When the legendary physician and advocate Paul Farmer unexpectedly passed away at the age of 62 in February, he was called a hero, a visionary, and a global health giant. His ideas changed paradigms of public health and human rights, and he demonstrated that it’s possible to deliver world-class medical care to people in the most resource-poor settings imaginable.

Yet Paul Farmer was also a brilliant, original, and often iconoclastic thinker when it came to nonprofit leadership. Paul brought an uncommon degree of attention to matters of economic, racial, and health justice in virtually every big decision he made, and as a key leader of Partners In Health (PIH)—a complex and phenomenally effective organization spanning over 10 countries and comprising more than 18,000 affiliated staff members—he brought an extraordinarily long-term perspective and a penchant for bridging radically different disciplines.

Here are three lessons that were key to his approach to leadership:

  1. Practice the “hermeneutic of generosity.” In 2018, Paul emphasized to me that despite the importance of systematically analyzing structural injustice, “We can’t forget that partnership, solidarity are out there. That’s why I think a hermeneutic of generosity is important and undervalued.”
  2. “Beware the iron cage of rationality.” Speaking to an audience at Harvard’s Kennedy School, Paul once emphasized this phrase from the German philosopher Max Weber. The “iron cage” is the trap of focusing too much on operational efficiency and formal planning at the expense of deep listening and consideration of real lived experience.
  3. Be whole-heartedly invested in outcomes. The conventional wisdom in most fields is to do your best, but also to stay professionally objective and not to take failures personally. Paul Farmer rejected this approach. He treated his patients like family, taking on their struggles as though they were his own. This orientation was evident even in simple gestures, as when, while traveling between countries, he’d buy so many presents for patients in airports that he could hardly carry them all.

Read the full article about nonprofit leadership by Kim Samuel and Dan Palazuelos at Stanford Social Innovation Review.