The Boy Scouts owe their existence to a British cavalry officer whose 1908 book on how to train boys in “good citizenship, chivalrous behaviour, and skill in various outdoor activities” blossomed into a global movement. By 1910 there were troops in England, Sweden, Mexico, Argentina, South Africa, Australia, and the United States. And now there are more than 57 million scouts in more than 200 countries.
When Lieutenant General Robert Baden-Powell died in Kenya in 1941, they found a message to all scouts among his papers, and it included this famous line: “Try and leave this world a little better than you found it, and when your turn comes to die you can die happy in feeling that at any rate you have not wasted your time but have done your best.”
That is the essence of the challenge I accepted in July 2014 when I took a position on the board of trustees of Penn State, and it was the challenge I issued to my fellow board members when I stepped down earlier this summer: Leave this place better than you found it.
It’s a pretty good goal for each and every day, don’t you think?
Lord Baden-Powell didn’t start out with grandiose plans for changing the world, but he made it a little better each day and eventually he left an incredible legacy – not only with scouting for boys but, with the help of his sister Agnes, for girls, too.
When the board of Prologis asked me to take over as CEO in 2008, the company was struggling and teetering on declaring bankruptcy. Our leadership team focused on survival by doing what we could to make the company a little better with every action we took. A little better each day from everybody in the company added up, and Prologis regained its place among the top companies in the world.
It’s been my goal to leave people and organizations better than I found them no matter where I’ve been asked to contribute during my life. I can’t say I’ve always achieved that, but that’s been the standard.
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I felt a different sense of responsibility with the Penn State assignment, however, because I am a proud alumnus. I showed up as a wide-eyed freshman in the mid-1970s, and I can assure you that Penn State left me much better than it had found me!
When I was invited to join the board, I was well aware of the university’s incredible history, and I was humbled by the opportunity to serve at that level. I desperately wanted to live up to the honor – for myself but also for more than 88,000 students who now call it home and for the 750,000 living alumni. So I did my best over the last nine years to pay a little of the debt I owed.
The board faced some difficult decisions during my tenure, but leaders throughout the university were up to the challenges. Others can judge better than I, but I left with great confidence that the university was better than it was a decade ago and, even more importantly, not nearly as good as it soon will be.
I feel that way because one of the last big decisions the board made while I was on it was to hire Neeli Bendapudi in 2022 as Penn State’s 19th president. It’s hard for me to put into words why I think so highly of Neeli as a leader and as a person, so I won’t try. I’ll just ask that you join me for the next episode of Off the Rak. That way you can hear from her yourself because she will be my guest.
Here’s a taste of what to expect: During my final board meeting, I spend two or three minutes expressing my gratitude for the opportunity to serve and encouraging them to leave the university better than they found it, but I also found myself taking notes from the words Neeli shared with the group.
“It’s not about us,” she reminded them. “It’s about the lives transformed by what we do.”
More words by which to live.
And so once again I can say that Penn State has left me better than it found me.