Melinda French Gates

In our book, Leaders Who Lust: Power, Money, Sex, Success, Legitimacy, Legacy, Todd Pittinsky and I used Melinda French Gates as a case in point. Though come to think of it…that’s not quite correct. It was Melinda Gates about whom we wrote – not Melinda French Gates. And given we were writing about their lust for legacy primarily as channeled through the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, we wrote not just about Melinda but also about Bill.

Though our book is recent, we discussed the couple as if they were married, which until just a few months ago they were. Since then, they have separated, and announced they were divorcing. This made them not only the latest power couple to hit the skids, it also threw the future of their $55 billion foundation, a philanthropic juggernaut if ever there was one, into question.

A few days ago, it was reported that Bill and Melinda had agreed on a way forward. They would continue to run the foundation together, as partners, for two years. If they could work well together, they would continue to partner thereafter. If they could not, Bill would effectively pay Melinda off to buy her out.

In the book lust was defined as “a psychological drive that produces intense wanting, even desperately needing to obtain an object or to secure a circumstance.” When the object has been obtained, or the circumstance secured, “there is relief, but only briefly, temporarily.” Lust is, in other words, a lifelong passion, or even obsession.

Leaders who lust for legacy, such as Bill and Melinda, are fixated on what they leave behind after they leave this earth. What they crave is to “to leave an imprint that is permanent.” Which is why it comes as no surprise that divorce or no, so far as their lust for legacy is concerned, nothing has changed. If anything, their impending divorce will only heighten the desire of both Bill and Melinda to leave a legacy that endures.   

Over the years, Melinda French Gates has been largely private, not only about her private life but about her public preferences. While she has made clear her special interest in female empowerment, in addition obviously to the work of the foundation, she continued to operate largely behind the scenes. Invariably, perennially, it was Bill on whom the spotlight shone.

This will now change. Primarily though not exclusively because of her immense wealth, French Gates will inevitably have great power, considerable authority, and significant influence. She will be a leader in her own right – no longer merely her husband’s appendage. She might pour more of her money as well as energy into Pivotal Ventures, an investment vehicle she launched several years ago, dedicated to women’s causes. Or she might not – hard to be certain. She will in any case become an independent agent, which is to say her own lust for legacy will make itself apparent. I’m betting she will get what she now wants above all – to leave her own imprint that is permanent.

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