An Interview with Bill Pollard

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In this interview, we talk with C. William Pollard, chairman of Fairwyn Investment Company and best-selling author of The Soul of the Firm. His newest book is The Tides of Life: Learning to Lead and Serve as You Navigate the Currents of Life.

Why did you write the The Tides of Life? Who was your intended audience and what do you hope they’ll take away from the book?

Originally, I thought I was writing the book for my family—specifically for my grandchildren. The idea arose from watching my wife knit blankets for her great grandchildren . . . great grandchildren who have not yet been born and who she might not get a chance to see. But she wanted to knit these blankets as gifts for them. Seeing her do that got me thinking about the experiences that I want to share with my grandchildren and great grandchildren.

However, as I began writing, I realized that the book might have a broader appeal, since I reflect on lessons I’ve learned related to making good choices and navigating the opportunities and obstacles that we all face in life. I think anyone who is currently navigating significant changes in their life—whether related to their career, family, or some other position that they may hold—could benefit from the lessons that I reflect on in the book.

What are some of the biggest lessons you’ve learned over the course of your life?

Many of the lessons I’ve learned relate to leadership—not only in business, but in the home as well. One of the most significant lessons I learned came from a piece of advice I received from Peter Drucker. I remember we were sitting in his office discussing some leadership challenges I was facing at ServiceMaster. He leaned back in his chair, thought for a moment, and said, “Remember, Bill, a leader really only has one choice to make: to lead or mislead.”

I think it’s also important to know what you believe and why you believe it. Leaders need to know where they’ve come from and where they’re going. Of course, when you ask questions like that, it raises questions related to faith: “What do you really believe in?” and “How does God fit into your life?”

I’ve also found that life is full of difficult experiences, often stemming from our own mistakes and failures. In those situations, it’s important for leaders to admit their failures and, in some cases, ask for forgiveness. When you do that, you add an element of transparency to your relationships and build others’ trust.

Who’s had the most significant impact on your development as a leader?

I can’t name just a single person—it’s not possible in relation to my life. Many people have contributed to my development as a leader, including Peter Drucker, many of my colleagues at ServiceMaster, Hudson Armerding [president of Wheaton College], and my father-in-law. Of course, my relationship with Billy Graham has had a significant impact on my leadership. Finally, Warren Buffet had a profound influence on me, particularly in relation to how I view certain issues in the business world.

In the foreword to your book, Billy Graham refers to you as a “longtime friend.” How and when did you first meet Mr. Graham, and what kind of influence has he had on your life?

I first met Billy when I was serving at Wheaton College and he was on the Board of Trustees. One day, I had to make a presentation to the Board. After the meeting, Billy approached me and we began talking.

This conversation ultimately led to a few more long talks in the weeks that followed. He took a personal interest in me while we were both at Wheaton College and just wanted to get to know me. About a year after beginning at ServiceMaster, I received a call from Billy in which he asked me to serve on the board of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association.

What are the essential qualities of a true leader and how can aspiring leaders seek to develop them?

Again, I’ll come back to Drucker’s comment on leadership. He starts off by saying that leadership, in and of itself, is not something that we should seek. It’s a very interesting comment that you don’t normally hear in discussions or books related to leadership.

Drucker goes on to say that leadership is just a means to an end. The real question is, “To what end?” According to Drucker, the proper end of all leadership is the thriving of those who are following the leader. Leadership is not simply about the vision or desires of the leader. Rather, true leadership looks to the needs and abilities of those who are being led—true leadership entails taking responsibility for those who are following you.

This is applicable to leadership in any sphere, whether it be the workplace, the church, or the home. Leaders must know the answer to fundamental questions related to where they’re from and where they’re going. But ultimately leaders must address an even more fundamental question: “How does God fit into my life and leadership?”

In the context of a business, leaders must navigate how they’re going to integrate their faith with their work. The marketplace reflects the diversity of the world, including differences related to gender, race, ability, and beliefs. Therefore, leaders must learn how to affirm their faith without imposing it.

C. William Pollard (JD, Northwestern University School of Law) is chairman of Fairwyn Investment Company. For 25 years he participated in the leadership of The ServiceMaster Company, twice serving as the Company’s CEO. He is the author of a number of books, including The Soul of the Firm and The Tides of Life: Learning to Lead and Serve as You Navigate the Currents of Life (excerpt). He and his wife, Judy, have been married for over 55 years and have 4 adult children and 15 grandchildren.