Why It Matters: Reflections on Practical Leadership

In Why it Matters, John A. White draws on a wealth of expertise acquired across his six decade career as a corporate leader, chancellor, dean, educator, engineer, and consultant to create a thorough and thought-provoking treatise on leadership philosophy. Based in part on Leadership Practices and Principles, a course he designed and taught at the University of Arkansas that resulted in his receipt of the outstanding teaching award from the Alumni Association, Why It Matters weaves Dr. White’s inspiring personal story and observations on leadership with a treasure trove of leadership philosophy from some of the nation’s most respected corporate, military, political, and nonprofit leaders.

After stepping down as chancellor of the University of Arkansas, Dr. White was encouraged by faculty colleagues to offer a course on leadership. Though he’d been an engineering educator for forty-five years by then and had never taught a course that wasn’t based on equations, he was intrigued by the idea of sharing his leadership journey with students. For the following nine years, Dr. White taught Leadership Practices and Principles to seniors and graduate students from every discipline, introducing them to fifteen guest leaders over the course of each semester and holding in-depth, frank, and often emotional conversations about the challenges, joys, heartbreaks, and diversity of approaches to successful leadership.

Dr. White recounts dozens of these conversations in Why it Matters while reflecting on his own leadership journey in business, government, nonprofit organizations, and universities. Drawing on numerous challenging leadership experiences while serving on six boards of directors for publicly traded companies and leading the University of Arkansas, Georgia Tech’s engineering college, National Science Foundation’s engineering directorate, and numerous professional associations, he provides practical guidance on navigating your leadership odyssey. Why it Matters is required reading for current and aspiring leaders alike, as well as anyone with an interest in a plainspoken and truly comprehensive compendium of leadership thought and philosophy.

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Early Praise for Why It Matters

“This leadership book is truly a ‘two-for-one.’  John White has provided the reader with his incredible leadership insight and experience in business, education, government, and the non-profit sector. Simultaneously he has shared valuable nuggets on leadership from scores of widely known and recognized leaders from multiple types of organizations.”

David L. Belden
Executive Director Emeritus
American Society of Mechanical Engineers

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“John White hired and mentored me in one of my first leadership positions at Georgia Tech, and his influence on my career as a leader continued beyond the years we worked together. He is not only a leader, he’s a keen observer of leadership styles and characteristics. John is always teaching others, using data and goal-driven analyses—and dry humor! I am not surprised that his students find his course one of the best and most demanding, even life-changing.”

Jean-lou Chameau
President Emeritus
Caltech

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“A superb and pragmatic blueprint on leadership.  It illuminates and humanizes real world stories and personalities that make it actionable for anyone reading it.  John White’s wisdom and warmth shine through.”

Gregory Q. Brown
Chairman and CEO
Motorola Solutions

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“More than once, I heard Chancellor White say, ‘my goal is to be the leader of the best team, not the best leader of a team.’  I love that quote; it is one of my favorite leadership quotes.  I once asked him if he created it and he said he wasn’t sure (I’m confident he is the original author of this quote).  Dr. White is humble, but after reading the book I now understand why we need to be cautious about claiming authorship (this point is based on one of many great stories you will enjoy in this book).  Wait until you read John McDonnell’s story in the book.  Then you will understand the importance of transforming an individual sport into a team sport.  This book is full of memorable stories that illustrate the leadership concepts that Dr. White is explaining. One weekend, when I began reading this book, I had planned to read just a couple of chapters, but I kept going until I had read most of the book in a single day because I was enjoying it and learning important leadership lessons. Now this is one of my favorite books on leadership and I plan on reading it again. Finally, I have observed Dr. White for many years, and I’ve even worked on a project with him, and I can tell you that he is a man of integrity and character who is a true servant leader.”

Matthew A. Waller
Dean, Sam M. Walton College of Business
University of Arkansas

Why It Matters, by John A. White, is more than a leadership book.  It is a story of the career of a unique person.  John White has served in the trenches as a faculty member, as a Dean of Engineering, as a Presidential Appointee to the National Science Foundation and its Board and as an entrepreneur.  The book tells the story of his career—its challenges and its life experiences.  It is laced with leadership experiences on his part and on the part of our nation’s business, government, and academic leaders.  It is presented with the same self-effacing honesty and sense of humor you would confront with a face-to-face conversation.  This book is one you will want on your bookshelf.”

Ray M. Bowen
President Emeritus
Texas A&M University

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“Every reader should embrace Dr. White’s profound guidance. This is the quintessential leadership book.”

Mary Pat McCarthy
Retired U.S. Vice Chair
KPMG

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“John White brings over half a century of experience as an educator and leader to Why It Matters: Reflections on Practical Leadership, a rich, lively and detailed examination of all aspects of leadership. While sharing his remarkable personal story, John invites us to explore the words and wisdom of many other leaders who have influenced him over the years, each with a distinctive style, outlook and mission. At the same time, he guides us toward a comprehensive understanding and expression of our own leadership practices and principles. Wherever you are starting from on your leadership journey, you will find in these pages enough inspiration, insight and practical knowledge to make the most of every step along the way.”

Gary S. May
Chancellor
University of California – Davis

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“As a colleague in higher education, I’ve had the fortunate experience of being inspired by John White’s career in leadership at Georgia Tech, the National Science Foundation, and at the University of Arkansas. In Why It Matters, John shares reflections not only from his own ‘servant leadership’ philosophy, but also wisdom from leaders he has studied, built upon, and enhanced over the years. His personal values, leadership style, and community and team building practices—such as including key members who think differently than you—have contributed to institutional success and transformation from fundraising to advancing national rankings. He is a lifelong advocate for diversity in engineering and higher education, and offers key insights into organizational cultures. Dr. White exemplifies the leadership to turn challenges into opportunities for institutional growth to new heights.”

Henry T. Yang
Chancellor
University of California – Santa Barbara

“Dr. John White has combined the visionary insights of a proven leader across multiple sectors with the analytical insights of an engineer to write the ultimate practical guide to leadership. Drawing upon his extensive experience in academe, business, government, and non-profits, White synthesizes and distills lessons drawn from a variety of recognized leaders to take the reader through identifying core principles of leadership and developing leadership attributes by making generous use of examples and anecdotes drawn from his own rich experiences as well as those of many others. White then applies his lessons to the key tasks of leading organizations, and more critically, the people within them and their external stakeholders. White values transparency and allows readers to learn from his mistakes as well as his successes. I heartily recommend this invaluable book to all who aspire to successful servant leadership.”

Norman L. Fortenberry
Executive Director
American Society for Engineering Education

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“Dr. John White, the former preeminent Chancellor of the University of Arkansas, has captured a lifetime of personal and professional practical leadership experiences and delivers Why It Matters with the precision of a renowned industrial engineer and the compassion of a most humble servant leader.  Personifying all the roles of teacher, coach, mentor, role model, and evaluator, John has captured the reflections of dozens of leaders across the spectrum of politics, business, sports, the military and academia while revealing their singularly unique styles, and, at the same time, their unforgettable regrets.  This fabulous compendium of leadership reflections really does matter, not only for future aspiring leaders who are engaged in the process of becoming successful but also for the rest of us whose opportunity for self-reflection enables us to continue enjoying the journey – the joy of leadership.”

Martin R. Steele
Lieutenant General
US Marine Corps (Retired)

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“A step-by-step guide on how to develop and perfect a solid, humanistic management strategy for people anywhere on the continuum of career development. John’s folksy common sense to solving problems and running harmonious organizations is invaluable.”

Anthony “Tony” Vinciquerra
Chairman and CEO
Sony Pictures Entertainment

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“John White has a very easy going way of sharing stories. In his book Why it Matters, he does just that.  John is an accomplished leader in business, government, not for profits and universities.  He uses his own personal experiences as well as examples from many of the top leaders in these fields to help the reader understand what it takes to lead.

Why it Matters provides wise and concise vignettes on how accomplished leaders lead and it shows what it takes to guide various types of organizations to success.”

Sam Scott
Retired President and CEO
Ingredion, formerly known as Corn Products International