A World Champion

James Wolfensohn was born in Australia in 1933. Both of his parents were immigrants to Australia from Europe. From his father, James gained an interest in finance, and from his mother he gained an interest and a love for  the symphony. Both interests would become important in his life’s purpose.

James’ family was plagued with financal insecurity, and this also influenced his future. James started college at the age of 16 earning a bachelor’s degree and a degree in law. He then earned an MBA from Harvard. He was an Olympic athlete (fencing) and an officer in the Australian Air Force.

After his MBA, James worked in manufacturing. This involved traveling to several developing nations, where he saw poverty and inequity for the first time.

James’ career then took him in a financial direction where he played a key role in rescuing Chrysler from bankruptcy. He became the President of the World Bank in 1995. As its President, James is credited with several reforms involving the elimination of corruption and in the increasing of openness in financing. He knew firsthand of the poverty worldwide and became a champion of the poor. He led the World Bank in changing its emphasis from infrastructure projects to social improvement initiatives. These included education, health, and debt relief.

James’ contribution went well beyond the financial. He was the chairman of Carnegie Hall and the Kennedy Center, where he tried to open programming to the broader citizenry. He was also on the boards of many of America’s leading foundations and think tanks.

James became an accomplished celloist and performed at Carnegie Hall in celebration of his 50th, 60th, and 70th birthdays. He was accompanied by Yo-Yo Ma and Bono. James died of pneumonia at the age of 86.

How could a man of such achievements be so little-known? James Wolfensohn was a true Renaissance Man: financier, athlete, musician, diplomat, champion of the poor, and trusted advisor to leading institutions. But few would know his name. Why is that? It says a lot about society when people of true accomplishments remain hidden when phonies become influencers.

A colleague of James’, Marshall Sonenshine, in his tribute to James’ life highlights important lessons that he learned from James (1)

  • Reach high
  • Know everything, especially the facts
  • Tell the truth, especially to yourself
  • Put other people first
  • Communicate widely, constantly, and personally
  • Make peace where you can, but never be bullied
  • Give back and encourage other to do so
  • Remember great leaders, including great mentors


Leaving others with lessons to guide their lives is a trait of all hidden heroes.

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“The notion of the world as a village is becoming a reality.” – James Wolfensohn

(1) Remembering Jim Wolfensohn – Jackson Hole Economics (jheconomics.com)

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