The Will to Lead

By Jerome C. Vascellaro ’74 / March / April 2003
June 22nd, 2007
When I joined Mckinsey & Co. in 1978, Marvin Bower was still a hard working legend at the firm, even though he was well into his seventies. The business world knew him as the man who pioneered consulting and turned it into a highly valued profession. Insiders at McKinsey also knew him as a leader of high personal integrity and unsurpassed energy. He didn’t just teach the values of professionalism, he practiced them. Bower, who died January 22 at the age of ninety-nine, believed that a great institution was built on the skills and experience of its people but that their behavior and conduct were even more important to its success.

Born on August 1, 1903, Marvin Bower grew up in Cleveland and studied economics and psychology at Brown. After earning degrees from Harvard Law School and Harvard Business School, he returned to Cleveland to join Jones, Day, the law firm that would profoundly influence his professional life. He noted the partners’ “absolutely high standards.… I could see the importance of a company being able to get advice on management from people who had their interests at heart and who had professional standards.”

In 1933 Marvin joined a young firm of accountants and engineers founded by former University of Chicago professor James O. McKinsey. The firm had two offices and about fifteen employees. Bower said: “Mac was always sensitive to the situations and viewpoints of the people in the client organizations.… He told them the truth as he saw it, even if it risked continuance of the relationship.” After McKinsey died at the age of forty-eight, Bower and others rebuilt the firm on the principles he had learned at Jones, Day. Today, McKinsey & Co. has 7,500 consultants in forty-five countries.

Bower influenced many clients, and a number of his McKinsey colleagues went on to become some of America’s top CEOs, including IBM’s Lou Gerstner, American Express’s Harvey Golub, and Pepsico’s Andrall Pearson. In 1989, Fortune elected him to its Business Hall of Fame. His 1967 book, The Will to Manage, was cited as one of the world’s best business reference books in Business: The Ultimate Resource.

After stepping aside as managing director in 1967, Bower focused on articulating McKinsey’s values at internal training programs while continuing to serve clients. After retiring at the age of eighty-nine in 1992, he wrote the 1997 book The Will to Lead and still kept up with his McKinsey partners. Over the years, he sent many of us personal notes of congratulations for milestones in our careers. My wife particularly favors one he sent me extolling the value of “listening to your wife.”

Bower served as a Brown trustee from 1968 to 1973 and received the Independent Award from the Brown Club of New York in 1991. His first wife, Helen, died in 1985, and his second, Clothilde de Veze, died in 1999. Bower also outlived his son, Peter ’52, but is survived by sons Richard ’56 and James ’60, six grandchildren (including Amy Bower Austin ’81 and Sarah Bower Maenner ’84), and nine great-grandchildren.

Marvin Bower’s legacy at McKinsey remains. Many of us will continue to make choices for the rest of our professional careers in large part by asking the question “What would Marvin have done?”

Jerome C. Vascellaro is a director of McKinsey & Co.
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