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Hooray for Providence!

Sometimes your Purpose finds you and sometimes Providence finds you first and then you find your Purpose. In The 100-Mile Walk (AMACOM Books, 2006), the book I coauthored with my son Jonathon, we outline nine leadership practices, each of which begins with the letter “P.” They are: People, Purpose, Passion, Performance, Persistence, Perspective, Paranoia, Principles, and Practice.

If we were to add a tenth “P” to our list, perhaps it would be Providence. This is a P we can’t control, except that it is present in all of our lives. Time and again over the course of listening to the speakers at the Fordham Leadership Forum and conducting one-on-one interviews, before too long and sometimes sheepishly, someone would bring up the subject.

Of course, because Fordham is a Jesuit institution, the idea of Providence is not such a foreign one, even in the MBA program. But it wasn’t Father O’Hare or Father McShane, the former and current presidents of Fordham University, who brought up this P. It was actually Sherman Lewis, the former vice chairman of Lehman Brothers (who died in 2005) who told the class that Providence would be his choice for the tenth P. The subject came up again when we talked with Bob Essner, the chairman and CEO of Wyeth, a Fortune 100 company. So this tenth one’s for you, Sherman and Bob!

Sherman Lewis grew up in a small factory town in Illinois. His father, his uncles, and all his friends worked in the local Anchor Hocking glass factory. Lewis planned to do the same. He already had picked out the Buick convertible he would buy after high school graduation and he had plans to ask his high school sweetheart to marry him. But before all that happened, Providence stepped in: he was awarded a Naval ROTC scholarship to Northwestern University. Yale wanted him, he told the Fordham students, but he chose Northwestern because it was closer to home.

He reluctantly decided to give college a try because it meant so much to his dad, but he confided to his father that he’d probably be back home after just one semester to take the job in the glass factory, buy the Buick, and get married, just as he’d planned. The short of it: Lewis never went back. He discovered he had a love for numbers and financial strategy and a natural affinity for them both.

After completing his naval service, he was recruited for a job in the financial field. His employer offered to pay the tuition if Lewis would go for his MBA at the University of Chicago. Again, on a lark, he said, why not? Claiming he never knew his purpose in any sort of self-directed way even for years after, Lewis attributed his stellar career path to Providence. By no plan of his own, Sherman Lewis found his gift.

The other standout example of this tenth P is Robert Essner. He joined Wyeth in 1989 and has spent the last sixteen years leading this formidable company and helping to nationally and internationally shape an industry. Essner has been in the pharmaceutical business for most of his adult life, and he has transformed large segments of it with his enlightened vision of business development and his long-standing commitment to corporate governance.

When I first met Essner years ago, I just assumed he always knew that health care was the business for him. His unshakable passion and obvious sense of purpose were sure signs that he never for a second doubted his true path in life. I found out this could not have been further from the truth.

Like Sherman Lewis, Bob Essner hails from the Midwest. Born and raised in Akron, Ohio, he did his undergraduate work at the University of Miami in Oxford, Ohio. Essner was a history major and loved it. He thought he would go on to become a history professor and never imagined doing anything else. An A student, he went to Ohio State University to pursue his Ph.D. in history. He got as far as his master’s degree when he began to hear rumors that universities across the country were not doing much hiring. There seemed to be a glut of professors, especially history professors. Being a pragmatic Ohioan, he figured that he had better have a backup plan for making a living. He decided to take a job in the pharmaceutical industry, figuring that once opportunities improved in academia, he would go back for his Ph.D. and then spend the rest of his career in the history department of a small liberal arts school.

But Providence had other plans. It turned out that Essner found something in business that he could never find in history—the unknown of the present and future moment. As much as he loved history (he is still a buff), it did not compare with the excitement of making decisions about things that have not yet happened. The thrill of business yet-to-be, combined with the satisfaction of producing medications for those who need them most gave Essner a joy in Purpose he had never imagined. From the time he was a boy, Essner thought he would spend his life as a history teacher, but because of a downturn in the academic job market he found himself on the career path that he was truly meant to pursue. Once again: Providence.

There is a Yiddish expression that says, “Man plans and God laughs.” As mere humans, we don’t always know what’s best for us. Sometimes the circumstances that we think are leading us off track are exactly the ones that change our lives forever by showing us our true purpose.

Read a sample chapter from The 100-Mile Walk by Sander A. Flaum and Jonathon A. Flaum.