What Would Your Founder Do? An Eli Lilly Story

It was a rare moment of granted wisdom. The kids were in Sunday school, my wife at choir rehearsal and there were 20 minutes before the next service. I found myself sitting beside “Earl”, an elderly congregant who spoke softly, moved slowly and had great wisdom to share…

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Colonel Eli Lilly - Founder of Eli Lilly and Company
Colonel Eli Lilly – Founder of Eli Lilly & Company

We spent some time getting to know each other and eventually discussed two key topics: that my wife works for one of few remaining, large, family-owned businesses in the country and that I advocate servant leadership.

I explained how the two often align: privately held companies that find it easier to focus on long-term results and the practice of servant leadership. At that moment, Earl’s soft-spoken voice got a bit louder as his eyes widened a bit. He wanted to tell me about his experience…

How Eli Lilly Maintained Their Values

Earl spent 34 years working for Eli Lilly. During that time, Earl worked under the last two family members to run the company, before it went public in 1952. Still, after going public, the company retained its heritage, he said.  For years, it seemed, the company continued its focus on long-term results more than other publicly held companies. Furthermore, the importance of quality – a principle vital to the founder – remained paramount.

“Often, people would say, ‘This is not what Eli would do…'” – Earl

Earl said the emphasis on quality and focus on long-term results were values persisted from the Lilly family to the company, as it stood when he retired 15 years ago.

This seems the exception more than the rule, today. The ability for publicly held corporations to resist the temptation of short-term gains at the cost of long-term risks. Yet this is vital to the success of Servant Leadership principles and the long-term sustainability of our organizations.

Maintain the Values of Your Founder

So how do we do this? How do we retain the best of the old while embracing the demands of the future? Eli Lilly did it by reiterating the values of their founder. They reminded each other when a decision or action was aligned with the founder’s values or not. Can we do the same?

Too often, we focus exclusively on a single stakeholder group – the shareholders. While that is important, we must remind each other of the values preached by our founders as well. These often resonate with Mr. Eli Lilly himself – quality, sustainability and an emphasis on consumers and employees that will ultimately drive shareholder value.

So the next time you find yourself faced with a difficult decision or unacceptable behavior, ask the team this simple question:

“Is this what our founder would do?”


Question: How do you think companies can hold on to the best values of their past while remaining competitive in the future?[/fusion_builder_column][/fusion_builder_row][/fusion_builder_container]


Picture of Ben Lichtenwalner

Ben Lichtenwalner

Ben Lichtenwalner is the founder and principal of Modern Servant Leader and Radiant Forest, LLC. He has studied and promoted servant leadership awareness and adoption for over 20 years. He is the author of 2 leadership books and has 2 decades of corporate management and leadership experience. His corporate experience spans CIO, VP, Director, and many management roles at Fortune 500, INC 500, and Nonprofits. Ben’s education includes a B.S. in Management Science & Information Systems from Penn State University and an MBA from Lehigh University. Ben's Full Profile Here: About Ben Lichtenwalner

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