Questions for Leadership, Ethics, Collaboration & Organizational Culture

QuestionsForLiving interview with John Abele July 28th, 2011 regarding leadership, ethics, and corporate culture. This interview also includes questions pertaining to the expedition and collaborative effort that resulted in locating the USS Grunion (SS-216).

QuestionsForLiving: Are there several universal / overarching questions that you have asked yourself that contributed to the success of your endeavors including: the growth and development of Boston Scientific, your leadership regarding the concept of less-invasive medicine, locating the Grunion, founding of the Kingbridge Conference Centre, and the creation of the Argosy Foundation? 

John Abele: Obviously, every situation is different, but the simplistic approach is to ask: “What is the goal?” along with “What is the outcome that I would like to see?” Although, those two questions are similar, they are not exactly the same. The outcome can be a subset of the goal and more achievable than the goal I might like to reach. This question takes into account that I can't have everything, so I often ask “What is the preferred outcome?”  

There is another thing from my point of view, that is, I don't think you ever stop asking those questions throughout the process. Some people think that when you put together the plan, that's it; and you stick with it, as though it is written in concrete. I don't happen to think that that is correct. I think we live in a world of, not only constant change, but accelerating change. Therefore, the questions need to be re-asked in light of new knowledge and new assumptions. 

Everybody needs to have a commonsense view of what the goal is, and it has to be explained in ways that relate to them. They need to have both a practical understanding of the goal and also hopefully a psychic appreciation of the goal. I am a big believer in the concept of values-based leadership. Also, I think, as many people have said, that money is not the ultimate motivator. Money is a tool and it is essential in the business world; projects need money in order to accomplish goals, but it's absolutely not the major motivator.  

So I think you also need to ask “What is the goal under the current situation?”and “Are we still on track to achieve it?”, “Does it need to be redefined a little bit in light of present circumstances and changing assumptions?”  And other questions that go along with that such as, “Do we have the appropriate resources for reaching this goal whether it is people or money?” Perhaps most important of all: “Do we have the necessary passion and knowledge to achieve the goal?”

Let’s say you are building a product, and that product is for a medical purpose. A lot of people will look at it in a very bureaucratic way. They would design the product and then measure everything against their original assumptions. I am saying that that is a huge mistake, because there are so many things changing simultaneously with your project.   

There are changes in the understandings of medical technology. There are changes in adjacent technologies that could influence how your technology might work. There's a different understanding of value toward fixing the medical problem that you are talking about, and it is important to constantly question whether your assumptions are still relevant. As a leader, you have to be careful of how you do that, because if you're questioning yourself very visibly, people will think that you are indecisive and not confident about making a decision.   That is the paradox of great leadership.  


QFL: Are there questions that you ask yourself for evaluating and making ethical decisions? If so, can you please provide some specific questions?  

Abele: Absolutely, here are several questions that I ask myself and also suggest to others:

1) “Does this pass the golden rule test?” Would I want to be treated the way that I am treating this other person? That is one form of the golden rule.

2) There is a medical "golden rule" too that is relevant in our business. “Would we want what we are doing to be used on my parent, my child, my grandchild?” That is an emotional life test.

3) “What would someone I really respect do in a situation like this?”Specifically, someone I respect for their leadership, not necessarily their technical knowledge or expertise. Or in other words, "What would a great leader do in this situation?"

4) "Would I be able to credibly defend my decision on “60 Minutes” or similar public grilling? Can I answer that question? If there is controversy over my decision, then I would like the opportunity to explain why I did what I did. Public disclosure is an important element of leadership. You are not just explaining to the newsperson, you are also explaining to employees, customers and the public at large. It is important that people understand the rationale for decisions. It is particularly important for employees because their pride and motivation is influenced by the belief that their company does the right thing.

5) "What would happen if everyone did this?" If it’s okay for you, why isn’t it okay for everyone? Perhaps there is a good answer, but be prepared to explain why.  One of the most important things in leadership is your reputation;  integrity, judgment, resourcefulness.  These questions incorporate elements of both points 3) and 4) above.  What would someone I really respect do?” and "How will I be seen for making this decision?", “Are there things that I ought to do to influence how this decision is being understood by others?" The perception of others can influence whether a decision will be implemented successfully. It’s also a “teaching moment”.

I look at the creative / leadership process as everyone is a steward of their own resources. These resources include: knowledge, wisdom to use that knowledge, financial resources, technical resources, equipment resources, but most important, is the leader’s reputational resource. In other words, respect from others is one of the most important assets one can have. However, leaders should not get paranoid and be concerned by only protecting their reputation, because that inhibits making good decisions (and ultimately hurts their reputation). The leader should make decisions in such a way that people are educated about why that decision was made. How you do what you do will influence the culture of the organization. 

7) I have one more ethics question, and that is, "Would this make a skit on Saturday Night Live?"  A lot of otherwise very bright people flunk that one.

Ethics & New Product Development 

Abele:   Pete Nicholas and I formed Boston Scientific in 1979 to acquire Medi-Tech which I had run for the previous 10 years. During that time, I was invited to participate in a series of classes that were called “Ethics in Engineering” taking place at MIT. The way that it worked was there was a group of students, that were working on a project, and they would present me with a ethical dilemma and say,  “How would you deal with this?" Initially, I was concerned because I didn’t know if I could come up with a responsible strategy. These were very smart students and might embarrass me. Then I asked myself “Look, why would I be in this room if I cannot answer that? I need to be able to answer any questions that I am going to have to live with, because that's the role of a leader. 

I understood that although I may not have all the information, what I do have is principles of behavior, and that's what helps guide me and might help the students the most.

One of the scenarios that the students thought up was this:

MIT’s Students Ethics Questions To John Abele:

You're just about to formally introduce a product, a great deal of time and money has been invested, you already have a few products out in the field, and your financial investors are all excited about this. Then you learn that that there has been a problem with the product in the field. What would you do?

John’s response / approach to product development:

My initial reaction was to make sure I/we understood  the facts… what we knew and what we didn’t know. The second goal was to find out as much as we could about the implication of the facts. The people who could help best with that task were our customers. What would they do, given the facts we knew?  In other words, ask the physician user. They are in the best position to weigh the risks of using the product with the risks of not using it. The students were surprised. They thought we would try to hold back as much as possible until we had the answer. In my world a customer is a “partner”, not just a “customer”. We work together to develop and improve technology, and learn how to use it in order to provide the greatest value to the patient. 

That partnership between the product manufacturer and customer is important to understand. 

 We are not only asking “Did you fix the organ?” But more importantly,“How did it affect the life of the patient?” 

I told the students that “I would go out and ask all the people who are using my product now, and maybe even the ones who are about to use it and therefore know a fair amount about it, and say: “Here is what I know, what would you recommend?” I would collect all their answers and share that with our partners and customers. If the problem has regulatory implications, we would also work with the FDA. 

In the medical world, the FDA works to evaluate whether a device is safe and effective when used properly for its intended purpose. But that can be quite difficult. A doctor can use a scalpel and patients can be hurt by a scalpel. But it is also useful, if it is used correctly, to save the life of a patient. In some cases we have had devices that were approved for use, but not perfect and we did not know all the information about how they might not work. After we tested them as well as we could, we told our users what we knew and did not know so they became literally part of our continuous development team (the product is never “finished”). Their responsibility was to help us understand strengths and weaknesses along with new medical knowledge and related technologies that might offer opportunities for improvement. The more our physicians know about the product, its use and its risks, the better care they will deliver to patients, the fewer problems will occur and the more they will be able to help us.

Questions for Leadership & Organizational Culture

QFL: Are there a core set of questions that you ask yourself that have contributed to your effectiveness as a leader? If so, what are these questions?

Abele:  In my view, great leaders define the goal (sometimes in multiple ways), identify potential barriers, design strategies to overcome the barriers, identify resources and start doing. In other words: "What are we trying to do?", "What are our challenges?", "How do we overcome them?" The leadership challenge is creating the culture for the team to answer the questions and execute an achievable strategy. It’s all about communication.

If I give a talk to a group of business leaders, I love to ask "How many of you have written down your philosophy of leadership, not someone else's philosophy of leadership, but your personal philosophy of leadership?"

My purpose in this question is to communicate the importance of values in your words and deeds. It’s about owning your personal philosophy. If you really believe in something, it’s a powerful motivator to achieve it. A clear understanding of the goal and shared values on how to achieve it is a powerful combination.  

Questions for understanding and improving an organization’s culture.

When I visit an organization I tend to ask myself: "I wonder how they make decisions around here?" In many large organizations, that is a very hard question to answer because there is not a single way. The CEO certainly doesn’t make all the decisions. Is it a manager? Is it a policy? Is it because that’s the way it’s always been done? With great organizations the process is pretty clear to employees and to customers. That to me is a measure of an organization’s culture.

There are lots of other measures: "Is the parking lot full at 6:30 in the morning?" All those little things, “Are the lights on late?”, “How are people behaving?" These “What is the culture?” questions you can answer by observing as you walk through an organization. You don't even need to talk to anybody. "How are people moving?", "What is the sound of their voice - not the words that they are saying-  is it curious, is it upbeat is it respectful? What is the layout?”,  “Is everything extraordinarily neat?” Too neat? Too messy?  How do people answer the phone?  How do they communicate?... with everyone?

When I was getting started, venture capital was in its early years. I talked with some of the people from the investment banks and they told me that when they visited a company and they saw big potted rubber plants, big glass doors and fancy desks, they would turn around and walk out. They were saying to themselves, ‘These people have prioritized the wrong things’. They prioritized the way they look, rather than what they do. That is going to lead to poison in the company that thinks facade is more important than substance.

When working with a group or organization I ask myself "What is the culture of this organization that I am about to visit, help lead, takeover if that is the case, or negotiate a deal with?" The culture is a product of all those things you see. You can have a culture of integrity. You can have a culture of resourcefulness, of passion, or urgency, of lots of things. So the real question, I think is: "How can we change the culture so that we truly can harness the collective intelligence of every person in the organization as well as our customers, our vendors, and everybody that we are working with?" I think culture is the most important attribute of an organization.


QFL: What are the questions that you ask yourself for creating and maximizing effectiveness of collaboration?   

Abele: I guess it goes back to the same questions that I ask when I look at  any organization. In other words. “What is the goal?”, “Is this group a group that I am given, or is it a group that I can change - mostly in numbers and philosophy or influence?” It really comes down to ”Hey, what are we trying to do here?” - That's my question. And by the way, I would argue that far and away the most common cause of failed collaborations is not being clear about the goal, objectives and process.


QFL: What were your primary questions that contributed in your success in locating the USS Grunion (SS-216) lost in action during WWII ? 

Abele:  There were several. I was at a meeting where Bob Ballard gave a talk regarding finding the Titanic. Afterwards I asked myself “I wonder if I could do this?” Later we had him up to Boston and spoke with him. He was very helpful; and my brothers and I decided “You know what, I think we can do this.”

I believe the success of finding the Grunion and the families of the sailors can be attributed to creating an environment, which scientists call flock of birds behavior. “A flock of birds” is the phenomenon of organized behavior without a leader. There is a lot of that in nature, and in fact we just saw several revolutions take place in the middle East that demonstrated it. They were leaderless revolutions. This is something I am fascinated about, the whole concept of the wisdom of crowds and what makes them work. It all comes down to creating a culture.

One of the questions during that Grunion trip was, “How can we create an environment where people want to help?” We never actually asked that question, but it was an implied in discussions with my brothers. When I was on the ship, I remember saying to the group “You know, this is a strange collaboration here, because I didn't choose you, you chose me."

I did choose some of them of course, or rather my brothers and I did. But others came along and they ended up helping just as much, or more, than the official group. That “flock of birds” effort happened in spades and was very successful in finding relatives of every member of the crew, getting a newspaper article written about every single one, getting memorials to be arranged for everyone because no one knew where they were - they just disappeared. All the sailors got purple hearts - it's just an amazing story.

During the process, we had to deal with a whole bunch of large bureaucratic organizations.. There were of a lot times when people were working against us, because that's bureaucracy. People were saying “Well, you can't do that.”. But that's what happens in life. A lot of people don't do things because they’ve told themselves they can't. That's the reasons that more of our patents at BSC come from technicians then PhD scientists. Why is that? Because the PhD scientist has been taught that “That won't work” or “That can't be done” and the technician who doesn’t know that says, “You know what, I think I will just try it”.


QFL: What questions do you believe that people should/could ask themselves to make our world a happier and healthier place? 

Abele: That's a bit trickier for me to answer; it's partly because of my philosophy. I have an anthropological view of life. Although humans will influence what happens in the world, it will continue to change whether we’re here or not.  Much of what we humans do is more for our view of things rather than an absolute concept of what is good. I like the idea of Gross National Happiness, as expressed in Bhutan. I also think that tough love is pretty important. For me personally I want to continue to learn and enjoy my curiosity. I like to help others learn and be happy as well.

For more information, John Abele can be contacted at:



Jodi O'Donnell-Ames's picture

What would someone I really respect do?” and "How will I be seen for making this decision?", “Are there things that I ought to do to influence how this decision is being understood by others?" The perception of others can influence whether a decision will be implemented successfully. It’s also a “teaching moment”.


love this advice John!  Thank you! 

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