Paul H. O'Neill

1935-2020

Paul O’Neill would often say that in any human organization, “With leadership, anything is possible, and without it, nothing is possible.”  

Paul O’Neill, a true leader, personified this observation.  

He inspired and guided others to achieve some of the most important accomplishments of the last 50 years in business, healthcare, education, and government.  To Paul, however, the remarkable feats he led or impacted were demonstrations meant to show every person involved, and each of us, that we could do it too, in everything that mattered.  He challenged us all to be unafraid to tap into our natural aspiration to be great, and to accomplish things together that our country and communities so desperately need. 

To name just a few examples of Paul’s leadership legacy and influence:

  • From 1987 to 2000, as CEO of Alcoa, he led the once troubled aluminum giant to become the world’s safest organization, while increasing its market size by 800%. He showed that a strategy anchored in values and something that mattered more than making aluminum – safety – could unleash remarkable performance across more than 140,000 people around the globe. 

 

  • As the head of the domestic section of (what is now) the Office of Management and Budget under President Gerald Ford, he had a leading hand in many of the most important domestic policy advances for decades.  These include not only pivotal programs such as Medicare and the Veterans Administration health system, but the creation of the nation’s first budgeting system that linked federal investments to the actual value they produced for citizens, called outcomes-based budgeting.  Later, as Treasury Secretary of the United States, he shepherded the U.S. financial system through the shock of the 9/11 attacks and their aftermath, and stood on principles, as always, even though it ultimately cost him his position. 

 

  • Paul, as a volunteer, taught and energized the spread of the safety and operational excellence movements to healthcare, personally inspiring some of the earliest proofs that long-accepted injuries and rates of medical error could be eliminated, quality of medical outcomes could be dramatically increased, and wastefulness that drives up the costs of care eliminated. 

As proof after proof emerged, Paul espoused his foundational sine qua non of excellence and urged us to use it. It started with a simple trilogy of questions that every person in an organization should be able to answer affirmatively every day, without reservation:

  • Am I treated with dignity and respect by everyone I encounter without regard to race, gender, rank, educational attainment, or any other distinguishing feature?

  • Am I given the tools, training, resources, encouragement, etc., to make a contribution to the organization that adds meaning to my life?

  • Am I recognized for that contribution by someone whose opinion matters to me?

Throughout his career and personal life, Paul lived according to his principles. Some examples include:

  • Unshakable integrity.  A clear sense of right and wrong, and acting on it. 

 

  • Relentlessly driving out any force that would demean or divide people based on any difference such as race, sexual preference, level of education, or any other differentiator.

 

  • Tapping into the human aspiration to excel, challenging ourselves to be the best in the world at everything we do.  To aspire to achieve “the theoretical limit.”  “If G0d didn’t decree we can’t do it via the laws of physics, anything is possible.”  

 

  • Transparency and taking direct ownership as the leader for things gone wrong.

 

  • Passionately promoting practical, scientifically-based, data-indicated approaches to getting better every day, focusing where people are doing the real work that helps other people, not sitting around in fancy offices.  

 

Paul saw it as a sacred leadership responsibility to aspire to perfection and create the conditions where people could collectively come amazingly close to achieving perfection by solving practical problems every day.  He saw people unwilling to transparently hold themselves accountable to this standard as unworthy of leadership.

 

Accomplishments like those achieved by people who were inspired and guided by Paul O’Neill are within each of us, and all of us together.  Paul O’Neill taught us the way.    

 

Paul O’Neill touched and inspired people in all walks of life, in many sectors, all over the world.  If you are one of those people and are willing to share how Paul O’Neill impacted your life, please contribute your thoughts to help document his legacy and form the basis of continuing it through the work of his family, allied organizations and many colleagues, by clicking the Contact Us button above. To see memories others have shared, please click Your Memories of Paul button above.

Paul H. O'Neill

- Born December 4, 1935

- 72nd Secretary to the Treasury

- Former Chairman and CEO of Alcoa

- Former Chairman of RAND Corporation

- Co-founder and Non-Executive Chairman of Value Capture

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Paul signs a dollar bill