Transformational change is the ultimate goal in any convening the Institute hosts on Winthrop Rockefeller’s historic cattle ranch. Whether it’s transforming just one person’s understanding of an issue or transforming a massive system like rural health care, our work is always rooted in the idea that diversity of opinion, respectful dialogue, and collaborative problem-solving combine to create transformational change. In other words, the Rockefeller Ethic.

Those three components come from understanding Winthrop as a leader, and the path he followed throughout life. As a Rockefeller, it would be easy, even expected, for him to follow in his family’s professional footsteps, but we know through his legacy in Arkansas that he did no such thing.

“We cannot lead others until we can lead ourselves,” he once said. As a leader, he was motivated by the values of responsibility, relationships, respect, resolve, and reform. In this story, we’re going to examine the second value: relationships.  


Winthrop knew from a young age that he was better with his hands than he was at studying, but it was after a Yale sociology course focused on human relations that he refocused his priorities and made the commitment to learn the oil business from the “ground up,” rather than be just another executive. Winthrop, or “Rock” as the men would call him, took a position with the Humble Oil Company in Texas during the summer of 1933. First a roustabout, then a roughneck working the drills, he worked hard to live on what he could earn, rather than on his last name.

“That was an experience I loved!” he wrote in A Letter to My Son. “That was what I had been looking for! From the lowest roustabout to the highest executive, men were working with their hands and their minds, producing something of value. I wanted to become a part of it and prove to myself that I was as good a man as any of them.”

The chance to prove that came one day when the oil drill hit a gas pocket, and the mud used to stabilize the pressure in the well began to foam. If not quickly rectified, the foaming mud can quickly become diluted and the well can explode. Winthrop and another young man were asked to “mix some new mud” — something even more unpleasant than it sounds.

Some of the mud and cuttings from the bit, as they come out of the well, are dumped into one of several reserve pits near the well. After the mud has been setting for some time, it becomes almost gelatinous, and someone has to walk into the pit — about 50 feet square — with a high pressure hose, and stir it up. So I and the other chap walked into that mud up to our waists. We stood there, with the hose, for four hours, mixing the mud and forcing it out of the pit so Amos could use it in the well. I’ve never been so cold. It was raw, and miserable, and the damp cold went through my clothes, my skin, my flesh – into my bones.

The relief man should have gone into the pit with me. But he wasn’t having any part of it. He stood on the bank “holding the hose” for us. The chap with me had a few things to say about that, but there wasn’t time to argue. We had to have the mud right now, so we jumped in and mixed it. That night at the boarding house where some of the crew lived, the relief man began sounding off about this guy Rockefeller. “What the hell’s he doing, coming down here and taking a job away from some guy that really needs it?” he asked – and added some other uncomplimentary remarks.Almost as one man, the boys jumped him. “Look,” one of them said, “you could talk that way if you had anything yourself to back it up. But who was it mixed that mud today – while you stood on the bank? Rockefeller is willing and able to work – and that’s more than you are. We’ll take him, and you can go back to the farm.

Winthrop Rockefeller in A Letter to My Son

When the new mud was finished, Winthrop raced home to warm up after a job well done and missed seeing “the boys” stand up for him. He admitted to choking up when he heard about it later. He had earned his fellow workers’ respect. He had earned their friendship. In A Letter to My Son, he told Winthrop Paul to always “be honest and straightforward with men, pull your share of the load, and the rewards they will give you — spontaneously, readily and willingly — will be far greater than anything you can ever hope for.” That lesson was “far deeper, far more lasting than the momentary pleasure their confidence gave me.” 

The value of relationships was as important to Winthrop Rockefeller as it is to us. In order to participate in transformational change, we have to be willing to come to the table with those who have a stake in the problem we are trying to solve, which means everyone — not just decision-makers. Relationships take time and effort to be authentic, and they require people to become known for who they really are, not just by their wealth, their profession, their background, or their name. “Rock” understood that.

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