We live in an age of specialization, when success is often achieved by focusing effort and attention. At the same time, there is a great need for leaders who can move successfully from one arena to another, and who demonstrate the capacity to lead in multiple domains.  The passing of Paul H. O’Neill, after a yearlong battle with cancer, serves as a reminder of a leader who excelled in the worlds of government, business and ideas.  

O’Neill’s success was not the product of advantages conferred by family or fortune. Born into a house without electricity or running water, he graduated from high school in Alaska and attended California State University, Fresno largely because he could save expenses by living with a relative near the school. He studied economics and joined the Veterans Administration as a computer systems analyst.

After earning a master’s degree at Indiana University, O’Neill moved to the Bureau of the Budget in the Executive Office of the President rising quickly through its ranks. He was confirmed as deputy director of the Office of Management and Budget in November 1974.

President Gerald Ford, with his decades long experience as a House appropriator, was impressed with O’Neill’s encyclopedic knowledge of the budget and soon included him among his most trusted advisers. O’Neill turned to business in 1977, serving as vice president for strategy at International Paper Co. and becoming president of the company in 1985. Two years later he was persuaded by Alcoa to become its chairman and chief executive officer, transforming the company and increasing its market capitalization ninefold over the next decade. He returned to full-time public service in 2001 as secretary of the Treasury where he championed tax reform, fiscal responsibility, free trade, stewardship of the environment and addressing poverty in Africa.  

O’Neill was equally comfortable in the world of ideas. He served on the board of the Manpower Demonstration Research Corp., a firm that pioneered the use of random assignment to rigorously evaluate human capital projects. He also gave leadership to the board of the RAND Corp., another place where the facts came first. During the administration of George H.W. Bush he led the President’s Education Policy Advisory Committee, a bipartisan group of business, labor, government and education leaders who advanced the idea of establishing national standards for what students should know and be able to do and to assess progress in meeting those standards.

O’Neill’s remarkable success in business, government and the world of ideas rested on three central convictions. First, he saw government’s role as creating the fabric of what he called a “just society,” one characterized by equity, fairness and equal opportunity. This view was reflected in his approach to education, health care, welfare and taxes. It characterized his leadership at Alcoa where he moved the headquarters to a building that had an open office plan, repurposed the executive dining room, allocated parking places on a first-come, first-serve basis, and kept his office the same 81 square feet as everyone else. His emphasis on safety in the company’s operations was driven by a determination to protect the well-being of every employee. During his 13 years at Alcoa the number of days lost due to workplace injury or illness per 100 employees fell from 1.86 to 0.2. 

Second, O’Neill had a relentless commitment to excellence. He resisted shoddy and incomplete analysis as well as products that did not meet the highest standards. He was scrupulously honest and unfailingly thorough. His probing questions in meetings raised the level of thinking and preparation of all who attended. He was attracted to solving problems rather than engaging in ideological arguments.  

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He shared a pivotal moment in his life when he asked George Shultz, then the director of the Office of Management and Budget, what position he should take in an interagency meeting. Shultz responded firmly: “Paul, do the right thing and neither you nor I will regret it.” He dove into dramatically reducing infection rates in Pittsburgh’s hospitals and resisted advancing children in school before they had mastered the appropriate material. He asked: “Would we accept newly produced automobiles only 90% of which would start when the ignition key was turned? Why should we care less about the children in our schools?  

Finally, O’Neill had the long-term always in view, even while thinking outside of the proverbial box. He believed that clear, systematic analysis should dominate political expediency and that short-term considerations should not count more than long-term needs. This, in part, drove him to tour Africa as secretary of the Treasury with Bono to examine ways in which the developed world could benefit the world’s poorest continent.  His personal philanthropy demonstrated that his commitment to benefit the long-term prospects of others extended beyond mere rhetoric.

At a time when a worldwide pandemic is reminding us of those things of greatest value, O’Neill’s legacy reflects a commitment to equity, efficiency and excellence that will serve us well during the coming decades.

Roger B. Porter is the IBM Professor of Business and Government at Harvard University.

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