Johnson & Johnson’s business goes well beyond consumer and medical products and pharmaceuticals. Its more than 30-year-old Human Performance Institute at Lake Nona, Florida (near Orlando) runs extensive programs to help business and other leaders, especially CEOs and others in corporate C-suites, learn to be healthier, wiser, more grounded, and more effective. Lowinn Kibbey is global head of HPI. Techonomy’s David Kirkpatrick talked to him in Fall 2018.
Techonomy: One of the most celebrated leaders in business, Elon Musk, recently professed exhaustion and said it was literally impossible for him to get enough sleep. That must worry you.

J&J’s Kibbey at Techonomy 2017. (Photo: Paul Sakuma)

Kibbey: The speed of innovation and the disruptiveness of it is shaking up companies and leaders all over the world. Someone who is not your traditional competitor can come in and completely disrupt you. That is incredibly disconcerting. So when Musk talked about the pressure, the isolation, I bet 90 percent of CEOs out there exhaled, and said, “I feel the exact same way.” So intentional or not, it was brave of him. It is transparent. And it’s actually speaking for the broader zeitgeist of leadership today, with all the pressures from activists, atypical competitors, etc.
In the last year, we’ve seen more and more leaders stepping down because they’re physically exhausted, and because in some cases they’ve been conducting themselves in ways that their board of directors has found unsatisfactory.
Techonomy: So what part of all this are people least prepared for?
Kibbey: Number one, CEOs are not prepared for the step change in stress. Many of these leaders have moved across functions. That’s stressful. They’ve moved across geographies. That’s stressful. But when you land in these very top roles you’re a fish in a fishbowl. You can be a CEO giving a speech in a private strategy session, and an employee may be live-blogging it. What are you going to do? Very few people expect the step change in travel, always sleeping in an unfamiliar bed, in front of different audiences in different cultures all around the world, and having to be on the entire time. If you’re not, the news will travel around the world instantly—he or she doesn’t look healthy, or they said something inappropriate in a culture they weren’t familiar with. And finally, the isolation. Until you’re CEO, you have peers all around you. You can commiserate and share. But when you’re at that top leadership role, you feel very, very isolated.
Techonomy: One of the jobs of a leader is to prepare the next generation below her or him. How are people doing with that?
Kibbey: There’s a bifurcation we see in business models and leadership. You have the FANG companies, startups that have now become very, very big companies. Some have not learned how to transition out of a founder-led organization. Then the other 90 percent of organizations are dealing with the question: How can their own leaders be as disruptive as the startup founders? But many of the same stresses and challenges are impacting leaders whether in the newer big companies or in traditional ones. How do I create systemic leadership in this organization that will allow it to live a hundred years? Here’s a frightening statistic: Only forty-five out of a million companies last a hundred years or more.
Techonomy: So what is J&J doing about all this?
Kibbey: At Human Performance Institute, we believe there needs to be a holistic multivariable approach to doing well as a leader. There’s physical fitness, which is how you eat, how you sleep, how you move, how you exercise. There’s the mental focus of your energy, the emotional quality of your energy, the purposefulness that you have as a human being. These are sort of the four legs of the stool of your energy and your well-being, and enable you to weather the storms. It’s the same for an organization or a leader. If you want to survive the storms of change, you need to be focused on more than just one dimension of yourself.
What is 100 percent under your control is your own energy, your own resilience, and your own character-led leadership. And there’s a way to train to build each of those attributes. You can train to build energy to the very last breath you have. You can train to be more resilient. You can train to demonstrate your values, even under stress. We have a behavior change model that can be simplified to a framework of purpose, truth, action. For our Premier Executive Leadership™ program, we don’t just send them through the Mayo health assessment. We also interview their spouse, their family, their friends, so we get a view into the reality of how they behave in a number of different situations. That truth can be startling, as you can imagine. Very few leaders have ever had a 360-degree assessment from their own children.
Techonomy: What is the element leaders least understand when they come to you?
Kibbey: The first thing is that they do not understand that what they feel is very common. Because of the isolation of their role, and because it’s not common to be transparent about feeling overwhelmed and to feel not fit for the role, very few leaders share how overwhelming it is. The second thing is they’re uninformed that they need a multipronged, holistic approach to their fitness and well-being as a leader. And the third thing is that most leaders haven’t built a network around them to create support.
As a leader, every day you want to show up having a high degree of curiosity. You want to show up with intellectual agility, emotional intelligence, resilience, and perseverance. And in order to have those, you have to be able to have a high degree of energy and well-being. Because with all the stress coming at you for 365 days in the year, it’s hard to show up still curious about the core business issues, like what is really happening to us competitively. It’s hard to show up emotionally intelligent enough to say, “I don’t know the answer to that,” or “I need some smarter people around me,” or “It’s OK for that person to challenge me.”
Techonomy: Talk about the character piece. How do you work on that? Can you really intervene in a constructive way there?
Kibbey: The answer is absolutely yes. It’s a myth that character is sort of genetically coded in and that you’re either a good person or a bad person. We believe that is incorrect. We all have seen people who have gone from very strong values but had those values corrupted for one reason or another. Then other leaders have recovered and been able to re-establish themselves with a clear sense of values.
As Johnson & Johnson, in Human Performance Institute, we do not say we have perfected our own character as an organization, or even the leaders within it. What we do say is that it is critical for us to be able to articulate our values. How will you be known when you’re no longer here? We ask leaders to go on a 90-day journey with us. First they articulate their values. The second thing that we identify for them is that they can build a character muscle by focusing on their performance character and their moral character and then oscillating and exercising those muscles.
As a leader, you must build the performance muscle—things like holding people accountable. You must be confident. You must be tough-minded. But then you need to have and build out your moral character muscle, which include things like humility, empathy, and kindness. Most leaders are comfortable with the performance muscle. They know they need to be tough minded, hold people accountable, and act confident, even if they don’t feel confident. But showing transparency and being able to say “I don’t know,” having that humility, doesn’t mean you aren’t ultimately going to be a confident leader at the right time. But you need to exercise that muscle.
So if these are the values you want to be known for, how do you then, very intentionally, practice oscillating between being tough-minded and empathetic? If there’s a business failure, how do you listen for the reason the failure happened? How do you oscillate between accountability and forgiveness?
Techonomy: It’s pretty profound stuff coming from a Fortune 50 company. I appreciate that J&J is focusing on this kind of thing. But finally, talk about diet. How bad is it for the typical leader you work with?
Kibbey: Maybe 25 to 30 percent of the population we work with are very good at it. Then maybe half the people do pretty well, except that when they travel things fall apart, or when they get tired. There’s data that says that if you get less than six hours of sleep, you tend to eat about 300 more calories of carbs after 4 o’clock in the afternoon. Your body is craving energy. Then the remaining 25 to 30 percent of people, they just struggle with diet, period. It’s their stress relief, especially when they travel.