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Jan Muehlfeit, retired Chairman (Europe) for the Microsoft Corporation

6 February 2015

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As a global strategist in personal development, Jan Muehlfeit looks to the Buddha and Bill Gates for inspiration, and believes with a …

As a global strategist in personal development, Jan Muehlfeit looks to the Buddha and Bill Gates for inspiration, and believes with a little help we can all climb mountains as well as make others happy.


To be a leader you have to have vision. Managers can spot change and motivate people to bring about change; leaders can do this too but above that they bring together teams and create an emotional connection with them. In my own career I believe I have been 60 per cent a manager and 40 per cent a leader – I’m working on it. To be a CMO you need to be Chief Mind Officer, not a marketing one.

True leaders are inspirational whatever their field. 15 years ago, I asked the great mountaineer Reinhold Messner to talk to my management group. He was the first man to climb Everest solo without oxygen, and I wanted him to show my people that you could achieve things that might seem crazy. At the time what we were trying to do in the Central and Eastern European marketplace seemed impossible; four years later we were Microsoft’s best performing region. Messner’s exceptional leadership qualities showed us we could get there.

What changed my life was starting to play tennis professionally at 12 years old. Growing up I was smart but a bit fat and was teased. But I really trained hard and after a year I was number one in the tennis club. Tennis wires your brain in a different way; you never give up. Other kids started to follow my example – even when I was doing bad things in school! I think through tennis I became a leader when I was 13.

I wanted to be a tennis coach but my father suggested I try being a software engineer. That was pretty forward-thinking in Czechoslovakia in 1981 and luckily I followed his advice; I would have been an average tennis coach but now I am at the top of my game. I am an extrovert so rather than taking the traditional route I joined a start-up (Software602). But when Microsoft came knocking at the door in 1993 I was ready. 12 days after I started I met Bill Gates at a company awayday at EuroDisney.

Only crazy people change the world. When Bill Gates first came to Prague in 1994 he was treated like a statesman but his vision is that of the person who thinks the impossible. A PC in every home – I loved that. He may not be your typical leader as he is very quiet but he is extraordinary.

The Buddha is the mentor in my life. I am a follower of the psychology rather than the religion. I meditate every day and do tai chi and yoga. Six years ago I persuaded Microsoft to introduce a meditation programme. Some people thought I was mad but three years later every country manager had adopted the approach. Indian and Chinese managers have always meditated – it helps you reflect on business in a world that is changing so fast. We are in a world of Moore’s law: the amount of information available to us doubles every second year, but now we are reaching point zero. A hundred per cent more information leads to a hundred per cent more stress, and workers in the west need to find a new way to cope with it.

Every team needs to have a “doubting Thomas”. Like many leaders I am not a good listener. So I need someone to play devil’s advocate, to question my plans. Leaders start with the “why” but you need the “what” and the “how” as well. I may have the means to unlock human potential around the world but 90 per cent of what I have achieved is down to the people working for me and only 10 per cent is because of who I am.

I truly believe you can only be happy if you make other people happy. My best tip is to be more of who you are. Everyone has different strengths so order your strengths and make the most of them rather than worrying about weaknesses. Try to get the best out of other people rather than concentrate on the worst. Of course, sometimes you have to say goodbye, but remember – whoever makes the new mistakes is the first one to get promoted.

This article was published on

6 February 2015.

Jan Muehlfeit, Former Chairman (Europe) for Microsoft, was guest speaker at a Cambridge Executive MBA festive dinner in December 2014. Learn more about the Cambridge Executive MBA

View Jan Muehlfeit’s LinkedIn profile

Visit the Microsoft Europe website


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