Be optimistic. Business is challenging. Whatever we do, whether we attempt to solve some of the greatest problems plaguing mankind or provide an important service, we are going to face failure. A strong leader will have the drive and a positive outlook to guide one’s team especially in times of crisis. Ground your perspective with a sense of purpose and mission and provide your team with profoundly meaningful experiences.

We are living in the Renaissance of Work. Just like great artists know that an empty canvas can become anything, great leaders know that an entire organization — and the people inside it — can become anything, too. Master Artists and Mastering the Art of Leadership draw from the same source: creation. In this series, we’ll meet masters who are creating the future of work and painting a portrait of lasting leadership. As part of this series, we had the pleasure of interviewing John F. Crowley.

John F. Crowley is the Executive Chairman and founding CEO of Amicus Therapeutics, a biotechnology company focused on the development of treatments for rare genetic diseases. His involvement in the biotech industry began when his two children, Megan and Patrick, were diagnosed with Pompe disease, which motivated him to co-found Novazyme Pharmaceuticals and later play a lead role in the development of a drug for Pompe disease as Senior Vice President at Genzyme Therapeutics. Crowley is a veteran of the global war on terrorism and served as a commissioned officer in the U.S. Navy Reserve. Crowley has a B.S. in Foreign Service from Georgetown University, a J.D. from the University of Notre Dame Law School, and an M.B.A. from Harvard. Crowley received an honorary doctorate degree from Notre Dame in 2022, following the commencement speech he gave to the Class of 2020. He wrote a memoir and served as the inspiration for the major motion picture, Extraordinary Measures. John has also served as the National Chairman of the Board of Directors of the Make-A-Wish Foundation of America. In 2011, Crowley and his wife Aileen were bestowed the Family Exemplar Award and in 2023, Crowley received the Horatio Alger Award.

Thank you for joining us. Our readers would enjoy discovering something interesting about you. What are you in the middle of right now that you’re excited about personally or professionally?

I received a new title recently, grandfather. My eldest child, my son John Jr., and his wife Amanda welcomed Stella Aileen Crowley on June 18th, 2022. It was the best Father’s Day ever. John Jr. is on the autism spectrum and because of that he has had to try harder than most everyone else. He graduated from college, learned to live independently and got a job. Now he is married with a family of his own. As a father, I could not be more proud of my son. My granddaughter Stella has no idea how lucky she is.

I’m also very proud of my daughter Megan who recently started a new job as the Assistant Director of Mission Integration at the Make-A-Wish Foundation of New Jersey. In March 2001, when Megan was four-years-old and not expected to live to see her fifth birthday, she was granted her own wish to go to Disney World. We had the best time, away from the hospital and doctors’ visits. With the miracle of modern medicine, Megan’s life was saved and now in her mid-20’s she has the chance to help other children with life threatening illnesses fulfill their wishes.

We all get by with a little help from our friends. Who is the leader that has influenced you the most, and how?

Since I have been an entrepreneur and leader for most of my adult life, I have to say that there are two people in my life who I would consider partners and amazing pillars of support for me. First, my wife Aileen has been a tireless source of support in my life since we met in high school. She has been by my side through graduate schools to the diagnosis of our children, the chaos of starting companies and managing IPOs to my new role. Secondly, my business partner Bradley Campbell who now serves as president and CEO of Amicus Therapeutics. We met more than 20 years ago in the trenches of a consulting firm. Bradley has allowed me the opportunity to mentor him throughout his career and I could think of no one more equipped to take on my prior role. Aileen and Bradley have shown me how to become a compassionate leader.

Sometimes our biggest mistakes lead to our biggest discoveries. What’s the biggest mistake you’ve made as a leader, and what did you discover as a result?

As a leader, in order to grow the business or create innovation, you need to take smart risks. This was something I learned a long time ago and something that I actually had to learn. I had to overcome a fear of taking risks. Before I founded Novazyme to save my children, I followed a fairly safe path — John received an undergraduate degree in Foreign Service from Georgetown University. Thankfully, the risks I took to start Novazyme and sell it to Genzyme paid off. But in biotech, there are many setbacks and many failures. This business is really hard because we take on some of the greatest problems plaguing humankind. To counteract the immense possibility of failure, I focus on taking smart risks. The kinds of risks that I can justify, that are meaningful, and that have the potential to save lives.

How has your definition of leadership changed or evolved over time? What does it mean to be a leader now?

I still believe the greatest trait that a leader can have is empathy. I believe that our understanding of empathy has drastically improved over the past three years and that business leaders have embraced a more empathetic mindset. To me, the greatest capability a leader can have is to connect with others and to feel what it might be like to stand in their shoes. I often tell my team to think in any situation if you were the one who had this rare disease or if you were the parent of a child with that disease, what decisions would you make? Where would you invest your time, your expertise, your capital? Whom would you hire? This mindset will lead to better outcomes, and it will make you a better person.

Success is as often as much about what we stop as what we start. What is one legacy leadership behavior you stopped because you discovered it was no longer valuable or relevant?

We have seen a dramatic shift in leadership principles over the past three years between the COVID-19 pandemic and the re-emergence of the social justice movement. The style of command-and-control which dominated many company cultures has certainly become less popular in the past few years, and what we have tried to do at Amicus is to be transparent and meet our employees where they are. We created mental and physical wellness initiatives and one-on-one check-ins to ensure the safety and well-being of our team members. Our goal is to provide a safe space where all employees can thrive. It’s about more than creating a “product,” we have a mission to create meaningful work for all our employees.

What is one lasting leadership behavior you started or are cultivating because you believe it is valuable or relevant?

I believe in compassionate leadership. Compassionate leadership is about understanding, empathizing and supporting one’s team. I seek to understand how my team is doing — from what’s keeping them up at night to what drives them. Sometimes the magnitude of the challenges in front of us can be utterly overwhelming. I get that. I have been there. So, to see my team thrive and reach their full potential, I try to give them a sense of purpose and mission. I strive to give them profoundly meaningful experiences. As Winston Churchill once described, “step into each challenge creatively and aggressively.” I hope to inspire that in my team through compassionate leadership and encourage that “can do” spirit.

What advice would you offer to other leaders who are stuck in past playbooks and patterns and may be having a hard time letting go of what made them successful in the past?

Leaders today should have a passionate, entrepreneurial mindset. At Amicus, our mission is patient-driven. While I set the tone by creating a purpose-driven culture, the expectation is that everyone at Amicus is a passionate entrepreneur. To meet the needs of our patients, we need to constantly innovate, advance, grow and shift in response to the latest research and advancements. Our team must be nimble, and we must resist being constrained by prior thinking in order to reach our goals and provide life-enhancing treatments for the patients we serve.

Many of our readers can relate to the challenge of leading people for the first time. What advice would you offer to new and emerging leaders?

Being a leader doesn’t always mean that you make the decisions or come up with the ideas or have all the answers. It’s important to get buy-in from your teams and to delegate responsibility to others, especially those who might (and probably do) know more than you. For example, when we started Amicus Therapeutics in 2005, I wanted a belief statement that set us apart. I compiled a team of a dozen non-executives and assigned them to draft the statement after I wrote the first two words, “we believe.” After six months, we had two dozen bullet points that became our belief statement. It’s the same one today. Empowering my team to develop these values and allowing those values to radiate from within makes leading my team a group effort and an exercise in compassionate leadership.

Based on your experience or research, what are the top five traits effective leaders exemplify now? Please share a story or an example for each.

To be a great leader, begin small by aiming to change just one life. You never know the enduring effects it will have on that one life…or countless others. For example, Make-A-Wish started with one child in need named Christopher James Greicius who was in the last stages of a struggle with leukemia 7 years old in 1980. Chris had mentioned to his mom he wanted to be a police officer, so his mother Linda asked some friends if there was something “special” they could do for him. A few days later, Chris visited the headquarters of the Arizona Department of Public Safety where he went for a ride in a police helicopter as well as a squad car and, perhaps most special of all, he was presented with an official Arizona State Trooper custom fitted uniform. Despite the terrible suffering he had endured, that one day lifted his spirits more than anyone could have ever imagined. His Mom commented years later that “There was so much love coming from total strangers. They made a little boy’s wish come true.” Chris passed away four days later. A few weeks after, Linda and the officers began Make-A-Wish to make the dreams of others, like Chris, come true.

Be optimistic. Business is challenging. Whatever we do, whether we attempt to solve some of the greatest problems plaguing mankind or provide an important service, we are going to face failure. A strong leader will have the drive and a positive outlook to guide one’s team especially in times of crisis. Ground your perspective with a sense of purpose and mission and provide your team with profoundly meaningful experiences.

Honor the importance of the sacrifice of others. This means honoring your parents and family members who sacrificed to bring you the gift of an upbringing, an education and moral compass to do the right things in the world. And it’s recalling and honoring people in history like Rosa Parks, who said with a quiet voice and enormous courage, “No, I will not.” Always honor and respect the sacrifices of those who made your success possible.

Possess a sense of faith. As John F. Kennedy said in his inaugural address, “With a good conscience our only sure reward, with history the final judge of our deeds, let us go forth to lead the land we love, asking His blessing and His help, but knowing that here on earth God’s work must truly be our own.” I have always been guided by a trust in God and truly believe that has helped me throughout my career as a leader.

The wisdom to know why you are fighting. Many years ago, I realized why we were fighting to make life saving medicines for rare and devastating diseases. We had just completed a successful two-week IPO roadshow for Amicus, culminating with a spot on CNBC as we rang the bell to close the stock exchange. When I headed back home, I checked on the kids. John and Patrick were sound asleep. While Megan was asleep, she immediately woke up when I entered her room. She smiled and threw her arms open for a hug and said, “Daddy! You’re home. I missed you!” I told her that I missed her, too. Then we chatted about my trip, and she mentioned seeing me on TV. I asked her I looked. She replied, “Well, Daddy you looked really, really…kinda…short.” And while that moment was humbling, she went on to say that my tie looked sharp and asked if I would drive her to school the next day. I said yes, and we both said I love you before wishing each other a good night.

As I walked out of her room that night, I realized why we were fighting for life saving medicines. 10-year-old Megan Kathryn Crowley truly did not care about an IPO or TV show. What she cared about was that her dad was home after a long business trip and could take her to school. That was what she cared about. And I realized then that is why we had fought so hard for all those years — and still fight today. It is to create more simple moments like that between families and loved ones. Moments that collectively make up our journeys in life with the people we love.

American Basketball Coach John Wooden said, “Make each day your masterpiece.” How do you embody that quote? We welcome a story or example.

Similar to what Mr. Wooden said, I strive to “live a life worthy of their sacrifice.” On my return from active duty in the Middle East, I was waiting for my flight at Bagram Airfield when I saw a poster that said, “A tribute to all who have fallen during Operation Enduring Freedom. Live a life worthy of their sacrifice.” Six days later, I learned that my team of 30 American servicemembers died when their helicopter was downed in Afghanistan. This was one of the most solemn experiences of my life and reinforced how significant the statement on the poster truly was. I live my life with gratitude, determination and perseverance, knowing that others have made the ultimate sacrifice.

What is the legacy you aspire to leave as a leader?

It’s bigger than you. Whatever “it” is. “It’s” bigger than them. It’s bigger than you. It’s bigger than all of us. I often reflect on the story of Dr. Jonas Salk who invented the polio vaccine. He failed many times before he succeeded. After one of his failures, Dr. Salk sat on a park bench contemplating how he would communicate his failure to his family, colleagues and to his academic superiors. Then, as he saw children playing on the playground before him, it dawned on him that without a polio vaccine, some of those children would contract polio. Some of them may even die or be confined to an iron lung. He realized, the enormity of the importance of his work and returned to it with a renewed vigor. Dr. Salk understood that “it’s bigger than you.” For me, understanding that “it’s bigger than you” gives me purpose to continue pursuing treatments for rare genetic disease, despite the challenges.

How can our readers connect with you to continue the conversation?

I welcome anyone to follow me on LinkedIn.

Thank you for giving us the opportunity to experience a leadership master at work. We wish you continued success and good health!