America's Best Leaders: Q&A with J. Craig Venter, president of J. Craig Venter Institute
Who is the leader past or present who has most inspired you?
Certainly, Bill Clinton, for a number of reasons. For his raw intellect and charisma, but also for the way he coped with constantly being attacked. He had a way of responding to the most raw, nasty attack that was gracious and dismissive at the same. Another person I would put up there is Nelson Mandela. I don't think I could have survived those years in prison like he did. You don't know if you could until it happens, but I don't want to find out. And to come out of that ordeal and go on to inspire others with his life, that's phenomenal leadership. He's one of the people in my life I'm really excited to have met. Recently I've come to admire the first President Bush, who showed remarkable leadership in his handling of Iraq and not getting us involved there. In retrospect, it was one of his wisest decisions.
Warren Bennis, the noted leadership scholar and the chairman of the Center for Public Leadership at Harvard, says, "Everybody agrees that there is less leadership today than there used to be." Do you agree? Why or why not?
I think it's harder to be a great leader today, in part just because of the general skepticism people have with anybody at that level. The immediate assumption is that a person in power has ulterior motives, no matter what they're doing. But perhaps it's a healthy skepticism. Our government system now seems to be comprised of warring parties, not leaders who are seeking the best long-term interests of the country. In politics, people can't see beyond the next election, and on Wall Street, they can't see beyond the next financial quarter. To make wise decisions, you need a planning horizon beyond the next election or next quarter.
Leaders are rarely, if ever, exceptional in every way. And they need not be. But the great leaders know that their deficiencies can't be ignored. What are yours? And how do you address them.
The list is way too long for this article! We're all human. I haven't met anybody who I thought should be cloned because they were a perfect human, and I doubt that they exist. I have different flaws depending on the circumstance. Part of working outside the box, outside the establishment, is that to some extent you have to be willing to fight, to take on anything. If I weren't competitive, at times combative, I wouldn't have accomplished anything. But at times my competitiveness and combativeness can be my own worst enemy. In the depths of the competition, I start wanting to truly defeat who I'm competing with, rather than keeping focused on what needs to be accomplished. Also, the fact that attacks bother me, bothers me.
Great leaders take risks; therefore, they make mistakes. Tell us about one of yours (the bigger, the better!) and how, as any great leader would, you used it as an opportunity to improve.