing, and the European hunger to find a sea route to Asia was becoming an obsession,” says Mr. Garten.

While the era of exploration would have occurred without Prince Henry, notes Mr. Garten, “it was Henry who seized the moment.”

 

“These leaders set a direction; they were great executors; and they left nothing to chance.”

 

Accidental globalists

To Mr. Garten, the leaders in his book were not visionaries. On the contrary, he observes, “they saw a problem that they wanted to solve, and they pursued it pragmatically. The fact that they ended up where they did was an accident that they never envisioned.”

Rather than setting out to change the broader world, they focused on the smaller personal one they could see and understand. “Accelerating the interconnectedness of nations was never their motivation,” says Mr. Garten, who notes Genghis Khan was driven by “power, greed and lust for revenge,” while Mayer Amschel Rothschild’s ambition was to become rich when he began managing the finances of a wealthy German prince.

Not acting alone

Mr. Garten’s subjects all possessed a capacity to oversee complex projects, which they did while getting “deep in the nitty gritty.” Semi-conductor pioneer Andrew Grove’s “most outstanding trait was managing every aspect of high-technology manufacturing down to data on how quickly the janitors could clean restrooms.”

While they typically focused on details, none of these 10 leaders acted alone. In fact, each was careful to enlist talented people. For example, John D. Rockefeller surrounded himself with “very strong people with enormous experience,” in both his business and later, when he pioneered global philanthropy.

Both sides of the ledger

In identifying these common traits, Mr. Garten found that his subjects were certainly not perfect, and at times could display competitiveness, duplicity, callousness and even brutality. And while they helped usher in far-reaching change, their accomplishments gave rise to enduring challenges.

For example, Prince Henry helped open the Age of Exploration, but “also found slaves in Africa and you could attribute the growth of the global slave trade to him,” says Mr. Garten. “So here you have two different things that are really on both sides of the ledger.”

A view forward

The world, acknowledges Mr. Garten, has become more complex and poses the question of whether it is too complex for the same kind of leader to emerge. His answer is an unequivocal “no.”

“For better or worse, these leaders dominated the group that they were in charge of; they set a direction; they were great executors; and they left nothing to chance. And I would say that’s going to characterize the leaders of the future,” adds Mr. Garten.

What will be different is that there will be many more women, and more will come from undeveloped nations. And, from the foundation built by the leaders he profiled, “the current and future hedgehogs will have much more powerful tools to shape globalization than past generations. Everything is likely to be done on a much grander scale in the future by many more people, bringing much greater knowledge. It may just be that the best is yet to come.”

Jeffrey E. Garten’s From Silk to Silicon was a selection of the 2016 J.P. Morgan Reading List. To learn more about our Reading List, we invite you to contact us, and a J.P. Morgan representative will be in touch with you.

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