Alumni Spotlight: J. Phillips L. Johnston (B.A. ’61)

Alumni Spotlight: J. Phillips L. Johnston (B.A. ’61)

As the former CEO of 11 public and privately held companies, it's fair to say that Phil Johnston (B.A. '61) has a diverse background in business. The Duke alumnus has taken pen to paper to inspire others with what he has learned over the years. To date, he is the author of four books on business, including Success in Small Business is a Laughing Matter, heralded by Esquire as "the best book ever written about small business,” currently in its fourth printing.

"The inspiration for my first book was the thrill and success of my first company as founder and CEO. Currier Piano Company was sold when I was 31 years old for a sizeable profit to Kaman Corporation, a NASDAQ conglomerate," Johnston said. "I was immediately inspired to tell others what I did, how I did it, and how they could do it, too. Even though the products or services happen to be different, the business strategy and operations applied to early-stage companies are amazingly similar."

Johnston holds a B.A. in economics from Duke University and a J.D. from The University of North Carolina, was awarded the Senior Management in Government designation from the Harvard Kennedy School, and attended New York University’s Stern School of Business. He was also named the Entrepreneur of the Year by the Council for Entrepreneurial Development in North Carolina.

As a self-professed student of polar exploration, Johnston's 2014 book, True South: Leadership Lessons from Polar Extremes, draws comparisons between running a company and the dichotomous leadership styles of famed explorers Roald Amundsen and Robert Scott. The story of these early 20th century explorers is a familiar one: Amundsen and his team of Norwegians raced against Scott and his team of Brits to claim the South Pole. Ultimately, Amundsen’s expedition succeeded whereas Scott’s met a tragic end.

Johnston’s book puts forth the idea that strength of character alone is not enough to make a successful leader, and concludes that Amundsen’s inclusion and followership are two of the most important of successful leadership. Scott’s command-and-control leadership style excludes the important aspect of teamsmanship. 

While Johnston believes that leadership is most effectively learned on the job, he also acknowledges there to be a place for leadership in the classroom. "Leadership principles can be taught so that students and newly minted employees can have a template when entering the real world," he said. "The classroom can conceptualize leadership for the uninitiated."

Duke students interested in courses where leadership is a component of the class can explore course offerings through Duke's Hart Leadership Program or the Markets and Management Certificate Program