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June 15, 2021

Be Fearless; 5 Principles for a Life of Breakthroughs and Purpose with Jean Case | Greater Washington DC DMV Changemaker

Be Fearless; 5 Principles for a Life of Breakthroughs and Purpose with Jean Case | Greater Washington DC DMV Changemaker
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In this episode of Partnering Leadership, Mahan Tavakoli speaks with Jean Case, Chairman of National Geographic Society, CEO of the Case Foundation, CEO of Case Impact Network, and author of Be Fearless: 5 Principles for a Life of Breakthroughs and Purpose.Jean Case talks about the 5 Principles to cultivate fearlessness: 1) Make a Big Bet 2) Be bold, take risks 3) Make failure matter 4) Reach beyond your bubble and 5) Let urgency conquer fear. Jean discusses each principle, citing real-life stories and offering meaningful advice to truly Be Fearless. 


Some highlights:

-Why parents should encourage their children to take risks even at a young age

-Jean Case’s upbringing and why it is usually ordinary people who tend do extraordinary things

-On making a big bet, but starting where you are

-Jean Case’s career at General Electric and why she took the risk and left

-The important role of failure and how you can make it matter

-Jean’s advice on taking risks and facing failure

-Jean Case on intentionality and measuring what matters when breaking barriers

-How diversity can benefit organizations

-Why Jean Case believes fear is never absent and how you can let the power of urgency help you conquer fear 

-How to promote diversity, equity, and inclusion in organizations

-Jean Case on using social media for deep listening and connecting to your stakeholders 

-On starting your leadership journey by finding solutions to problems others don’t see



Barbara Van Dahlen, founder and president of Give an Hour


How We Got to Nowby Steven Johnson

Brave Companionsby David McCullough

The Premonitionby Michael Lewis



Connect with Jean Case:

Be Fearless Book Website

Be Fearless on Amazon

Case Foundation Be Fearless Hub Website

Case Foundation Website

National Geographic Society Website

Jean Case on Facebook

Jean Case on Twitter

Jean Case on LinkedIn


Connect with Mahan Tavakoli:



More information and resources available at the Partnering Leadership Podcast website: 



Mahan Tavakoli: 

Welcome to Partnering Leadership. I'm really excited this week to be welcoming Jean Case. She is the chairman of National Geographic Society, CEO of the Case Foundation, and CEO of Case Impact Network. Now, we spent some time talking about Jean's own background, which has obviously had a significant impact on her, also some time talking about Jean's book Be Fearless: 5 Principles for a Life of Breakthroughs and Purpose

Now, those of you that follow this podcast know that I am a big believer in purpose. However, we need to know what we can do to become more fearless to achieve that purpose. And the many stories that Jean shares in her book, the authenticity with which she does so can be both truly inspiring and instructional as we look to have a greater impact and greater purpose. 

I love the wonderful leadership she also shows, not just by the principles that she talks about, but through the leadership she has shown in helping transform National Geographic Society and impacting so many organizations, whether it's through the great work of the Case Foundation or the Case Impact Network. So it's not just talking the principles, it is living the principles, which is why I absolutely loved this conversation. 

I told Jean, I love the book. I am a big believer of it. I've shared it with my wife, my girls. It is a business book, but I think all leaders of all ages, including my girls, can draw inspiration from the examples and the principles shared to live a life of breakthroughs and purpose.

Now, I also love hearing from all of you, so keep your comments coming, mahan@mahantavakoli.com. On the PartneringLeadership.com, there's a microphone icon, you can leave voice messages for me there, love hearing those voice messages. And finally, don't forget to follow the podcast and those of you that enjoy it on Apple, leave a rating and review when you get a chance. That will help more people find these conversations and benefit from them. Now, here is my conversation with Jean Case. 

Mahan Tavakoli: 

Jean Case, welcome to Partnering Leadership. I am thrilled to have you in this conversation with me. 

Jean Case: 

Great to be with you, Mahan. Thanks for having me. 

Mahan Tavakoli: 

Jean, I absolutely love your story, your impact, and your book alsoBe Fearless. After I read it and fell in love with it, I had my daughter read it and she got a lot of inspiration and she became more fearless as a result of it. Then my wife wanting to start her business, she read it, she fell in love with it. And most recently, we had our 12-year-old read it, and she fell in love with it. So you've got a big family of Jean Case and Be Fearless fans. 

Jean Case: 

Sounds like a fearless family, I love it. You know, I was really touched to learn right out of the gate that, you know, some of the parents actually listen to the book with their children, etcetera. So, makes me so happy to hear when younger people are really taking some things away from the book too. So thanks for that. 

Mahan Tavakoli: 

It is. And you also touch on it in the book, Jean, that there is a need for a risk-taking, even for younger people, in order to become fearless rather than us as parents trying to protect them and keep them away from risk.

Jean Case:

Yeah. You know, you might recall, I actually sort of directed that at parents because, and I was really very clear and transparent that I have this problem too so I'm no like perfect model. But I did realize pretty early on that my instinct as a mom was to protect my children. But the overwhelming social science that we can talk about is, you know, in our time together today, really says that, you know, great things just don't come from the comfort zone. 

We really do need to understand the importance of risk in growing, and in, you know, bringing change, not only to our lives, but to the world around us—and it's counter. And, you know, I think every mom and dad has a different sense of, you know, how protective they are of their children, but I do think the moms are often the mama bears and our first instinct is to protect. And I've really tried to bring a discipline or I did in my raising of children to be aware of that. And sometimes, you know, push myself away from that, you know, oh, don't be too protective. Let them really, you know, kind of expand their wings and branch out a little. 

Mahan Tavakoli: 

And those were wonderful insights, knowing that the book though is primarily a leadership book, and one that I use with organizations that I work with, recommending to them that all leaders, all individuals within organization need to become more fearless. But Jean, your story and your upbringing had a big impact on you, growing up in 'normal Illinois.' How did that upbringing impact your worldview? 

Jean Case:

Sure. Well, just to step back for a minute, you know, this book was born out of some work that the Case Foundation undertook several years ago, asking the big questions about, you know, what's behind breakthroughs and transformational change? And quite honestly, Mahan, we had some, I guess looking back now, we'd say biases. We had presumed it might be some things and we wanted social scientists to go to school on it. 

So they looked across geographies, and across sectors, and across time at great breakthroughs and transformational change makers. And what they discovered was really powerful, and it was a big surprise to us. It's that it's ordinary people who do extraordinary things, but how they achieve it is through the application of the five principles that are included in the book. 

So for me, I really got that. I mean, I was literally born in a town called normal, a small town with a cornfield in my backyard, where everybody knew your name. And I came to realize, you know, anyone looking at my life at that point could never have suspected that I would go on to have the opportunities I did in life to pursue. 

And that's true of all of us. And I think it's good news for all of us. I like to say, yes, you can be the one, okay? Because it is ordinary people who do extraordinary things. Now, in fairness, there's part of me that doesn't like that 'cause I don't think anyone's ordinary, but I think it's very easy to think of ourselves as ordinary. 

And so that was really a, I think a really big breakthrough, "aha" moment for us because many of us believe, and we have head talk that says, you know, "You don't have what it takes. You need this or you need that." Well, I'm here to tell you, you do, but it really is understanding the role of these five principles and, you know, the role they play in change making. 

Mahan Tavakoli: 

And that's one of the reasons I love the book , Jean, because there are a lot of times we hear stories of people that have done huge things and it almost seems unreachable to us. So your first point is make a big bet, but start right where you are. 

Jean Case: 

Yes. And as you know, Mahan, I really tried to profile leaders who, again, just like me, when you look at their earlier life or the point at which they were pursuing something great, no one would have believed that they could, you know, achieve things. And Barbara Van Dahlen, of course, is the first profile, a local, you know, sort of sole practitioner counselor here who built a dramatic network of mental health workers across the nation to do pro bono work, to fill a gap in our nation for mental health care. 

So I really wanted to start with her story because if you looked at her, she didn't have the resources, she didn't have an organizational building background, she didn't even have an assistant when she got started. And it's a great example, I think of, you know, starting right where you are and just taking what you have. 

Mahan Tavakoli: 

And you go on from there, that you need to be bold and take risks. Even you had to take a risk, Jean. Everyone can look at your subsequent success, but you were working at General Electric, which was the brand name globally. You decided to take a risk and leave GE. 

Jean Case: 

I did. And I have to tell you, you know, I really thought like I had landed when I got to GE and I was fortunate enough to be on their kind of fast management track. They have this very famous management school that I had the privilege of being part of. And yeah, I got this call from this company that I had never heard of, new startup, and they were, you know, trying to do some early hires and they, and it was, I had been working to try to build an online service for GE. Prior to that, I'd been at the nation's first online service.

So this company was build- wanted to build one and ask if I'd come in as marketing head. And, you know, because I had been in GE, I could see that GE really wasn't willing to take the risk and do sort of the disruptive things to really go forward. And what we call the internet today, back then it was called 'online services.' And I really believed that a startup culture, which was more risk taking, you know, didn't have a starting point of, you know, don't mess with those profits to go build something new, might be a better way to go forward. 

So I made the leap, but as you know, Mahan, as I tell in the book, boy, I was met with tremendous resistance of sort of my village, if you will. They were shrieking, "You're leaving like the best job, the best company to go throw it all away and risk it on this new company." But I did have a sense at the time that this company was onto something, and that they had risk-taking in their DNA, and that was going to be necessary to grow this new sector.

And of course that ultimately became AOL. And we ultimately, not only built a great service, you know, we carried 50% of the nation's internet traffic. We help usher in the internet revolution. And we really were the best performing stock of the decade in the 1990s. So, tremendous company. Of course, the story didn't end so well and I touch on that in the book as well, but in the years that we were building it, you know, it was a really, a great example of startup DNA. 

Mahan Tavakoli: 

Yeah, and Jean, we tend to celebrate the successes post that risk-taking, and we tend not to support people when they're at a step when they should be taking the risk. So that's part of what you did in leaving GE. Maybe GE should have listened to your advice back then, but that's a different story. But we need to become more mindful of celebrating the risks while they're being taken and supporting the risks. Now they could lead to failure, which is why your third point is make failure matter. 

Jean Case: 


Mahan Tavakoli: 

And I absolutely love the fact that you are willing as an authentic leader to share one of your own in saying, it's okay to fail and as a leader, to own up to that failure. 

Jean Case: 

Yeah, I've talked and written quite a bit about my failures. And as I look back at my life, it was those failure moments that set me up for something great down the line. But of course, I couldn't have known that in the moment and it was scary and you know, really hard to get through it. It's only when you've gone past it, you can look back and appreciate the role of failure. 

And I really encourage leaders to think about their own failure moments, and how they or their organizations grew from that, and to share that with employees. You know, when I get in front of college students, I read my failure resume after my illustrious sounding resume, which never sounds like me as read. And, you know, I think it brings a certain authenticity with young people to be courageous enough to say, "Look, you know, we all think success is a straight line, but success really is built on, you know, rises and falls." And, you know, I think we can encourage them to sort of be more fearless through their times of challenge when we talk about our own. 

Mahan Tavakoli: 

For all of us, it's hard, Jean. Obviously, I had read your book first a couple of years back and I've read it a couple of times since, and it was in rereading of it and preparing for this interview that I said, you know what? I need to start that failure resume. It's hard. 

So I would give people advice to do that before, but it took a lot of courage on my own after reading your book 3 or 4 times to sit down and start writing the failures. Not failures that people tend to say in job interviews, but real failures that you can own up to that eventually, obviously you learn from, and moved on, and became hopefully better as a result.

Jean Case: 

Yeah and I want to say, you know, there's this really interesting relationship between risk and failure. Of course, both of them make people feel really uncomfortable, and both can stop people in their tracks. But you know, I think bringing a perspective to it, which I share in the book, you know, Thomas Edison said "I haven't failed, I've just found 10,000 things that won't work." And really, what he was doing was running a lab. And when we think about it, in science, and in medicine, and in technology, you actually want to fail. You put experiments out there to find where the failures are so that you can perfect the product. 

So I often advise people when they're thinking about taking risks, first of all understand your own risk tolerance. I put some tools and techniques in there to try to give people some resources to decide, is this a reckless risk? Is this a measured risk? And I really encourage people to think about, you know, can they chunk down a risk? So that if they do experience failure, you know, they can just refine things. It's not like it's curtains. 

And then, you know, I think there's been so much great stuff written about failure, but I present again to students in my MBA classes, I call it 'Fail in the Footsteps of Giants', which of course is one of the chapters in the book, because people are so unaware of, you know, the icons and the heroes that we have and what they've achieved. They often have no idea, you know, that Michael Jordan was cut from his high school basketball team and went home and cried in the closet, that Oprah was fired and told she's just not right for television, you know, that Thomas Edison was told he's too stupid to learn. 

So you know, failure really plays, you sort of want failure in life. And one of the ways I encourage people to get comfortable with risk taking and failure is to say, "If you think about risks you're going to take as your personal R&D", right? Because in the lab it's called R&D. And again, nobody hangs their head when you have a failure, you actually want it because it's going to perfect.

If we did that in our own personal lives and we understood, okay, this is R&D, I'm going to try some things going into it knowing some of it's going to work, some of it's not. It somehow takes away the power and the fear of failure a little bit, but a lot of people don't approach it with that kind of mindset.

Mahan Tavakoli: 

It is a great mindset to have, and it does take consistent training around it. So it's not something that you hear once and then you do it, which is why I shared my personal example. Sometimes it takes repeated reflection on it for us to be able to do that. 

Now, you also mentioned that it's important for us to reach beyond our bubble, whether as individuals or leaders of organizations, and to be comfortable hearing different points of view. I find that it's really, really hard to do. A lot of people say, "I do that already", leaders say, "I do that already." So how do you encourage leaders to be able to go beyond and break through their own bubbles? 

Jean Case: 

Well, first of all, I really appreciate your honesty about that because there really are a lot of leaders that won't own up to it and it is hard. And the only way it happens is to be very intentional. You know, we say measure what matters, right? If there isn't truly a measurement of your progress here, good luck with that. If it's just something that you have out there that you want to do. 

And by the way, I think that's true of almost anything. And I talk about that in the book as well. Like, you know, if you have an idea about doing something, well, what are you doing today about it? What are you doing tomorrow about it? Like, it has to be on an action list. It has to be calendared. You got to commit to it.

 So it is hard work and it takes intentionality, but the reason leaders should do it, I mean, some will realize that expanding their networks or their bubbles, as we like to call them, they'll do it almost for social justice purposes because they think they should, okay? But others know that Deloitte and McKinsey and so many bodies of research today are making it clear that diverse teams outperform. They outperform in terms of being more innovative. And they outperform, particularly in terms of profits and of financial outperformance. In some cases, by as much as 30%. You know, Deloitte does a great annual report. 

So in working with leaders, I kind of feel like they fall in three buckets, right? They fall in those who are social justice warriors, and they just really want to do it because it's the right thing. There are others who feel political pressure, so they're going to do something. And then there's others who don't want to, but they will be sold because they realize the benefits it will bring to them or to their business. And I'm kind of agnostic about any of that. I just want to see a change. 

And, you know, and if you make, if you make it something that you care about, if it matters and you're going to measure it, it will get done. But it has to be intentionality just like you're talking about. 

Mahan Tavakoli: 

That intentionality and actually following through with it, which I love. Now, my favorite is your last one, let urgency conquer fear. And especially when you say, "What would you do if you weren't afraid?" 

Jean Case: 

Yeah. You know, that is kind of a Silicon Valley mantra. And while we're very focused on bringing innovation all over the country and not just saying all of it belongs out there. I do think that's in the DNA and that is behind why so many particularly young people have boldly brought forward their ideas and people of all ages have financed them. And I think it's a mantra that more of us could actually, you know, use. 

And I think, you know, turns out nothing good comes from the comfort zone. And you will be afraid, okay? Since I haven't met too many people who have an absence of fear, but I think what we're talking about here in the work of Be Fearless is really digging deep, letting urgency conquer fear. Martin Luther King Jr. called it "The fierce urgency of now." And recognizing you have that fear, but digging deep and pushing past it to do what you need to do.

And again, we've already talked about, you know, understanding the risks you're going to take and can you chunk it down so it's more snackable, if you will? There's all kinds of ways that whatever your life demands right now, in terms of how much capacity you have for risk-taking and for getting out of your comfort zone, there's a place for you to grow and to begin on the journey of change-making that, you know, you might have in your mind.

Mahan Tavakoli: 

And you are also supporting some of that in the community, most especially with Case Impact Network, because you're a big believer of the power of business to do good and inclusive leadership. So how would you recommend for leaders of organizations and our community to create more inclusive environments and support businesses that do good?

Jean Case: 

Yeah, well, you know, I've been pretty straightforward about the fact that, particularly since the George Floyd murder, we've taken very seriously at the National Geographic Society, diversity, equity, and inclusion. And you know, a term that HR teams are using and some social science work is referring to is 'belonging.'

And I think that if you can honestly come to a table saying, "I've had my experiences and they've led me, you know, and the kind of background I have, they've led me to see the world this way." And recognize that everyone around the table comes to the table like that. But with an intentionality to say, "What can I learn today?" and "How can you broaden my perspective?" 

And you know, really inviting in and, you know, inclusion really means not just putting them at the table, but really making them feel included in a meaningful way. And I think to do that in the way that it really needs to be done to transform organizations, leaders are going to have to get out of their comfort zone. And it's going to require deep listening skills and then deep learning applied, you know, to their environments to make sure that they're doing all they can to be inclusive and create a sense of belonging for all of their teams. But the payoff is amazing if you can get there. It just takes a lot of work. 

Mahan Tavakoli:

And I know you've also done that yourself, Jean, as the first board chair of National Geographic in its more than 130-year history in making improvements in the diversity and inclusion. Whether it's the explorer class or the reach of the organization, you have really been an advocate for what you're talking about and have done it, it's not just talk. 

Jean Case: 

Yeah, well, you know, we like to say, "We like to stay on the front lines of the unknown", but the fact of the matter is while traditionally in the last, you know, hundred plus years, it has mostly been white men from America, you know, really sent out to those front lines of the unknown. We're realizing the incredible power of using even indigenous people to help us understand the story of their land and what's taking place.

We have explorers who come from countries all over the world today. So our class of explorers today is 51% female, dozens and dozens of countries represented within that, and really bringing a perspective that we couldn't have had coming from the United States to their place and trying to understand everything that needs to be understood.

So it's an exciting time, but it's not just explorers. You know, our C-suite is richly diverse. We have our first ever female CEO. Our board, I'll put it against almost any board in terms of its rich diversity. And what we find is that isn't checking the box. I mean, we are firing on all pistons because we have all these rich conversations and so many times I'll go, "Ah! I never even thought about it." 

And it's because somebody's bringing a very different perspective than I have. And that's really what we should all want for our teams. That's how we'll get better, faster, stronger. And the data, as I said, with both Deloitte and McKinsey is overwhelming to demonstrate that that's how you outperform, and that's what we're trying to do at National Geographic.

Mahan Tavakoli: 

And that's the way for leaders to continually transform their organizations, which is going to be needed even more so. Part of what we talked about is the fact that this is an acceleration. Therefore, all organizations need to reinvent themselves faster and faster. The kind of diversity and diverse points of view that you have surrounded yourself with on the board at National Geographic and in the senior leadership of the organization, helps the organization constantly transform to be relevant and even better into the future. 

Jean Case: 

Yeah and what I would say to, you know, the leaders out there that are joining us in this podcast, it's interesting because I think that you can also even use social media as a means for deep listening, because again, at National Geographic, we have 150 million Instagram followers. We are the biggest social media footprint of any brand in the world. But you know, that's not a bragging point. What that does is connect us powerfully through all of our platforms, our cable channels, Disney Plus, and you know, the programming we provide there, our magazine, our social media, our website, we reach nearly a billion people every month.

It's a real power to be able to hear from and pay attention to what's our tribe of nearly a billion people out there telling us? What do they want to see? What have we gotten right? What should we do less of and more of? And I think a lot of companies don't view social media in that light, which is it can connect you to your stakeholders in a really meaningful way if you're willing to spend the time to listen and learn. 

Mahan Tavakoli: 

Well, you have been fearless in leading National Geographic also, Jean. And your book is absolutely, as I've mentioned, not only an outstanding book to read once, but repeatedly, because for me, the points are points that need to be reflected on. It's not things that we need to intellectually understand. It's things that we need to embrace with our hearts and our souls, and then put into practice. 

So in addition to Be Fearless, when you're asked for leadership resources, whether books or other practices that you think leaders should pursue to become more effective leaders, what do you typically recommend?

Jean Case: 

Well, it's interesting, you know, because with our teams here, we often read books together. If we feel, if one of us has read one and we think it really does inform. So one of the, I really feel one of the groundbreaking books we read together as a team is Steven Johnson's How We Got to Now. And I think it's such an important book because it takes a small number of things that have changed the world and kind of goes to school on how did that happen? 

So it's very eyeopening, I learned a lot about sort of the journey to get to where we are today, but it's storytelling and it's engaging. So I would highly recommend that book to leaders and to teams, to be honest with you. It's a few years old now, but it's great, and he has like a podcast and other things. 

You know, a couple of books I've just read, one is not new, but I just read it. I thought I had read all of David McCullough's books, but I had missed one in the 1990s called Brave Companions. And I was so struck by how relevant that book was that he could have written it last year. I literally couldn't stop reading it. I think I probably read it inside of a day and a half. Terrific profiles of people and breakthroughs, and great history of our nation, but it's a storytelling book and he is maybe the world's best storyteller. 

And then just this weekend, I read Michael Lewis's [The] Premonition. And I think that it's kind of relevant. I want to put a word out to the audience, it was laced with a lot of really bad language, which I was a little disappointed by because I'd love to send it to some young, just like, you know, your daughters. I think they could read it and understand it. 

But if you put sort of that aside, it is a fascinating story of the, what led to the first pandemic plan here in the United States, which was under George W. Bush, and then how it evolved to the point where we are today, or didn't depending on how you look at it. 

But I think what's really interesting is I've always been a fan of the power of data, you know, to tell us things. And data alone doesn't change hearts and minds, storytelling does. But data can be a great place to build a story around, and I think that's what this book does. And I think there's lessons in there for leaders, no matter where you come from.

Mahan Tavakoli: 

Those are great recommendations, Jean. And the one commonality in them is that they do have great storytelling. And part of what makes your book also powerful is the storytelling that you have in there. Most especially, I also recommend your book because you say we need brave people who dare try and solve the world's problems. And as we go through this crisis and come out of it, we need more leaders that are brave enough to be fearless and solve the world's problems.

Jean Case: 

Yeah, I totally agree. And the only, the only caveat I'd put is, you know, even people who aren't leaders, right? I mean, one of the features in [The] Premonition is it was a high school science student that led what really became the data analysis to help us understand the pandemic. And I obviously put some stories of a 14-year-old in my book. And so, you don't necessarily have to be a leader already, but yeah, I mean, starting somewhere and being bold enough. 

And it does start, Mahan, and I think this isn't well understood. Just like with entrepreneurs, they typically, their business idea, typically is solving some problem that has touched them in one way or another. And so, you know, I would say to anybody listening out there, what are you seeing? When have you said, “Somebody should do something about that?” Well, I'm here to tell you, you might be that person. What's the solution you envision? 

And at the start of COVID, there was a young couple: she, a hospital emergency room doctor, he, an engineer, with a couple of kids. And remember we didn't have enough PPE? And she would come home every night and talk to him about her concern about how her life is at risk, her patients were at risk. 

Well, anyway, they devised a plan to sanitize PPE mask that, you know, the ones, the N1 or whatever they're called, and it hadn't been done. There was a mask shortage in the United States. They put this plan together as a couple around the kitchen table, which became almost a boardroom table for them that night. And today, you know, because of them, 80,000 of those masks can be sanitized every day.

Well, that was, you know, a doctor who saw a problem and a husband who, you know, had some engineering and some, you know, and together, they found a solution. And everyday, we come in contact with something where we see a solution maybe others don't. And I would just encourage anyone who's kind of had something dogging them, use the fierce urgency of now, today might be the day.

Mahan Tavakoli: 

I love that Jean. Somebody should do something about that. That somebody is you. That's what leadership is all about. Thank you so much for joining me in this conversation, Jean Case. 

Jean Case: 

Thank you, Mahan. A real, a real pleasure to be with you.