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A Strategic Leader Model in Practice: The Johnson & Johnson Tylenol Crisis Case Study

Updated on November 8, 2019
FJG de La Guadalupe profile image

The author studied Economics at the Eisenhower School in Washington DC and Strategy at the Army's School of Advanced Military Studies.

In a previous article titled ‘The Champion’ I proposed a theoretical framework for a personal leadership model called The Strategic Leader as Champion Model. In this new piece I aim to provide the reader with a practical example of how such a model helps strengthen the individual leader and positively transform an organization to benefit society. This piece presents the Johnson & Johnson Tylenol Crisis case study. This case study serves as an important example of how one organization’s leadership model and principles (principles and model will be used interchangeably throughout the article) allowed society to recognize it as its champion. Before getting into the case study, allow me to go over a few key points about strategic leadership and the role of personal leadership models before we delve into the case study.


Strategic leaders must be able to transform an organization through their vision and values, the culture and climate they create, and structure and systems they develop. They can establish greater clarity, make stronger connections, and expand their leadership influence while contributing to their organization’s well-being when guided by a well-defined personal leadership model. Leaders who influence organizations in an efficacious manner form a comprehensive understanding of both themselves and the organization they lead. As a result, a leadership model becomes invaluable to the strategic leader’s foresight, understanding, and ultimate success.

The strategic leader becomes an organizational champion by his ability to build a team of teams through the leader’s ability to expand their domain of influence and leverage (meta-leadership). Meta-leadership forces the leader to create a unified commitment toward a common goal with members within and without the organization. As a result, a leader is able to adopt a non-stratified leadership style to confront the challenges in the volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous (VUCA) environment. Strategic leaders have to lead beyond what they can actually control. This was the test for Johnson & Johnson during their unprecedented crisis.


The Johnson & Johnson Leadership Principle

The Johnson & Johnson principle was simple yet profound. It set down the company’s responsibilities in the following order:

…doctors, nurses, patients, mothers and fathers first, employees second, communities third and shareholders last[1].

GEN Stanley McChrystal posits that a way to foster a better vision is by being more like gardeners. He states that “gardeners plant and harvest, but more than anything, they tend. Plants are watered, beds are fertilized, and weeds are removed.”[2] Robert Wood Johnson, all those years ago, planted the company’s leadership principle and a model of leadership to follow in establishing the priority of the company. Like the gardener’s approach General McChrystal speaks about, it helped to create a strong vision that united the organization with an exciting and compelling picture of what the future can be not just for the organization but also for the individual. For Johnson & Johnson, their leadership principle had great impact and stickiness across the entire organization. Johnson & Johnson created an exemplary vision that was meaningful and purposeful to all.


The Johnson & Johnson Tylenol Crisis

During the fall of 1982 a person or persons with malevolent intentions replaced Tylenol capsules with cyanide ones and deposited them on the shelves of pharmacies and food stores in the Chicago area. The poison capsules were purchased by unsuspecting people of which seven died. Johnson & Johnson suddenly had to explain to the world why its trusted product was suddenly killing people (Berge, 1998).

In a good example of meta-leadership, Johnson & Johnson chairman, James Burke, reacted to the crisis by forming a seven-member strategy team. The team's strategy guidance from Burke was in perfect alignment with the company’s leadership model. First, "How do we protect the people?" and second "How do we save this product [which does so much good]?" The company decided to immediately alert consumers across the nation via the media not to consume any type of Tylenol product. Johnson & Johnson, along with stopping the production and advertising of Tylenol, withdrew all Tylenol capsules from the store shelves in Chicago and the surrounding area (Broom, 1994). This came at a steep price since before the crisis, Tylenol was the most successful over-the-counter product in the U.S. Tylenol also accounted for a substantial percent of Johnson & Johnson's year-to-year sales growth and commanded a large share of the market. This was a monumental decision with incredible repercussions.

Following his principles, James Burke commenced making consequential decisions in a very VUCA environment. He provided a vision for the company during the crisis that prevented paralysis as the crisis took place. James Burke acted strategically by taking decisive action that was consistent with the strategic direction of the organization despite the chaos and complexity. And he expertly managed the tension between success in daily tasks and success in the long term. In this case, the leader’s model facilitated consequential decision-making by providing balance of direction and comfort with the autonomy necessary across the organization to act against the crisis holistically and with velocity. There was no time to waste.

The features that made Johnson & Johnson's handling of the crisis a success were: First, they did not hesitate to do the right thing. They acted quickly, with complete openness about what had happened, and immediately sought to remove any source of danger based on the worst case scenario - not waiting for evidence to see whether the contamination might be more widespread. This took great personal and corporate courage. Upon learning that criminals were contaminating Tylenol tablets with cyanide and causing deaths, Johnson & Johnson chairman James Burke decided to remove the organization’s most valuable brand product off the shelves even though it would cost the company hundreds of millions of dollars in order to protect the public. In the meantime, Johnson & Johnson communicated openly with the press and public to provide needed information and updates with intent to create trust and transparency.


Second, having acted quickly, they then sought to re-establish trust and ensure that measures were taken which would prevent as far as possible a recurrence of the problem. They developed the Triple sealed packaging the industry now widely uses. Mr. Russell C. Deyo, a former executive officer with the company explains that J&J effectively handled the crisis due to excellent communications, transparency, velocity of action and information, and a pro-active strategy.[3] And, they showed themselves to be prepared to bear the short term cost in the name of consumer safety; that more than anything else established a basis for trust with their customers. Instead of losing customers from the crisis, they gained an innumerable amount which to this day continues to provide Tylenol the lead in market due to the good will they continue to enjoy.

This was no accident. Johnson & Johnson’s well entrenched leadership principles served as guideposts to lead the organization. Their leadership model showed that strategic leadership and the leader themselves is leadership in action and not position; a leader shows how and why to do the right thing for the right reasons. James Burke walked the talk and as a result his leadership example permeated generations of Johnson & Johnson leaders ensuring sustainability with a culture of success into the foreseeable future.

It is important to note that the life of the organizational champion is not a life of one glorious mountaintop experience after another; it is a life of day-in and day-out consistency. And for this reason, the strategic leader is continually on the lookout for possible crises. This serves as an antidote against disaster by exercising confident humility to understand that a crisis can strike even great organizations. Therefore, the leader ought to be ready for that worst of days.


James Burke was not at the helm of Johnson & Johnson to enjoy the perks of his leadership position; he was there for the company’s worst day. A leadership model emphasizes values-driven action, as in the case of Johnson & Johnson, especially during a crisis. For a strategic and ethical leader, crisis response is seen as affirmation of their stewardship and not just a test.[4] The model guides a leader to be forthright, calm, and fierce through bold action. This is possible since the model along with the key components for success in crises (communication, clarity of vision and values, and caring) are shared. The Johnson & Johnson Tylenol crisis in 1982 demonstrates that a crisis can serve as an organization’s seminal event in its rise to Champion to Society. How many CEOs and board leaders understand this truth? Unfortunately, one can suspect many less than we would like.


The Tylenol crisis shows how a great culture saved Johnson & Johnson. It’s worth mentioning again, the Johnson & Johnson principle, set down by the company’s founder Robert Wood Johnson II in 1943. It puts the company’s responsibilities in the following order: doctors, nurses, patients, mothers and fathers first, employees second, communities third and shareholders last[5]. Many of you have seen the results of misplaced priorities. The crisis showed how thoroughly the leadership principles had saturated the culture, and how thoroughly the company empowered its employees and subsidiaries to live its values. The culture was so strong and positive that society at large could not help but notice. Similar to the Johnson & Johnson model, the Strategic Leader as Champion Model emphasizes action guided by an explicit philosophy, well-established policies, and modeling of values through actions. In the next section, the initial narrative of the Tylenol crisis is used to explain the champion to society.

Johnson & Johnson…Champions to Society

By withdrawing all Tylenol, even though there was little chance of discovering more cyanide laced tablets; Johnson & Johnson showed that they were not willing to take a risk with the public's safety, even if it cost the company millions of dollars. The end result was the public viewing Tylenol as the unfortunate victim of a malicious crime (Broom, 1994). Accordingly, society rewarded their courageous action by acknowledging the strategic leader and their organization as their champion. This level of the model is achieved when the individual and organization leader are trusted, seen as inclusive, dependable, and make themselves accountable.

Drawing on years of experience with crisis leadership, ADM Thad Allen explains that a crisis, like the Tylenol case, draws its strength from complexity.[6] And as such, complexity becomes a risk aggravator that requires defeat strategies. The strategies leaders employ during the crisis later serve to validate the model or present areas where the model needs improvements or enhancements. Johnson & Johnson’s credo model stood the test of a crisis by employing effective strategies against a complex problem making Johnson & Johnson an organizational champion to all of society.


Experts in crisis management have come to recognize Johnson & Johnson's handling of the Tylenol crisis as the example for success when confronted with a threat to an organization's existence. Berge lauds the case in the following manner, "The Tylenol crisis is without a doubt the most exemplary case ever known in the history of crisis [action] and communications. Any business executive, who has ever stumbled into a public relations ambush, ought to appreciate the way Johnson & Johnson responded to the Tylenol poisonings. They have effectively demonstrated how major business has to handle a disaster." (Berge, 1990)

The Johnson & Johnson Tylenol crisis is an example of how an organization reacts and communicates when properly guided by a leadership model. The organization's leadership set the example from the beginning by making public safety the organizations number one concern. This is particularity important given the fact that Johnson & Johnson's main mission with Tylenol is to enhance the public's well-being and health.

Strategic leaders possess distinct personal instincts and talents that allow them to become effective and successful organizational leaders. Leadership models are purposely built with the intent to apply to a wide range of challenges. Thus, the strategic leader needs to understand that unique problems may challenge the nature of the model and necessitate the suspension of “business as usual.”[7] This is because we all understand that no plan ever survives initial contact with a crisis. Nevertheless, it does serve as a roadmap for thinking and preparation.


According to Lincoln Andrews, a leader must remain genuine, true to themselves and not an imitation of someone else.[8] Johnson & Johnson preserved the uniqueness of their leadership by emphasizing a model and credo where self-mastery leads to the individual champion, good leaders use meta-leadership to lead to the organization, and through valiant efforts, society comes to recognize the individual and the organization as its champion.

Endnotes

[1] Johnson & Johnson Credo, Johnson & Johnson website. Accessed 19 March 2016, Accessed on http://www.jnj.com/about-jnj/jnj-credo.

[2] McChrystal, Stanley, Team Of Teams: New Rules Of Engagement For A Complex World (New York: Penguin Random House, 2015).

[3] US Department of Homeland Security Under Secretary for Management, Russell C. Deyo, interview by author, 22 March 2016, Washington DC.

[4] Garcia, Fred H., “Effective Leadership Response to Crisis,” Strategy and Leadership, Vol 34, No 1, 2006.

[5] Johnson & Johnson Credo, Johnson & Johnson website. Accessed 19 March 2016, Accessed on http://www.jnj.com/about-jnj/jnj-credo.

[6] ADM Thad Allen Leadership Presentation at Eisenhower School, 1 February 2016.

[7] Garcia, Fred H., “Effective Leadership Response to Crisis,” Strategy and Leadership, Vol 34, No 1, 2006.

[8] Gaebelein, Thad A. & Simmons, Ron P., A Question of Character (New York: Red Brick Press, 2000)

Chairman James Burke - The Strategic Leader

© 2019 Fernando Guadalupe Jimenez

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    • Carolyn M Fields profile image

      Carolyn Fields 

      4 months ago from South Dakota, USA

      I'm old enough to remember the Tylenol crisis firsthand. I remember the rapid response, and marveled at the company putting lives before profits. Because of the decisions they made, they saved the company's reputation. It's a great lesson in leadership. Thank you for sharing.

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