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Published: May 26, 2009

 
 

Dov Frohman Leads the Hard Way

“As a maverick in the field of technology from the earliest days, Dov has been an innovator, a questioner, a radical, a champion, a sage, a survivor, and above all, a leader,” leadership scholar Warren Bennis wrote in the foreword to Leadership the Hard Way. “He’s never backed down from responsibility, and he’s faced some hair-raising crises with unconventional methods and achieved undeniable results.”

Nothing Is Truly Secure”
Frohman’s focus on creativity and survival is grounded in his own life story. He was born in Amsterdam in 1939, the child of Polish Jews who had fled their country because of rising anti-Semitism. In 1942, as the Nazi shadow loomed, Frohman’s parents made the agonizing decision to give up their only child in order to save his life. They handed him over to the Dutch underground, which placed him with a devout Christian family, the Van Tilborghs, in the countryside. The family hid him for the duration of the war, caring for him along with their four children. When Nazis searched the village, Frohman hid under the bed or in the root cellar. One of his earliest memories is of watching a German soldier execute a fellow officer.

Years later, Frohman learned that his father, and most likely his mother, had been killed at Auschwitz. He spent several years in Jewish orphanages after the war and emigrated to Israel in 1949.

“My experience during the war inculcated in me a stubborn conviction that nothing is truly secure, that survival must never be taken for granted — but also that the actions of determined individuals can ‘achieve the impossible,’” he has written. “In agreeing to hide me, the Van Tilborghs took unimaginable risks. They endangered not only themselves, but their own children as well — to an extent that, seen from the outside, may appear almost irresponsible. In contemplating their example over the years, I learned something essential about leadership: Survival requires taking big risks, and sometimes the risks a leader takes, when viewed from a normal or conventional point of view, can appear crazy.”

Yet although Frohman’s focus on survival completely infused Intel Israel’s culture, he never once spoke publicly within the company about his personal history. “I never wanted to be seen as a victim,” Frohman explains. “I always just wanted to move forward.”

In 1959, after completing his mandatory army service, Frohman enrolled in the Technion–Israel Institute of Technology, where he studied electrical engineering. After graduating in 1963, he left Israel to pursue a master’s degree at the University of California at Berkeley, where he recalls “living a kind of double life.” During the day, he was hard at work in Berkeley’s labs, researching topics in engineering and computer science. In the evenings, though, he immersed himself in the area’s counterculture scene, attending rock concerts, experimenting with drugs, and protesting the Vietnam War. He was profoundly affected by these experiences, he says, and the hippie motto “do your own thing” quickly became his personal credo.

Frohman recalls watching a business executive emerge from his car and swap his suit and tie for a fringed vest and hippie beads. Instead of finding it amusing, Frohman was struck by “the power of being simultaneously an insider and an outsider,” as he later described it in Leadership the Hard Way. “Unless you are prepared to see things differently and go against the current, you are unlikely to accomplish anything truly important. And to go against the current, you have to be something of an outsider, living on the edge.”

A Breakthrough Chip
After earning his master’s degree in 1965, Frohman began working in the R&D labs of Fairchild Semiconductor Inc., a fertile breeding ground for Silicon Valley startups. That decision would prove extremely advantageous to his future career: Gordon Moore, Robert Noyce, and Andrew Grove — his managers at Fairchild — would soon ask him to join them at their own startup, a company they called Intel.

 
 
 
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Resources

  1. Dov Frohman with Robert Howard: Leadership the Hard Way: Why Leadership Can’t be Taught, and How You Can Learn It Anyway (Jossey-Bass, 2008): The founder of Intel Israel articulates his brand of non- conforming risk taking in light of his own story.
  2. Amanda Ripley, The Unthinkable: Who Survives When Disaster Strikes — and Why (Crown, 2008): Based on interviews with survivors of disaster, portrays qualities of the risk-taking leader.
  3. Richard S. Tedlow, Andy Grove: The Life and Times of an American (Portfolio, 2006): Highly engaging, authoritative biography of the larger-than-life Intel CEO, champion of innovators and mentor to Frohman.
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