Michael J. Dowling (the chief executive of Northwell Health) in “The Corner Office”

DowlingAdam Bryant conducts interviews of senior-level executives that appear in his “Corner Office” column each week in the SundayBusiness section of The New York Times. Here are a few insights provided during an interview of Michael J. Dowling, chief executive of Northwell Health (formerly North Shore-LIJ Health System) To read the complete interview, check out other articles, and obtain subscription information, please click here.

Photo credit: Earl Wilson/The New York Times

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What was life like for you as a kid?

I grew up in Ireland in a very rural area. We had a small piece of property. It was an impoverished area, especially back in the ’50s and ’60s. Our home had mud walls, a thatch roof, three small rooms and a mud floor.

We had no electricity, no running water, no bathrooms and no heat. There was a big open fireplace where my mother cooked everything. Most of the families around us were farmers, and I thought they were very wealthy when I was a kid. As I grew older, of course, I realized they were not that wealthy.

My father was a laborer. At the age of about 40, he no longer could work because he had rheumatoid arthritis in every part of his body. My mother was deaf. She lost her hearing when she was about 7 years old. She never considered it a disability, though, and learned to lip-read. To get her attention, we would kick the floor. She’d feel the vibrations; it’s amazing how one sense takes over when you lose another.

There were five kids, and I was the oldest, so I started working at a very young age. Both of my parents had little formal education, but my mother was unbelievably interested in reading and learning. We always had books at home, even though we didn’t have much else. I remember reading Shakespeare by candlelight as a kid.

I didn’t think life was that tough at the time, but it was. And I’m not one who likes to complain too much. I dreamed about getting an education, even though I wasn’t really sure what that was.

Nobody ever thought that people like us would ever go to college because it was a very two-class system in Ireland. If you had some money, you were obviously geared to go to school. If you didn’t have money and you were at the lower end of the totem pole, you were not expected to succeed.

But I did well enough in my high school to make the cut to get into college. I had saved enough money to pay for my first semester of college, and I hitchhiked on a truck to get there.

And when I was waiting in line to sign up for my courses, I saw that I was in the line for liberal arts. I didn’t know what liberal arts meant. I was sweating because I have no artistic ability, and that’s what I thought liberal arts meant.

But college was just absolutely fantastic and wonderful. Fortunately for me, I was also very good at athletics. I played sports, and I got on the college teams.

In the summers, I would come to New York to make money and work on the docks. I sent home most of the money I made because my family was in a pretty bad situation. My happiest moments were sending money to my mother.

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To read the complete interview as well as Bryant’s interviews of other executives, please click here.

Adam Bryant, deputy national editor of The New York Times, oversees coverage of education issues, military affairs, law, and works with reporters in many of the Times’ domestic bureaus. He also conducts interviews with CEOs and other leaders for Corner Office, a weekly feature in the SundayBusiness section and on nytimes.com that he started in March 2009. In his book, The Corner Office: Indispensable and Unexpected Lessons from CEOs on How to Lead and Succeed, (Times Books), he analyzes the broader lessons that emerge from his interviews of hundreds of business leaders. To read an excerpt, please click here. To contact him, please click here.

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