I recently enjoyed the privilege of participating in a small group online discussion with Frederick W, Smith, the founder and longtime CEO of Federal Express. Imagine being at the helm of a global disruptor like FedEx for an uncanny five decades. Think someone like that might have a few things to say about the life and times of business, society, and learning? You might be as surprised as I was about the big ideas he would most want us to embrace.
Legend has it that the initial business plan for FedEx emerged from an economics paper Smith wrote as an undergraduate at Yale University, describing the need for a reliable overnight delivery service. He best remembers receiving a grade of C on that composition. That idea grew out of his experiences as a young pilot, occasionally offering to deliver important packages for New England technology companies that he would carry in his personal travels.
Equally important in the formation of his character was a four-year stint in the U.S. Marine Corps commencing in 1966 where he received officer training and served in Vietnam. “Yale taught me to think, and the Marines taught me to do,” notes Smith in shaping his vision and leadership of FedEx, which he founded in 1971. The company began regular operations in 1973 and just celebrated its fiftieth anniversary. Smith has transitioned to executive chairman but is every bit as engaged in the company’s direction as he was at the outset.
Early market studies confirmed Smith’s thesis that there was an enormous opportunity for an integrated global delivery network that would be realized by harnessing the power of transportation machinery and sophisticated data systems. He took on the daunting task of merging the capabilities of technology with the mapping of logistics, bringing together physical assets and mathematical calculations on a vast scale. He knew that building this kind of network was a frontloaded bet, but that once established, the barriers to entry of challenging that network would create both a competitive advantage and a trusted brand among customers.
Today that network generates $90 billion in annual revenue, employs 550,000 people plus another 150,000 contractors, moves 16 million shipments each day, operates in 5000 locations in 220 countries, manages 650 planes, and coordinates 210,000 vehicles. FedEx accomplishes this through endless innovation, precision execution, and constant reinvention.
What can we learn from an incomparable entrepreneur, celebrated business leader, and caring philanthropist that might be even more exemplary than an indefatigable work ethic? My key takeaway from listening to his carefully chosen words is that humility is a choice, and Smith embraces humility not just as a core personal value, but as a motivating force that drives him to an always improving game. “The world does not begin with your birth,” he reminds us. “There is much to learn in studying the thinkers who came before you.”
Given the ceaseless advances in information technology, Smith believes it is the CEO’s job to stay immersed in the evolution of change management. In addition to the legally required standing committees of a public company’s board, he has found it essential to maintain a carefully identified technology advisory committee well versed in applied science beyond his company’s core competencies at any time to make sure those technical abilities become core competencies.
He also makes it a point to stay close to senior military leaders both formally and informally for their deep understanding of complex systems and human motivation in urgent circumstances. He has reciprocated over the years serving on key government panels and presidential commissions to help bridge the gap between private business and government, share emerging ideas, and offer his hard-won knowledge as a quiet contribution to public service.
Smith is now keenly focused on embracing the fast climb of artificial intelligence, yet another strategic inflection point both in the growth of his company and the world at large. The threat of cybersecurity has always loomed large on Smith’s short list of key concerns around systems risk, where he sees generative A.I. both exacerbating the problem and potentially forging a path to workable responses. “It will help remove the friction of international customs,” he suggests. He is also passionate about carbon capture, driving FedEx to a carbon-neutral future not just because it is the right thing to do for the environment, but because the companies that get there first will enjoy ongoing business advantages in proving models with measurable returns on investment.
The culture of FedEx remains focused on innovative practices as a competitive platform that is rooted in the company’s founding and ingrained in the necessity of proactive thought leadership. Not surprisingly, he is obsessed with teamwork and team accomplishment over individual ego and achievement. “You’re not the smartest person in the world, be humble,” he reminds us. His observations of multidisciplinary success in business, military, and government enterprises reinforce his championing of building and sustaining team dynamics.
Smith is concerned that people are now spending so much time behind video screens that their sense of reality is being distorted by inadequate forms of communication. “Thinking behind screens” does not bridge viewpoints or bring people together. He observes in social media that it creates “a place where outrage has found a business model.”
Now, about that lasting wisdom: Here’s where Smith brings down the house with his clarity of life’s lessons and unassuming purpose. Staying on the edge of technology and reinvention no matter one’s current success is more tactic than strategy for this highly accomplished individual. What is core to Smith is his embrace of mortality as a further reflection of humility. “Life is short and it ends, the clock is ticking,” he advises. “Don’t get all wrapped up in your personal self, that’s a very unhealthy thing to do.”
What is key to reminding us of our humanity in his worldview? “Maintain a sense of humor, because life in many ways is absurd, and you need to be able to laugh at yourself.” Smith clearly understands irony, has seen his share of farce, and with sporadic investments in the arts, knows a funny story when he hears one.
There you have it from one of the most successful innovators of our time: be humble, remember your mortality, and don’t lose your sense of humor. I would never have guessed that’s what I would take away from this conversation, but how delighted I am to have experienced such a treasure of actionable advice. Fred Smith understands leadership by example. Humility is evident in his journey, mortality is certainly at hand given these reflections, and if you listen at length he might just make you laugh.