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September’s terrorist attacks and the devastation they wrought revealed the tremendous value — and complexity — of good leadership in times of crisis. The Aspen Institute has long sought to make corporate leaders more effective by exposing them to intense courses in the humanities and humanity. The first lawyer to head the institute, Elmer Johnson has a major role in shaping the nature of corporate leadership in what likely will prove challenging times for the foreseeable future. When Johnson, the former longtime managing partner of Kirkland & Ellis and onetime General Motors Corporation general counsel, assumed the presidency last year, he landed his dream job — at age 68. The onetime go-to guy for companies in crisis, Johnson is also an architect of the corporate governance movement, which stresses management’s responsibility to shareholders. From its beginning in 1949, the institute has espoused lofty ideals in a lofty setting; its chief mission is to make better corporate and political leaders by exposing them to the world’s great literature and philosophy and engaging them in discourse on core human values and a “democratic” perspective on capitalism. Just a few blocks from downtown Aspen, the institute occupies a collection of Bauhaus-style buildings that dot a stream-veined meadow campus. Corporate Counsel reporter Daniel A. Shaw spoke with Johnson about his career, the changing role of corporate counsel, and the ever-increasing need for leadership. Corporate Counsel: How have the terrorist attacks affected the work of the Aspen Institute? Elmer Johnson: We’re going to change a lot in our leadership development and policy areas. We have to. We have 15 policy programs, and we’re looking at all of them. We have a congressional program, where we try to enlighten congressional leaders. We’re going to give a lot more attention there to Islamic thought. A lot of our work is about enlightenment and trying to understand what it is about us that these people hate so much. We have to examine the moral challenges of global capitalism and try to understand their contempt for it, and what they find so dominant and destructive about it. CC: What do corporate leaders need to do now? EJ: Leaders have to inspire employees and help inculcate a sense of shared values. Leaders should remind people of the values that are so important in all our lives. And we’ve been seeing some of that. Out of this horrible act we saw acts of moral heroism in this country. We’ve seen quite a display of social capital that’s quite heartening. ON LEADING THE ASPEN INSTITUTE CC: How does your current position measure up to the rest of your career? EJ: This is the best job I’ve ever had. It builds on everything I’ve ever done. I’ve always had a great intellectual hunger, and this is a chance to satisfy it. CC: Why do you think that the Aspen Institute is still relevant? EJ: The fundamental ideal of the Aspen Institute is taking specialists and giving them the jolt of a lifetime, posing the most fundamental questions about human society. If you want to build a strong corporate culture, you’ve got to develop a skill set intertwined with an environment that fosters human flourishing. It’s good for masters of the universe to have a shock like this. I’d like to think that the Aspen Institute helps people think through what they’re looking for when they have it all. It hit me hard when I was dealing with corporate governance — the fact that the social and economic well-being of hundreds of thousands of people depends on a few people. That’s what leadership is all about. ON CORPORATE ROLE MODELS CC: What CEOs do you most admire? EJ: Herb Kelleher, who just left Southwest Airlines, comes to mind. He said there were two secrets to success. First, have an imagination, which is something the Aspen Institute stresses a lot. The old style of business planning, looking five years ahead, is a stupid one. Starting with the Arab oil embargo [in the 1970s], things became unpredictable and have stayed that way. Contingency planning is the only kind that works, and Kelleher understood that. He always imagined himself in the place of his competitors. Second, he had a passion for helping people be their best. He showed great loyalty to his people, especially in bad times. ON HIS GC DAYS AT GM CC: You took up the GC reins and other positions at GM for five years in the mid-1980s. How hard was it to leave Kirkland & Ellis for GM? EJ: I resisted going to GM for a few months. I had a good thing going with my firm. I was at the top of my game. My wife went reluctantly. We’d just built our dream house [outside Chicago]. CC: Of all the very good lawyers working for General Motors in the 1980s, why did Roger Smith (GM’s then-chairman) ask you to join the company? EJ: In the mid-1970s my practice changed with all the corporate Watergates. CEOs were cutting corners, maybe cheating the Defense Department. I became a corporate crisis counselor. I was hired to look into ethical breakdowns. I had about 10 of these [matters] going in the 1970s. That’s how Roger Smith got well acquainted with what I was doing. CC: How would you describe your time at GM? EJ: It was mind-blowing. Smith was grooming me to be chairman. But I grew to know too much about GM. I thought Smith’s strategies were fatally flawed. He asked me, “Do you want to be chairman of this company more than anything else in the world?” I said no. I gave him a 50-page strategic review, and he got a document he never wanted. [I told Smith] there was no strategy, no team there. That document got around. I probably had a more beneficial effect on GM by leaving than staying. CC: How has the role of the general counsel changed since you were one? EJ: Well, I was a different breed of general counsel. At GM, Roger Smith had had technical GCs, but he realized he needed someone who could be more of a business counselor than a legal one. There’s really been a movement since then toward GCs who are a broader-gauge type of person capable of doing more things. ON WHAT STILL EXCITES HIM CC: You’ve had a long, productive career. At this point, having taken on a new challenge, what drives you? EJ: What are the core values in this multicultural world? If we can’t find them, we’re in big trouble. What drives me is that we have to become more oriented around global issues and global concerns. I’m especially drawn to emerging leaders, and we need to work with them over a period of at least 10 years. If we just work with people over 60, there’s not time to amortize our investment. CC: Do you miss the law? EJ: No. It’s more fun to move on, to keep building on your past experiences. I’m lucky to be one of those guys.

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