That's a lesson I've heard from a number of the business leaders who come to speak at the Fordham Leadership Forum, enough of them that I'm starting to think that I should make an addition to the "Nine Ps" of leadership. What these leaders have showed me is that success does not just come from people, purpose, passion, performance, persistence, perspective, paranoia, principles, and practice. It is also a matter of providence.
Take the case of Sherman Lewis, the former vice chairman of Lehman Brothers (who died in 2005). Lewis grew up in a small factory town in Illinois. His father, his uncles, and all his friends worked in the local Anchor Hocking glass factory. Lewis planned to do the same. He'd already picked out the Buick convertible he would buy after high school graduation and had plans to ask his high school sweetheart to marry him.But before all that happened, providence stepped in, and he was awarded a Naval ROTC scholarship to Northwestern University. He told his father that he was giving college a try because of how much it meant to his dad, but that he'd probably be back in a semester to take the job in the glass factory, buy the Buick, and get married, just like he'd planned.
He was wrong. Lewis never went back. He discovered he had a love for numbers and financial strategy and a natural affinity for them both. After his naval service, he was recruited for a job in the financial field, and his employer paid for Lewis to pursue an MBA at the University of Chicago. By no plan of his own, Sherman Lewis found his gift and launched a stellar career.
Another standout example of this P is Robert Essner. He joined Wyeth in 1989 and has spent the last 16 years leading this formidable company and helping to shape an industry nationally and internationally. Essner has been in the pharmaceutical business for most of his adult life, and he has transformed large segments of it with his enlightened vision of business development and his longstanding commitment to corporate governance.
When I first met Essner years ago, I just assumed he always knew that healthcare was the business for him. His unshakable passion and obvious purpose were sure signs that he never for a second doubted the direction he would take in life. It could not have been further from the truth.
Like Sherman Lewis, Bob Essner hails from the Midwest. Born and raised in Akron, Ohio, he did his undergraduate work at the University of Miami in Oxford, Ohio. Essner was a history major and loved it. He thought that he would go on to become a history professor and never imagined doing anything else.
An A student, he went to Ohio State University to pursue his PhD in history. He got as far as his master's degree when he began to hear rumors that the universities across the country were not doing much hiring. There seemed to be a glut of professors. Essner figured that he'd better have a backup plan. He took a job in the pharmaceutical industry, planning that as opportunities opened up again in academia, he could go back for his PhD and spend the rest of his career as a professor of history at a small liberal arts college.
But providence would not have it. It turned out that Essner found something in business that he could never find in history—the unknown of the present and future moment. As much as he loved history, it did not compare with the excitement of weighing decisions about things that have not yet happened. The thrill of business yet-to-be, combined with the satisfaction of producing medications for those who needed it, gave Essner a joy he had never imagined. Like Lewis, he'd found his purpose when he wasn't really looking for it.
I'm convinced that providence takes a hand in many careers. Certainly it has in mine. But as Lewis' and Essner's stories show, providence is not a free ride or an automatic guarantee of success. It's not a replacement for passion, performance, persistence, and the rest. Providence can put you in the right place at the right time. What happens when you're there is up to you.
Sander A. Flaum is managing partner of Flaum Partners. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org