Morton Mandel

Generous. In a word, that was Morton Mandel, who died October 16 at age 98. Generous with his resources. With his time. With his wisdom.

“I’m proud of who they were,” Morton Mandel, center, said of his brothers Joseph, left, and Jack, right. They launched their foundation in 1953. | Photo: Nannette Bedway

Morton Mandel’s long history of support for Cleveland Clinic included a $23 million gift from the Jack, Joseph and Morton Mandel Foundation for preparing future healthcare leaders at the Jack, Joseph and Morton Mandel Global Leadership and Learning Institute. A few weeks before his passing, Mandel spoke to Cleveland Clinic Magazine about leadership, philanthropy and the true measure of a life well lived.

Cultivating outstanding leaders is central to your philanthropy. Why?

I’m convinced that it’s not a crazy idea to think you can change the world by changing the leaders. The fact is: You can.

The great ones stand out. And those who stand out are the ones who change the world.

History is a study of the lives of humans who were either highly capable and moved the world forwardor, in some cases, not capable and moved the world in the wrong direction.

The quality of Cleveland Clinic or almost any institution is, to a great extent, a function of the quality of the people at the top.

Vince Lombardi said leaders aren’t born; they’re made. Do you agree?

They have to be born, then made. Many people are born with the right qualities, but they don’t get on the right track to become leaders.

What makes a great leader?

We built our company using five key criteria for deciding whether or not to promote someone.

First would beare you sitting down?values: integrity, honesty, decency, respect, trust. Would I let this person hold my wallet? If I decide I wouldn’t, I won’t promote them.

They also have to have intellectual firepower, passion and a strong work ethic. I want to know about their experience, too. But for me, experience isn’t the first considerationit’s fifth.

So it’s a mistake to stare too hard at someone’s résumé before you consider those other attributes?

100% right.


What’s the shortest route to a better world? Morton Mandel shares a few thoughts on philanthropy and leadership development.

Which individuals or experiences shaped you as a leader?

I had the greatest fortune someone can have: I was born into a home where my father’s and mother’s values were the best of Western civilization. They were immigrants, and America was the land of milk and honey to them.

I’m proud of my parents, my two brothers and my sister. I’m proud of who they were.

Growing up, we weren’t rich, but we weren’t poor, either. In our house, there was always enough money to give to local charities. Very small gifts, but gifts that meant maybe my mother didn’t buy herself a pair of shoes.

For years after our parents were gone, my brothers and I would be talking about a business situation or current events and one of us would say, “You know, Mom wouldn’t have liked that.”

We started our foundation in 1953. To this day, I’m still trying to please my mother.

You’ve said – with a nod to Andrew Carnegie – that giving away money thoughtfully is hard work.

Yes. We’ve tried to run our foundation and our charitable efforts the same way we ran our business.

We started out as Premier Automotive Supply Company, which became Premier Industrial Corporation. It had 15 divisions when we got out of it.

Most things we tried succeeded, but many things didn’t. That’s called trial and error [laughs]. And that’s what we did.

In philanthropy, you’re responding to an infinite list of needs, so there are areas that we specialize in and there are areas we just can’t get into.

If the gift is significant, we not only ask how you’ll use the money, but in six months or six years – whatever makes sense – we want an evaluation. How did things work out?

We learned a lot from developing our business. We learned that some organizations that ask for money are disorganized. Some are tired. And some are full of enthusiasm – look for those.

In your book It’s All About Who, you compare philanthropy to lighting candles. You write: “To light a candle is to make the world a better place.”

Anybody can light a candle. Anybody! When I talk about lighting candles, it doesn’t have to be a $23 million contribution. It just has to be a good deed.

When you look in the mirror, if you see someone who has been a good son or a good daughter to your parents, a good partner to your partner, a good parent to your children, a good employee and someone who has always tried to do the right thing – that’s my definition of success.

It’s not about fame. It’s not about fortune. Success is when you look in the mirror and you see a good person.