There were many reasons Dana Mead jumped out of 60 perfectly good airplanes. He was training to fight for his country. He wanted to demonstrate leadership to the men of the 82nd Airborne. But there was another, more private reason that over and over he packed his own parachute, went up in a small plane or a helicopter, waited for the command, and then plummeted out of the skies over Fort Bragg, North Carolina.
Before we get to that though, you should know about all of the leaps of faith in Mead’s remarkable life.
The Mead résumé: West Point grad, Army jumpmaster and then combat commander, college professor, football coach, White House policy maker, corporate titan, nonprofit director, and now member of SPEA’s Dean’s Council. He is one of the group of 22 charged with advising SPEA on how to best train the nation’s next generation of leaders. “No one wakes up in the morning and says ‘I’m a leader,’” Mead says. “It’s a tough process to get there.”
The process that made Dana Mead a leader began in Wood River, Illinois. He played high school football, basketball and baseball, played football so well he was recruited to West Point by legendary coach Red Blaik. After graduating, he led a tank company and was aidede-camp to two assistant division commanders under Creighton Abrams, the stalwart general who directed military operations in Vietnam from 1968-1972. The list of soldiers in Mead’s combat command included a private named Elvis Presley. Mead rose in the ranks as the war accelerated. As a 32-year-old colonel commanding Army units on the DMZ and in Quang Tri Province, he was responsible for sending men into the nastiest and bloodiest corners of the conflict and then getting them back out. “We lost some people,” he says and even now some 40 years later, you hear the regret in his voice. “When you’re making life-and-death decisions, you learn how to make a decision. You have to be predictable to inspire trust. You have to be accountable. That’s all part of leadership.”
Interwoven with his years in the military were years on college campuses. Mead earned his PhD from MIT and twice returned to West Point to teach the social sciences, help coach the 150 lb. Cadet football team and run the Cadet ski instruction program. During his second tour at West Point, he was the deputy head and tenured professor in the department of social sciences. He was twice detailed to the Pentagon, first to help write four volumes of the Pentagon Papers and later to be part of the team writing General William Westmoreland’s report of his years leading American troops in Vietnam before Abrams took command. Mead put that knowledge learned in the classroom and combat zone to the test on another battlefield, the one at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. As a White House Fellow and then as domestic policy advisor to President Richard Nixon, Mead played a key role in legislation advancing revenue sharing, civil rights, national security and the construction of the Washington Metro. He has a large collection of the pens Nixon used to sign those bills to show for it.
Not far into his 40s and Mead had already excelled in the military, in higher education, and in government. Pretty good career, huh? The boy from Wood River was just getting started. He says there’s a lesson in that for students at SPEA who master the skills needed to move through the public, private and nonprofit sectors: “There’s no ideal career path, you need flexibility, you need a variety of skills. You’re in charge of your career. You’re the one that has to seek out the opportunities.”
His next opportunity would come in the private sector. At International Paper, Mead rose to the position of executive vice president and was named a member of the board of directors. Then it was on to Tenneco, a conglomerate bleeding money as it tried to sell everything from tractors and submarines to shock absorbers and zippered sandwich bags. In 1992, he was recruited there as president and COO by a friend, Mike Walsh, who would die of a brain tumor 18 months later. With Walsh’s death, Mead became chair and CEO of the company, restructuring it into a profitable and admired business.
Throughout his Tenneco years, Mead says he led without sacrificing the core values he learned at West Point and in his other professions. One example: Tenneco’s J.I. Case farm tractor division faced an ethical challenge. Farmers figured out how to jumpstart the tractors without climbing up in the cab. It was more convenient that way and the farmers liked it, but it could also prove fatal to them if the machine lurched forward. Mead says the Case marketing and sales executives warned him that a costly modification of the starting apparatus would hurt sales at a time when the firm was already ferociously losing money. “I did it anyway,” Mead says. “You’ve got to do it. It affects customers and the morale of an organization if there’s an undercurrent of cutting corners and a lack of integrity. No business decision can justify an illegal, unethical, or immoral decision. That was my order to everyone who worked at Tenneco. If you make a decision like that, you’re fired. And I fired some people.”
Mead tells the story of the turnaround in a 1999 book, High Standards, Hard Choices: A CEO’s Journey of Courage, Risk and Change. Tom Hayes, a former New York Times business writer, was Mead’s co-author and is still an admirer. “Dana had zero tolerance for any injuries on factory floors, or anywhere in the organization,” Hayes says. “He also was way ahead of his time in identifying sustainability as an important element of not only corporate responsibility but corporate performance.”
By the time Mead left Tenneco it had repeatedly been named by Industry Week as one of the best-managed companies in the world. OSHA noted the focus on the safety of customers and employees. Seventeen of OSHA’s 31 “Star” facilities flew the Tenneco flag. “At Tenneco, Dana was dedicated to identifying, developing, and promoting strong leaders,” Hayes says. “This was at least partially an expression of his enduring West Point imprint.”
Mead is now retired, in name only, tending to a family that includes his wife Nancy, two sons, and seven grandsons, and shepherding diverse interests. He serves on the Board of Governors of the Boys and Girls Clubs of America and is helping a community center on a tiny island off the coast of Maine get back on its financial feet. He also sits on the Pardee RAND Graduate School Board of Governors, is a member of West Point’s Campaign Cabinet, an advisory member of the Marshall Foundation, and serves as chairman emeritus of the board that runs MIT. Through his involvement with MIT, Mead met SPEA Dean John Graham, who was then director of the Center for Risk Analysis at nearby Harvard. The two worked together again when Graham was named dean at Pardee RAND. Now the team is at SPEA. Mead says the decision to join the Dean’s Council was no leap of faith. “I’ve always been involved in public affairs and so I was well aware of SPEA’s reputation,” he says. “There aren’t many schools that really drill down on public policy and public affairs, and SPEA is one of the better ones.”
As for what were inarguably leaps of faith, the jumps out of those airplanes, you should know that Mead has a lifelong love of cars and machinery. There’s evidence of that today in his driveway with a gleaming 1939 Plymouth convertible and a pristine 1947 Super Deluxe Woody. There was evidence of that back at Fort Bragg, too: “As an armor officer, I wanted primarily to join the 82nd because of its history and its elite status. It turned out to have a practical benefit, also. I was paid $222 a month for salary. I had just gotten married and just bought a car. I got an extra $105 a month for jump pay, which was exactly the amount of my car payment. Jumping out of airplanes helped me pay for my car.”
It’s a story Dana Mead tells with candor and humor, notable because it reveals a rare moment of self-concern in a lifetime of public service. Honesty, too, is the essence of leadership.