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Steve Forbes Speaks on Business Leadership at Rutgers 250th Anniversary Celebration

Steve Forbes highlighted some of the greatest business leaders of his generation in hopes of inspiring the next generation in his speech given at the State Theatre New Jersey in partnership with the Rutgers Business School on September 25th. The Business School event that attracted close to 900 attendees from both the university and the surrounding community was part of the ongoing celebration of Rutgers' 250th anniversary.

The speech, entitled “Leadership Lessons: The Stunning Parallels between Great Leaders of the Ancient World and Today’s Top Business Leaders,” told the stories of some of the most recognizable names in today’s business world: Steve Jobs, Ray Kroc, Sam Walton, etc. Forbes’ main point was that the essence of human nature does not change; what changes is the amount of knowledge we have and how we as leaders can rise to the occasions that are presented.

“What’s the difference between the people of today and the people of the stone age thousands of years ago?” he asked. “The answer is that we know more. We can have natural disasters and the destruction of war, but if our knowledge isn’t destroyed, we can come back and move ahead.”

He used the example of Europe and Japan post-WWII to drive home his assertion about the resiliency that knowledge provides.  After the destruction of the battles and bombs left tens of millions dead, experts thought it’d be generations before the nations could recover. But within a few years, they exceeded expectations because their knowledge wasn’t destroyed.

“Knowledge comes from experimentation.  Knowledge comes from searching,” Forbes added.  He observed that knowledge is gaining the understanding of what works or does not work.  That insight, achieved through hard effort, accelerates progress.

“The thing to remember is that through experimentation even if something does not work, you learn. It sets up the foundation for future success,” Forbes said.  He specifically referenced Silicon Valley where there is so much creativity and so many new startups.  While most startups fail, it is not looked down upon.  Rather failure is built upon through what was learned. 

Forbes made sure to stress the fact that over decades and centuries, the path to success looks the same. Sooner or later, a crisis will rise, and your success is determined by whether or not you're able to use past failures to rise to the occasion. He pointed to Steve Jobs as an example.

“Apple brought out a device in the 1990s called the Newton,” said Forbes. “It failed, but ended up providing the foundation for the technology in the iPhone. That’s the power of experimentation.”

Jobs learned painfully from his mistakes, and Forbes reminded the audience that Jobs was a disastrous manager for years, even getting fired from his own company. But he eventually learned from his mistakes and figured out how to be a leader, and became one of the greatest chief executives in history. 

As one of the globe’s top businessmen himself, Forbes is especially qualified to deliver a message about success being an end product of experimenting and failing.  Forbes, the magazine, is the nation’s top business publication, with a circulation of over 900,000 and a worldwide readership of over five million. But success was hard fought in the digital arena.

He called the process of turning the magazine into a successful website a “dreadful experience” with lots of experimentation and pain. During those years of uncertainty, however, he reminded himself of his grandfather, an immigrant who taught him that the purpose of business isn’t simply to pile up money, but rather to produce happiness.

“The real source of wealth, the real of capital of society isn’t physical things, but what you represent metaphysically – the human mind,” said Forbes.

That being said, he highlighted the perseverance of the nation’s top businessmen and how they made it to the top.  He pointed out the importance of challenging the status quo.

For example, he said, Henry Ford went bankrupt twice before trying to find success in the Model-T. Or take the two Australians who discovered that stomach ulcers weren’t caused by stress, but rather by bacteria. They suggested treating ulcers with antibiotics but were criticized and shunned for years, with no respectable university even giving them a chance.

A few years ago, however, the pair received the Nobel Prize in medicine.

Forbes also addressed the stereotypes that society attaches to business.

There’s the notion that commerce is all based around greed, he said, but business is about cooperation and breaking down barriers between people.

“You may not love your neighbor, but you want to sell to your neighbor,” said Forbes. That gained a soft chuckle from the audience.

He added that throughout human history, people did not trust anyone outside their family or village. But now business has enhanced trust, and, as a result, places like restaurants and ebay can exist, where people trust each other to pay.

“If you are going to become an effective leader you have to realize, not just inspire trust, having a vision, getting people to work together, it’s actually how you make it happen,” Forbes summed up.

Referencing the book he co-authored a few years ago, “Power, Ambition, Glory,” Forbes shared examples of ancient leaders in comparison to today’s business leaders.

“Times and circumstances change, but human nature does not.  Characteristics of successful leadership does not,” Forbes asserted.  He relayed the story of an ancient Greek called Xenophon who was faced with defeat in war, but rose to the occasion and rallied his army.

Similarly, Forbes offered the common characteristic of successful business leaders such as Steve Jobs, Ray Kroc, founder of McDonalds, and Sam Walton, founder of Walmart.  

“Seeing what others didn’t see,” Forbes extolled about them and all successful business leaders, both in ancient times and during our times.

Since the audience consisted of many students, Forbes called them to action, reminding them that they are the next generation of great business leaders.

He advised, “Be prepared…No matter how good you are, no matter how smart you are, you are going to make mistakes.”

And looking forward optimistically, Forbes said, “Your success is other people’s success. You moving up, means we’re all moving up.”