For 22 years, hundreds of Leaders for Global Operations program students benefited from the leadership seminar and personal lessons imparted by Don Davis, who was the founding leadership lecturer for the then-Leaders for Manufacturing program starting in 1988, and continued to dedicate himself to LGO even in the last months before he passed away in September 2010.
The former CEO of Stanley Works, Davis was a living icon of American corporate success, and had a transformative effect on many he touched at MIT. This was not because he spoke from the heights of industry but because of his engagement with students, conveying to them his personal commitment to integrity and ethical leadership. On Jan. 26, the LGO program and the broader alumni and MIT communities remembered Davis with a program of testimonials and a video of Davis elaborating some of his "leadership mantras." These mantras, as countless LGO alumni have recalled in recent months, have lived on in them to inspire the question in challenging moments, "What would Don do?"
Some 80 LGO students, alumni and friends gathered along with Davis's daughter and family at the new Media Lab building to recall the ways in which Davis had inspired them to connect leadership with their own personal aspirations and values. Institute Professor Tom Magnanti, founding director of the Leaders for Manufacturing program, was the first of several speakers to recall the old Stanley motto, "We want to help you do things right," and connect that to Davis's insistence on doing things right and his lifelong success in doing so. Magnanti said that seeing Davis' right way of doing things had provided an education on how CEOs face up to their challenges for him and other MIT faculty.
The master of ceremonies, Jeff Wilke LGO '93, the senior vice president for North American retail operations at Amazon.com, affirmed the theme of doing things right by remembering a personal letter he had received from Davis during the corporate ethics scandals of the early 2000s. He had written that the era confirmed the "importance of doing the right thing, that helps you win in all directions."
Alumni speakers testified to the enduring value of Don Davis's lessons in their lives, in some cases many years later. Steve Cook LGO '98, remembered thinking, as a 28-year-old LGO student, that Davis' session on how to deal with a board of directors would never be relevant for him. But some 15 years after that class, Cook had to manage a difficult situation with his company's board, and found the class and Davis's example came back to him, reminding him to act with integrity as the first guiding principle.
But while many recalled Davis's classes for guidance, said former LGO industry co-director Bill Hanson, Davis's way of living by his "mantras" was powerful because it was perfect for him. Hanson said that Davis challenged his LGO students and colleagues not to imitate him, but to create the right balance of professional and personal commitments in their own lives. As Emily Smith LGO '10 described in her message to Davis's family, his influence on her was strongest in allowing her to keep a big-picture perspective on developing her family and career.
Several alumni, including speaker Jon Strimling LGO '96, had come forward in recent months with poetry that they had been inspired to write, either during their Davis's seminars or in the years since. Strimling read from a poem he wrote for the occasion, inspired by both Davis's own poem, "Patch of Green," and his life lessons. The poem closes by saying, "I will remember Don/by that ever-present twinkle in his eye/and the 'Patch of Green' he gave me/to measure the world by."
After a short video (produced by Jeremy Stewart '10 and other of his classmates) taken in Davis's seminar in 2004, in which he addressed three of his leadership mantras, his daughter Ruthie Davis talked about the strength of her father's commitment to the LGO program and students. Ruthie recounted many examples of how her father's insistence on integrity permeated her life and inspired her own career as a fashion designer and entrepreneur. Before a reception looking over the snowy Charles River, the program ended with Ruthie, along with her husband and nieces, accepting a memory book from Don Rosenfield that brought together alumni's personal memories, poems, and photos reflecting the profound connection between Don Davis and the LGO program around a unique vision of ethical leadership.
The memory book created from alumni testimonials, photos and other tributes, including Davis's poem "Patch of Green," is also available as a PDF file