At the CEO of the Year award gala, Dan Bigman, Editor-in-Chief, and I interviewed Ken Frazier, 2021 CEO of the Year, and Brian Moynihan, 2020 CEO of the Year to learn their perspectives on leadership.

I've had the honor to serve as Special Advisor to the CEO of the Year Award for the past several years. Working closely with the Selection Committee CEOs to define the essential qualities of leadership and to evaluate some of the finest leaders in America is a weighty task; it’s not just a pleasure but a real privilege. 

This year’s selection – Ken Frazier of Merck – was especially meaningful for me because Ken is a leader known for asking – and answering – the fundamental question, ‘What should drive a leader?’

The COVID pandemic has changed us all. It has challenged every one of us, as it has turned the tables on global businesses. On the largest stage possible, it has proven the essential need for purpose-driven leadership.

Ken Frazier isn’t just a good businessman. Ken is a leader driven by purpose. In answer to my very first question to Ken, “What have you learned about leadership during the pandemic?” his answer was very revealing. Ken said that in order to provide strong leadership, those in positions of authority must be deeply rooted in the values and principles of their organizations, and must show a connection between choices, decisions, and behaviors to those underlying values and principles. About purpose-driven leadership, Ken said simply, “It’s not about me; purpose-led leadership goes back 130 years (in Merck’s history).”

Ken knows what a leader must do and was very clear about what his role as leader is all about: “I didn't create that sense of purpose. I think my job is to reinforce it every chance I get.” And on the topic of creating followership, Ken added, “My job is to care about and to have empathy for the people I am leading. We know that the rate of people with mental illness quadrupled during this time and the strain on families and childcare is enormous. My job is to care, and to show that caring and empathy through action.”

Ken Frazier represents the very best in leadership because he is rooted in the values and purpose of Merck and he connects that awareness to the many constituencies he serves.  Congratulations, Ken.