Remembering a Master of Leadership

Joel DeLuca, the noted author and lecturer on leadership and organizational behavior, passed away a couple of weeks ago, at 60. I am grateful for the chance to offer a few observations about the impact that he had on the world, and on me.

I had the great fortune of meeting Joel, in the early ’90s, when he came to Wharton to help me build the Wharton Leadership Program, of which I was the founding director. It was immediately apparent, from our first conversation and ever-increasingly thereafter, that Joel’s genius as a master designer of remarkably high-value, long-lasting learning experiences was a rare, precious gift.

As much as I learned from his highly refined wisdom as a practical theorist and educator, I gained even more knowledge from seeing how Joel actually lived in concert with his ideas for how to create meaningful change. His masterwork is a book called Political Savvy: Leadership Behind the Scenes.

I’ve been lucky to have worked alongside many great leaders and teachers, but no one compares to Joel in his authentic grasp of what it actually takes to get things done in organizations. He truly walked his talk; practiced what he preached. As a role model in the realpolitik of our daily lives in the trenches, I came to understand his principles, clearly and memorably.

He consistently and generously gave credit to others, rather than take it for himself. Whenever he offered an idea for improving how things got done, he was explicit about his intention–to enhance our capacity to meet our collective (and not his personal) interests. His constant search was for the best ways to find common ground so that innovations would be supported by a critical mass, and thus be sustainable. I could go on, but instead let me suggest that you read his book.

In the late ’90s, I was asked to join Ford Motor and direct its leadership development center. Joel was my strategic advisor there, too, and my education continued under his patient tutelage, as the impact of his great ideas now spread to thousands of developing leaders of this iconic company.

His clarity, persistence, and bold vision were an inspiration to me and many others in the company. When my boss asked him what his purpose was, Joel said, without blinking, “To change the world.” Yes! He emboldened us to make a difference, to use our talents fully for the greater good.

I returned to Wharton a few years later. Two months ago, I published a book that took shape originally at Ford. It describes a program we created there, called Total Leadership. Here’s part of what I wrote about Joel in the book’s acknowledgements:

But the mentor who did the most to coax the Total Leadership program out of me was Joel DeLuca. I am awed by his brilliance as an architect of social change and leadership development, and am very fortunate to have benefited from his true friendship and intellectual guidance.

It saddens me beyond words that Joel isn’t here to share the sense of accomplishment and to know of the tangible results that this work is having on a broad community of people interested in discovering how to become better leaders and have richer lives. For among the many things I learned from Joel–things I think about and use every single day–is the value of taking time to mark significant events, and so to grow from them and to make one’s life more meaningful.

Leave a Reply