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The Value of Human-centered Leadership During Crisis

In 1977, I embarked on a transformative journey with Johnson & Johnson, joining as a Division Manager for Wound Management Products. My role focused not only on leading product and sales strategies but also on embodying the principles of human-centered leadership—an approach that was soon put to a critical test.

In 1982, Johnson & Johnson faced an unprecedented crisis when the Tylenol product was linked to several tragic deaths due to tampering. Under the leadership of then-CEO Jim Burke, the company made a bold and ethical decision: despite Tylenol being a highly profitable product, it was immediately pulled from the market to ensure customer safety. This decision was a direct reflection of the company’s Credo, which emphasizes the responsibilities to the users of our products and the communities we serve. At the time, the Credo stated:

"We believe our first responsibility is to the doctors, nurses, and patients, to mothers and fathers and all others who use our products and services."

This human-centered leadership action, guided by our Credo, not only protected the public but also set a new standard in corporate responsibility. The decision to recall Tylenol was followed by introducing innovative tamper-proof packaging, marking the debut of the safety cap—a pioneering advancement in consumer safety.

The aftermath of the crisis showcased the strength of human-centered leadership. Tylenol not only regained its market share but also expanded it. This resurgence was a testament to the trust and loyalty we rebuilt with our customers, proving that ethical leadership and adherence to core values are pivotal in long-term business success.

As I continued my journey at Johnson & Johnson for over 13 years, these experiences underscored the importance of leadership, which prioritizes human values above all. The lessons from the Tylenol crisis continue to influence how we design human-leadership workshops to create human-centered cultures and best-in-market performance, and how to apply these principles in human-centered care and health equity, ensuring that human-centered organizations remain committed to the health and safety of racial and culturally diverse communities.

By embracing human-centered leadership, companies like Johnson & Johnson demonstrate how businesses can lead with heart and responsibility, turning challenges into opportunities to reaffirm their commitment to the people they serve.


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