Lifetime Achievement Awardee

John Gardner

John W. Gardner (1912-2002) has been described as a “quintessential American hero,”1 “a beloved public figure,”2 and “an eloquent voice for citizen participation.”3

Gardner’s life epitomized the balance between reflection and action required by the complex, wicked problems society faces. His reflective practices extended to examinations of his own life and action based on the self-knowledge he gleaned. He returned to college a year and a half after dropping out to attempt his hand at novel writing having realized he did not know enough about people to be an excellent writer—a realization that impacted his choice of academic study, psychology, at Stanford and UC-Berkeley, where he received his Ph.D. He turned down Bobby Kennedy’s vacant senate seat and calls for a presidential run, believing that he was too old for politics and that what the country needed was more citizen involvement and accountability—a turn that lead to his foundation of Common Cause and, later, Independent Sector. And, after speaking on the topic of leadership for several years from the perspective of an observer and practitioner, he devoted five years of study to the topic and published the classic On Leadership after returning to Stanford as the Haas Centennial Professor of Public Service.

In addition to the inspiration many find from his books, (Excellence, Self-Renewal, On Leadership, etc.), not a day goes by that our lives are not in some ways touched by his legacy. As President of the Carnegie Corporation, he proposed the White House Fellows program and, earlier in his career there, helped start the Model United Nations. As the Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare under President Johnson, he was an integral part of Johnson’s “Great Society,” leading the agency in its launch of Medicare, the creation of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, and a substantial investment in secondary education—feats even more notable when you consider that he was the sole Republican in Johnson’s cabinet. He is even credited with coining the phrase, “the pursuit of excellence.”

An eternal optimist, throughout his life he remained devoted to the “American Experiment.” The recipient of numerous awards, he was presented with the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1964, the highest civilian honor given in the U.S.

1. PBS. John Gardner: Uncommon American. Retrieved from
2. Stanford University, Haas Center for Public Service . Biography of John Gardner. Retrieved from
3. McFadden, Robert. (2002, February 18). John W. Gardner, 89, Founder of Common Cause and Adviser to Presidents, Dies. New York Times, Retrieved from