Among the many titles held by Leonard A. Lauder these days: chairman emeritus and former CEO of the Estée Lauder Companies, which grew from a business founded in the family kitchen to a $14 billion brand; co-founder of Wharton’s Joseph H. Lauder Institute of Management & International Studies; and, most recently, author of The Company I Keep: My Life in Beauty, a memoir that’s both autobiography and inside look at the evolution of an iconic global firm. The 88-year-old took a break from daily Zoom meetings to share his thoughts about defining success, one of the hardest business decisions he’s made, and what matters most in life.

My destiny was to go into the business. It wasn’t my parents saying this is what you must do.

Mentorship doesn’t stop at a certain point. It’s continuous through your whole life. One of the greatest mentors I had was the U.S. Navy. One of the things that I espoused when I joined the company in 1958 was that the wrong decision was far better than no decision. That came from my military background.

My definition of success changes every 48 hours. You have to define success by your own standards, not by those of Wall Street or anyone else.

We launched the Clinique brand in 1968, and by April 1969, we were running out of money. I made a decision that we had to get rid of 10 percent of our staff. I knew it was something I had to do and was saddened that I was doing it. Looking back, if I hadn’t, I don’t know if I’d be on the phone with you today.

Living with my parents, talking at dinner, just seeing what they did — it was a lesson unto itself.

With the Lauder Institute, I wanted to create an elite group of graduates to transform business in the United States. I knew the nation would change and was thrilled about it. Today, there’s hardly a business school that does not teach people how to live in the international world.

I would say to my children or grandchildren: You are entitled to nothing. Everything you have, you must earn yourself — not by your family’s connections, but by the sweat of your own brow, by your own intelligence or your own hard work.

Six years ago, I lost my late wife, Evelyn Lauder, and was alone for about two years. Then I married the widowed wife of an old friend of mine, and now she’s Judy Glickman Lauder. That was a lifechanging decision. She was perfect for me.

I’m on the phone or Zoom about five or six hours a day. I find it exhausting. I need to be with everyone. Face-to-face meetings give me energy.

I do a couple things to relax. Ever since I was in college, I nap every day. At night, we eat early, and then we watch an old movie. Roman Holiday is perfect. And of course, reading. My wife and I are reading a biography of Eleanor Roosevelt. It’s beautifully written.

My mother was a revolutionary. Her instinct was that we would build the company based on heavy sampling of great products. We called it “gift with purchase.” The industry said, “Estée Lauder is going to go broke.” We did what we had to do to get out of the cellar and build the company.

What matters most in life is health: the health of your family, the health of your friends, and the moral health of the nation.

I feel proud of what I’ve done. If you don’t transform something, you’ve left footprints in the sand that the surf will wash away. You need to leave some kind of an impact that outlives you.


Published as “Leonard A. Lauder W54” in the Spring/Summer 2021 issue of Wharton Magazine.