An Interview With Terry
Pearce – Author of Leading Out Loud

Career Planning, Leadership Stories


An Interview With Terry Pearce – Former Diplomatic Communication Advisor, Executive Consultant and Author of Leading Out Loud

The whole concept of leadership and the ability of great leaders to inspire through thoughtful communication has been the focus of much of Terry Pearce’s life.  A former advisor of global diplomatic initiatives during the Cold War, Terry has produced multiple editions of Leading Out Loud: A Guide For Engaging Others in Creating The Future, a classic of leadership communication. His second book was written with David Pottruck, former CEO of The Charles Schwab Corporation. Clicks and Mortar….Passion-Driven Growth in an Internet-Driven World was on the best-seller lists of the New York Times, Business Week Magazine and The Wall Street Journal. Terry was an Adjunct Professor at The Haas Graduate School of Business, University of California, Berkeley, (retired 2008) and has served as a visiting faculty member at The London Business School for the MBA program and the Sloan Fellowship Programme.  The Parnassus Group caught up with Terry recently to discuss healthcare leadership and how great leaders can animate their own vision for their organizations.

Terry, what emotions come to mind as you to hear people talk about your writing and the value of developing a platform for authentic leadership communication? 

Smiling, he said, “Most people who want to criticize me won’t talk to me so I only hear the good stuff, and that feedback brings tremendous gratitude, humility and disbelief. Given my own background it is a pretty unlikely story.  I am immensely grateful to have the opportunity to contribute, and to be able to do this kind of work almost my whole life.”

When you started writing this third edition of the book and you had the opportunity to walk back through the lives of some people you featured in the earlier edition, what was the predominate observation that you made about how their stories had developed over time?  What do you sense it did it do for them personally to have an inspirational impact in their domain?

“After the publication of the second edition, there were a number of consultants around the world who had put together various groups interested in exploring the principles more fully. From time to time I would be invited to participate in phone conversation—to interact with a group of consultants, often from several countries, who were using the material. Basically they asked questions about application, various parts of the book or the guide.  What I noticed was that invariably someone would ask, “Whatever happened to so and so?” (One of the story contributors).  Often I would not know the answer because I hadn’t followed up.  So that was one of the great parts about doing the third edition. I located all of individuals I had written about and asked them what they were doing and how it related to the communication work we did in Berkeley or London as students or in the private sector as clients. What I was looking for was the relationship in their later life of leadership to what they had learned. “Was this learning still important in the practical world?” “Is the inspiration that you experienced then still there?”

In many cases it had been 25 years, so I was looking for a relatively long thread, and I was gratified to hear the vast majority of the cases, their experience from the class or program was something that was lasting for them.  Many of my graduate students at Berkeley found that there was a thread from that particular topic they dug into to what they have devoted their life to and what they are involved in right now.  That was kind of a shock to me in a way.  I thought the interviews would be an interesting technique because I was looking more toward what they learned rather than the actual content.

As background, the book is divided into two distinct sections, one that deals with the internal conviction of the leader and the other that deals with the broad content and organization of communication.  As I was writing the third edition, I realized that this formula might be a bit of a trick.  The heart of leadership communication is that in order to lead fully, we have to know who we are– what our values are. Once we know those, we can go on with the process of building communication platforms—completing the guide asked for in the second part of the book. But the real value of the book is as a guide through a process of self-discovery.  That was a little bit of a surprise to me, but it is indeed the dominant theme.

You make a powerful statement early in the book about the idea of discovering who you really are.   You said “Values trump the roles you might play in your life… not the other way around.”  Do you believe our modern culture struggles with that idea?   What are consequences that you see of not being aware of who we are and simply focusing on what we do? 

“I wish we struggled more with it John, particularly in the field that you are interested in—healthcare.  In the early eighties, my values and what I cared about led me to a project in diplomacy that involved the old Soviet Union as well as the People’s Republic of China and the United States. I spent five years of my life working on something I thought was meaningful (and it turned out that it was,) but it came right out of my values and what I saw as the context of the world at the time.  It was very idealistic.  I would frequently have conversations with people about it because I needed the practice and they were curious—perhaps wanting to be inspired, perhaps wanting to be entertained! .  One of the best conversations I ever had was with a guy who was delivering wood to my friend’s house for the winter.    He had a good high school education and as we were stacking wood, he asked me what I did for a living.  I struggled through my own reticence to sound unrealistic and told him. He stopped me in the middle of it and he said, “You know you are expressing the values you hold in the biggest arena you can,” and he said “I am doing the same thing.”  He continued, “I try to think every day when I wake up how many people are going to be warmed by the work that I do and that is what keeps me going and enthused about my life. If I didn’t feel like I was supposed to be doing this I wouldn’t be doing it,”  So I got the full, authentic sermon from a guy delivering wood to the house about how important it is to connect who we are to what we do. I’ve never been shy about speaking about it since.

Unfortunately, I think that the actual internal experience is something that comes and goes; it certainly does for me.  I get wrapped up in what I do and I forget that it is an expression of who I am and what my values are.  When I fall into a fallow period I might take a client because it seems prestigious or because of the money, or because I would be or doing a favor for a friend. I forget to apply the larger context. Then I start to have feelings of regret and longing, posing internal questions about why I just don’t retire.  But as soon as I connect with my life’s work and the reason that I am about it, I can come back around again and do my best work. And oddly, it doesn’t really matter if the client likes it or not. It is an internally satisfying thing to do.

I can just imagine how true that is in healthcare. When I am speaking, sometimes I will use healthcare as an example and just declare that doctors and nurses and health-care administrators are in a pretty attractive field. They aren’t making hamburgers or selling neckties, so there isn’t any question about the mark that they are making in the world.   I know a lot of doctors and a few nurses who would say they went into the field because they could get a graduate degree the fastest way, or because their  dad was a doctor or because there is good money, or for all of those other reasons. You would just hope that the person holding the knife or the stethoscope or whoever is going to give you advice, has a higher purpose that they care about, and that it has something to do with patients and the whole of humanity”

Leader’s life experiences are the best grist for authentic communication as you mention in chapter three of your book.  As you consider the unfolding landscape for the American healthcare system, how can corporate leaders incorporate their own lives in ways that inspire a more sane and productive system of sponsoring good health and quality care?

“I can only comment on that from my own experience. I had a very interesting childhood.  I was sick as a kid and had a couple of interesting instances that I would now describe as spiritual. I didn’t know very many people to whom I could speak of this other dimension.   I didn’t know quite where I fit or what the meaning of that large context was, and as I got older I just started to fill in the blanks.  I began a pretty traditional career with IBM.  I did very well with them, but I also knew when it was time for me to leave.  I felt like I was on a quest. The diplomatic initiative showed up almost immediately, followed four years later by the opportunity to teach at Berkeley, where I was able to begin the development of the principles of “Leading Out Loud.” By 1991, these opportunities—IBM, the initiative, Berkeley, had all coalesced into a vortex.  I had signed up at The Esalen Institute, a West Coast retreat center, for a poetry class with Brother David Steindl-Rast, a Benedictine monk who had become a teacher of mine, again, through synchronicity.  Brother David had written several books by then, one was called Gratefulness: The Heart of Prayer. I bought a few for some clients, and asked Brother David to sign them.   I asked “Which one of these is your favorite?”  He looked at me and said “Gratefulness: The Heart of Prayer of course—it is my life’s work.”  When he said that, I had an experience similar to that which anecdotally happens when a Zen monk hits you with a stick and you become enlightened. I have no idea what realization I had—I don’t even remember having one. But I do remember this feeling of bliss that came over me—knowing that I had a life’s work as well.  All I had done was the first draft of the first edition of the book, but I knew it was being received really well and somehow that settled into me at a very, very deep level. I actually walked around like that for a couple of weeks before that spell broke.  But it was enough to let me know that I was on a path, that I didn’t really have to worry about anything else, that I could do this work and as long as I kept myself at least quasi-conscious, kept my purpose reasonably pure and kept my eye on that particular topic that I would be fine.   There have been very few times since then that I have wavered from that certainty.  I haven’t had that many two week periods of bliss, but that was a most memorable one!”   If I were thinking about any profession, including medicine, I would be working hard and waiting for that moment of inspiration. I would not settle for less.”

Many patients have somewhat of a jaundiced view of what the coming healthcare system changes will mean to them.  Given the interdependence of payers, providers and patients, how important is it for healthcare leadership in every corner to connect with their global values and create vision around them?   Based on what you see, how can they build a compelling view of a better future?

“How I wish that I actually knew the answer to that question! I do know that it has to begin with self-examination.  The process that we use at the beginning of any kind of consultancy is one of inviting, cajoling, even forcing the leaders to look at what they do and what they are involved in and make them come to grips with the value basis for why they are doing it.   Generally if it is going to connect with a more-than-self-centered action, it is going to be reflected in their personal stories.  I am always asking clients for lots of different language that I might use, turning points in life, defining moments. I get them to tell me about memories they had with their parents, the best experience they had in terms of their own happiness at work.  What I am trying to do is tease out those moments that might be a little like that moment with Brother David, –when they were insanely or inexplicitly happy or satisfied….then trying to connect with some internal and external factors that actually make a difference.    We have to continue to remind ourselves why we went into the field we went into, like Jerry Maguire, the fictional motion picture sport’s agent, and the epiphany he went through when he reflected back on why he went into business in the first place.  It was because he wanted to help people and take care of athletes, not because he wanted to make millions and be famous.    Most of us, in fact maybe all of us, can in one way or another root out the values that make us happy and fulfilled.

So first, we could get corporate health care leaders to look at their own lives and discover the meaning in what they are doing. Then we could help them develop a communication guide based on both competence and connection that expresses their realization that health is something worth caring for, that it is a global value and that they are damned fortunate to be a part of it—that it delivers a lot more personal satisfaction and global meaning than another point or point and a half of margin. The question should be: ‘How can we do a more thorough job with the margins that we are making so it leans us toward the service that we are doing and what we are about instead of what we are getting. I am not suggesting that we operate at a loss, but I am suggesting we ask the financial questions with different emphasis–one that reflects the privilege we have to work in a field that makes a difference.”

You mentioned in the book that the longer you live, the more you believe that the prophets and great leaders do the same work as they imagine a desirable future, declare it in a way that the impossible seems possible and in the declaring, move people in the direction of making change.  In the corporate environment, how do the best leaders equip their lieutenants to be “junior prophets” and carry that critical message to every corner of the organization?

“Of course the leaders have to be equipped themselves. The first thing to recognize would be the value of the imagination.   Richard Branson suggests ‘If you can’t dream, you can’t accomplish anything’. This is so fundamental that we almost pass it by…we can’t even tie our shoes without imagination. Branson starts from the premise that imagination is fundamental—his number one tool—and he is so vocal about it and so out front about it that it rubs off on the people who are in the organization.  Now he also happens to be personable and pretty damn good with a pencil so that all bodes well for him. Other people who are great examples, of course, are the politicians who just took it upon themselves to risk everything they had—people like Anwar Sadat who said ‘I don’t care what people say, this has got to stop’—in essence declaring his ability to see a new possibility.  And of course there hasn’t been a bullet fired between Egypt and Israel since. It merely cost him his life.

So people who see the possible are also able to be role models and teach how to see new possibility.  Walt Disney, with his unbelievable imagination was just who he was.  I understand that he wasn’t all that cordial of a human being, but when he started talking about his imagination and what he saw in the future, no one failed to pay attention.  Role modeling, practicing leadership as 50% vision and 50% communication…these are fundamental.

When leaders like these are developing others, they are preparing them to see what has not been seen and to marshal the courage to act on those visions.  Boards of Directors have to consider not only operations ability, but empathy and imagination as key elements of future leaders. Can this new leadership candidate imagine a future that is not yet in existence? Can he or she inspire others to do likewise?    All of the operational excellence categories are important as well, but being able to imagine and inspire need to be at the top when we start recruiting our leaders.

John, look at what you do with your own kids.   They didn’t fall far from the tree.  They are out there in the world dreaming of what they can contribute and you provide opportunities for them to do it.  I do the same thing for my kids.  I remember my late daughter when she was six years old, staying with me in a rental house in California.    It was during the time of many cold war initiatives, and my partner and I were having occasional audiences with the National Security Advisor and a few other folks pretty high up in the government here as well as in foreign countries.  That particular day, we were having a picnic and my daughter happened to be visiting.  The phone rang and she picked it up and said “Hello”.  She looked over at me and said, ‘Dad it’s the White House’. She put the phone down on the desk and ran outside and started playing with the dogs.  What was remarkable about it was not that she answered the phone, but that it was so matter of fact. It was nothing surprising to her.  She could have said it was E.T. calling and would have had the same reaction.

That is kind of atmosphere we need to generate for our juniors, that possibilities are endless, that imagination,   and that courage and the ability to generate dialogue about new options might be the most important assets for leaders in this new century.”

That sounds like a conversation to continue to encourage with my children about courageous dreaming.

“What a great conversation to have with anyone, not just your children.  To not have them be inhibited by saying they can’t make any money at something. Let money be the 15th thing you talk about, because by then it will be like the Silicon Valley.  For the very best in Silicon Valley they don’t first ask, ‘How can we make any money at that?’ when they start dreaming.  It is after they get it created that they say, ‘You know we are going to have to pay for this, is there any way to monetize this?” It doesn’t have anything to do with what they create, but then they decide in a secondary decision about how they are going to make money.  It is a pretty cool way of thinking.”

We are grateful for friends like Terry and the impact they are having on world events and corporate direction.  This interview is part of a theme that we would like to continue to offer in The Parnassus Group community of leaders. So be looking for additional dialogue in the days ahead.  In the meantime, you can find Terry’s newest book, Leading Out Loud, in our Insights Library and click on the title to order a copy from Amazon.

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