These leadership insights from MCI founder Bill McGowan should sound familiar to my executive coaching clients and to readers of this blog.


INC.: You’ve taken a company from nothing and, in the span of 18 years, created a new industry and built a company doing almost $3 billion worth of business. How do you account for the fact that you didn’t allow the company to outgrow you?

McGOWAN: Besides the fact that there is no accounting for it, I suppose it’s because I realized at every point along the way that I didn’t need to be the person who had to do any particular thing other than make sure that the focus and direction of the company was clear, and that the forces and people were set in motion to get us where we were going.

I’m naturally a delegator. I guess I realized early in life that,

unless you’re going to be a violinist or something, your success was probably going to depend on other people — that’s certainly true in business. And if you’re going to be in a business of any size, you’re going to have to develop the kind of leadership qualities that allow you to attract good people, guide them, encourage them, and ultimately trust them — and let them go and do their jobs.Oh, sure, you have to take deep breaths occasionally. But mostly you have to trust them.


INC.: One can think of countless CEOs in growing companies who say yes to all that, that they’re going to trust people . . .

McGOWAN: . . . And they second-guess them. They say, “I could do better. …”

INC.: Or they find out that they really like doing some of the jobs they are delegating, and so don’t ever really give them up.

McGOWAN: Look, if you’re in a growing business, that comes with a whole bunch of characteristics that you have to face up to. You can’t say, “I’m going to take the pieces that I like and not the pieces that I don’t like.”



INC.: Is there a thread that runs through all this, a McGowan Theory of Management?

McGOWAN: That question reminds me of the joke about three businessmen — a Frenchman, a Japanese, and an American — who were caught in the crime of espionage and sentenced to be shot. And when it was time for their executions, they were each allowed to say anything they wanted before they were shot. So the Frenchman goes first, and he says, “Vive la France.” The next guy up was the Japanese, and he said, “I want to explain the theory of Japanese management.” And the American piped right in, “Pardon me, but do you mind shooting me out of turn?”

I feel a little bit that way about all these management theories people talk about. I don’t believe that there is anything in terms of organization structure, management practices, management theory that you should ever worship as being standard, as they only way to go. I think that you have to be so flexible and willing to try different things, and willing to make mistakes — and to recognize them for mistakes and change course. We’re going through a time compression now in our history, in our economy. And what used to take 10 years to evolve has gone to 5, then 4, 3, 2, 1, and now six months. And so the idea of management as some sort of science, with certain principles from which you never deviate, no longer applies. The only practice that’s now constant is the practice of constantly accommodating to change — and if you’re not changing constantly, you’re probably not going to be accommodating to the reality of your world. All these theories and management systems that the country has started to worship — I think they are dangerous.


–MCI Founder Bill McGowan
in Inc Magazine
August, 1986