As he reminisced about meeting President Reagan during the summer of 1987, Bob Sternfels pointed out two things that had stuck with him.
“I remember ‘the path of lifelong leadership’ was the term he used for all of us; that’s always stuck with me. … And I also got a chance to talk to the First Lady, and Nancy was extremely warm. … She had one comment, and it was about caring for others, and this idea of — ‘Ronnie can talk to you about lifelong leadership, but if you don’t care for people along the way, it’s not going to amount to anything.’
“And so those two things just stuck with me even to this day; you’re a 17-year-old kid and you’re getting these lifelong lessons from an icon. Never forgot that,” Sternfels said.
Today, Sternfels is the global managing partner of McKinsey & Company, a global management consulting firm, and chair of the board of directors. In July 1987, he had just completed his junior year at Lodi (Calif.) High School and was elected president of American Legion Boys Nation after attending California Boys State.
He and his fellow Boys Nation senators met with President Reagan in the Rose Garden during their week in Washington, D.C.
“An enormous privilege,” Sternfels said of the visit to the White House. “I think it was originally supposed to just be a photo. And what I do remember is first, the president just kind of sat down and talked with us and exchanged some notes in a very conversational style; it didn’t feel formal or kind of talking down to us, it was more of a conversation.
“And then afterwards he singled me out and, being from California himself, ended up having a conversation on California. And he was even giving some details on Lodi, saying, ‘When I was in Sacramento as governor, I remember driving through there all the time,’ and ‘Do they still have zinfandel?’ and we were talking about grapes and things. His detail around that was amazing, just the personalization aspect.”
Sternfels conceded he almost didn’t have the opportunity. He ran unsuccessfully for governor at California Boys State — “I fell flat on my face” — and was planning to simply play out the rest of the week.
He credits one of his counselors, Junso “Jay” Ogawa, for creating “a bit of a spark” in him.
“He came to me and said, ‘Look, you should stay engaged. There’s other opportunities to participate in this. … You could run for speaker of the assembly.’ And we had a minority party. I was like, ‘If memory serves, minority parties don’t usually get to elect the speaker.’ And he said, ‘Well, why don’t you give it a shot?’ And he came back two or three times over the course of the week to basically tell me I could do more than what I was doing. Not in a heavy-handed way or anything. And he helped me figure that out,” Sternfels said.
He was elected speaker — again, despite representing the minority party — then earned an interview slot for one of the spots representing California at Boys Nation.
“By that point I had taken Junso’s advice and thought, this is really fun, I could have a unique opportunity to go to Washington and do it at another level. By that point, I was just sold that this is such a unique program, I was going to give it another shot,” Sternfels said.
By the time he arrived in Washington for Boys Nation, though, Sternfels was feeling a little intimidated.
“But you get there and you realize everybody puts their pants on one leg at a time, and some really great guys, I became friends with a whole bunch. Having a couple of the other senators come up to me and say, ‘Hey, you should run,’ was (perhaps) the inspiration to do this,” he said.
Sternfels emerged from a loaded primary — “If memory serves, I think everyone and his brother was running” — to be one of the final candidates for president. He remembered facing some difficult questions, touching on subjects like the Berlin Wall, the Cold War and the Iran-Contra scandal.
“There were a couple ones I was like, ‘Guys, I just don’t know. I don’t know the answer to this one.’ I think some of that honesty also helped, not trying to pretend you know the answers to all this stuff,” he said.
Even prior to his experience at California Boys State and American Legion Boys Nation, Sternfels was aware of the Legion’s impact.
“Both my granddads were in World War II and Legion members, my dad served in Vietnam — in fact I spent a couple years as a kid in Subic Bay (in the Philippines) because he was in the Navy. So they were all Legion members, and I grew up in Lodi, Calif., which was a small agricultural town at the time — it’s gotten a lot bigger since — but the Legion played a big role in our town. This notion of community and community events and things. So I would say I got to know The American Legion before I got to know Boys State,” he said, adding that his mother had attended Girls State when she was a teenager.
“I had a firm appreciation for, still do, for our system of government. No matter how imperfect, it beats all the alternatives. And I felt that as a high school kid, so I was deeply involved in student government, and I was involved in some state student government, we had this thing called the California Association of Student Councils, so I would go up to Sacramento and try and get involved,” Sternfels added. “So when I heard about Boys State, there were two things that were exciting: first was the notion of a bunch of kids from all over the state getting together and that kind of excited me — I was from a small town, chance to meet a bunch of kids from across the state; but then to spend a week actually practicing and learning government sounded pretty exciting. Kind of those two aspects that I thought were maybe the reason why to apply at the time.”
He encouraged those eligible to attend Boys State or Girls State to not miss out on the opportunity.
“If you don’t go, you’re going to regret it for the rest of your life. … One, you’re going to learn a lot about the best system of government in the world from an insider perspective. Two is you’re going to meet just some amazing people that will also change your perspective on life. But three is maybe you learn something about yourself. So why not take the plunge, for those three things? It is a week that you will invest and never regret.”
Sternfels certainly has no regrets for the two weeks he spent in the programs.
“I helped open our McKinsey office in South Africa, and I was there when (Nelson) Mandela was president. He had this great quote, ‘I never lose, I either win or I learn.’ And there’s some aspect at Boys State about that, just getting back up and kind of continuing to engage that I really took as a lesson.
“The other lesson was, although on the one hand the incredible complexity of our system with all the different aspects of government can at the time be a little overwhelming, was the notion that checks and balances actually work. And that even if you’re a governor or a president, you couldn’t just kind of impose your will, you had to work with people. And this idea of the balance of powers really stuck with me, one of the unique aspects of our system of government. But our system of government only works if you get involved. You’ve got to participate,” Sternfels said.
He noted that participation in Boys State and Girls State programs is a factor in McKinsey’s hiring process.
“I think one of the aspects we look at particularly for our analyst hires who are coming out of university, is participation in Boys or Girls State, because it’s a marker on leadership. And it is one of the defining criteria — it’s not the only criteria, but it does say something about somebody. It’s why we have so many in our ranks today,” he said.
While acknowledging Ogawa’s impact, Sternfels expressed his “deep appreciation for all the volunteers that make a Girls or Boys State possible.
“I wouldn’t underestimate the impact that you have on a young person’s life by investing that time,” he said. “I also have just a deep thank you to the Legion itself. I always think of community when I think of The American Legion. I think in particular in today’s society where people need to actually feel like they belong, I think there’s a key role that The American Legion can play, in kind of deepening a sense of community. But I also think of selfless service, and the idea of helping other people. I think in today’s day and age we could use a little more of that. Just super grateful for The American Legion on that front and the role it played in my own family’s life.”