Values and the Vaccine: Lessons on Leadership from the Pfizer CEO

Portrait of Dr. Albert Bourla

The historic development of the world’s first mRNA COVID-19 vaccine by Pfizer was the result of the ingenuity and hard work of smart, dedicated scientists and engineers. But, it also was the result of a transformational shift within the company’s culture, says Dr. Albert Bourla, the chairman and CEO of Pfizer.

“As a school like Babson knows very well, you can’t transform a company by changing the portfolio of businesses, or by changing the capital allocation,” Bourla recently told Babson Thought & Action. “The real transformation comes from the culture, and I think that was the pivotal moment in Pfizer, where we turned and we said that we are going to be a purpose-driven company.”

Pfizer’s focus on purpose, values, and culture makes Bourla a perfect choice to address the graduate Class of 2021 during Babson’s digital Commencement ceremony Saturday, May 15. Bourla also will receive an Honorary Doctor of Laws degree.

Purpose Driven

Babson and Pfizer share a similar set of values and a commitment to making positive, breakthrough changes, Bourla says. And, his Commencement address further strengthens the relationship between the two entrepreneurial organizations.

Over the past five years, Babson and Pfizer have worked together to develop customized management development programs, including a Corporate Certificate in Advanced Management program and a Corporate MBA program for Pfizer employees. And, last summer, Babson provided a course called Experiment to Scale for any Pfizer employee. That course—taught by Wiljeana Glover, the Stephen C. and Carmella R. Kletjian Foundation Distinguished Professor of Global Healthcare Entrepreneurship—helped employees identify bottlenecks to help speed medical breakthroughs.

Those continuing programs combine Babson’s focus on developing values-based leadership with Pfizer’s focus on being a purpose-driven company. Bourla says that studies have proven that companies that stay true to their purpose perform better than others, because they align all employees with the objectives and direction of the company.

Watch Babson’s virtual Commencement ceremonies at

For Pfizer, that purpose is defined as breakthroughs that change patients’ lives. Nowhere has that been more important and more evident than in the development of the COVID-19 vaccine over the past year. In his Commencement address, Bourla will illustrate the enormous shift in mindset that was required by everyone at Pfizer to produce the vaccine in record time.

“We have this passion to excel,” he said. “And, I think that was the secret that allowed this company to think big and to do all the things that we were able to achieve in a relatively short period of time.”

Lessons of the Pandemic

After more than a year of being on the front lines of the global fight against COVID-19, Bourla says we as a society have learned many lessons, including the power of science and the importance of a vibrant private sector collaborating with the public sector to create value.

Just as important, though, Bourla pinpoints the human lessons. The stresses of the pandemic—the worries about our health, our finances, our work—have taken a toll. He says that companies and organizations that treat people well can excel and make a memorable impact. “If you are driven by principles, and you do the right things,” Bourla said, “this is something that people will never forget.”

“If you aim high, you will achieve things that you never thought possible. And, if you trust people and allow them to aim high, they will achieve for you things that you wouldn’t even dream.”
Dr. Albert Bourla, Pfizer chairman and CEO

The biggest takeaway for Bourla, reinforced by leading a company such as Pfizer during this historic period and producing dramatic results, is simple: Nothing is impossible.

“If you aim high, you will achieve things that you never thought possible,” he said. “And, if you trust people and allow them to aim high, they will achieve for you things that you wouldn’t even dream.”

‘Celebration of Life’

The pandemic, though, isn’t the only challenge today that might seem impossible and that requires a transformational shift. The social and racial injustices that have roiled society demand more change, more tolerance, more solutions.

For that, Bourla offers his own lessons, borne of his unique experiences and shaped by his family’s incredible history and inspiring example.

As a Jewish immigrant, Bourla—”Greek by birth, American by choice,” he says—easily relates to the challenges of being in the minority. He also is the son of Holocaust survivors. His mother and father were among only 4% of the Jewish population in their city to escape extermination. Although many Holocaust survivors did not talk about their experiences, because it was too painful, his parents often shared their perspectives with their son.

“They never spoke about hate,” he said. “They never taught me or my cousins or my sister that we should hate those that did that to us. It was always a celebration of life.”

His family instead focused on what they had, how grateful they were to have one another, “how life is a miracle.” And, those lessons of yesteryear have had a profound effect on the man who would lead Pfizer to help change—and even save—people’s lives today.

“My family story made me an optimist,” Bourla says, “and makes me think that we can make things happen if we try.”

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