John D. Rockefeller was an American industrialist and philanthropist and founder of the Standard Oil Company, which dominated the oil industry and was the first great U.S. business trust. His Standard Oil Company was eventually broken up due to the sheer size of its monopoly and still exists today either in full or as subsidiaries of firms such as Exxon, Mobil, BP and Chevron. His net worth would be in excess of $400bn in todays money, which would be more than Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk combine as of 2020. So, what can we learn from his leadership?  

Delegate and focus on creating value

Rockefeller understood that to operate anything on the sheer scale of his organisation, you had to delegate to others. In fact, a key policy of Standard Oil was that managers should train subordinates to do their job. Not only did this provide clear career development for employees, but it freed up leaders to think. Rather than be bogged down in the day to day busy work or ensuring tasks are completed, it allowed them to take a step back and think about what else could be done to create value for the organisation. He said:

“Nobody does anything if he can get anybody else to do it. As soon as you can, get someone who you can rely on, train him in the work, sit down, cock up your heels and think out some way for the Standard Oil to make some money.”

Focus on value of outcomes not time spent at a desk

Another key element of Rockefeller’s leadership was his focus on work life balance. In a time where many believed (and to be fair most still seem to believe) that the more you work, the more you get done, Rockefeller took an alternate view. He would have a nap after lunch and even had a telegraph wire installed at home so he could work from home and spend time in his garden. He did not do this when he was an old man on the verge of retiring, he did this when he was in his mid-30s! He once said:

“It is remarkable how much we all could do if we avoid hustling and go along at an even pace and keep from attempting too much.”

By focusing on what brings value rather than being busy, he built one of the biggest businesses the world has ever seen.

Give Back

Rockefeller was also a giver. Some may think, well yeah, if I was the richest man in modern history, I am sure I could afford to give too. But the truth is, he was always a giver. Long before he made his riches, he gave to causes he believed in. From his first job for example, he tithed 10% to his church.  Even from the first few dollars he made, he tithed 10% to his church. As his wealth grew so did his giving. At one point, his wealth was so immense that he was worth 1.5% of the entire US economy. He used that money to make a real difference in the world.

He set up The Rockefeller Foundation and through their work is still having an impact to this day. For example, the foundations donations established the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health and Harvard School of Public Health, two of the first such institutions in the United States. If you think Johns Hopkins sounds familiar, it is the same Johns Hopkins you hear mentioned on the news when they would quote the institute tracking global Covid-19 infection rates. Among the many other benefits of his philanthropy is the research to a vaccine to prevent yellow fever.  It has also supported United Nations programs throughout its history. The early institutions it set up have served as models for current organizations. For example the UN’s World Health Organization, set up in 1948, is modelled on institutes set up and funded by the Rockefeller Foundation.

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