John C. Whitehead

John Cunningham Whitehead (1922-2015, HBS MBA 1947) was an American business leader, diplomat and philanthropist.

Business Leadership

Group of 10 men, including John C. Whitehead, gathered for the signing of the Ford Motor Co. initial public offering, 1956

John C. Whitehead (standing, far left) at the signing of the Ford Motor Co. initial public offering, 1956. John C. Whitehead papers, Baker Library, Harvard Business School.

After service in the United States Navy during World War II that included stints as both a trainee and instructor at Harvard ​Business School, John Whitehead earned an MBA degree from HBS in 1947. Whitehead was then recruited to Goldman, Sachs & Co., beginning a nearly four-decade career at the investment banking firm. Whitehead played a leading role in building Goldman Sachs into one of the world’s largest and most influential investment banking enterprises. Whitehead served as co-chairman of Goldman Sachs from 1976 to 1984.

Public Service

Ronald Reagan and John C. Whitehead seated in the Oval Office.

John C. Whitehead with Ronald Reagan in the Oval Office, circa 1985. John C. Whitehead papers, Baker Library, Harvard Business School.

John Whitehead began an unexpected second career in public service in 1985 when President Reagan appointed him as Deputy Secretary of the U. S. Department of State during Reagan's second term. As the State Department’s second-ranking official, Whitehead played a significant role in guiding U.S. policy toward the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe during the closing years of the Cold War.

In the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, John Whitehead was asked to chair the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation. This New York State public-benefit corporation was tasked with rebuilding and developing the 20-square mile area that included the World Trade Center site.

Ceremony at World Trade Center Ground Zero site

John Whitehead (second from right) at Ground Zero press conference, circa 2002. John C. Whitehead papers, Baker Library, Harvard Business School. 


As both donor and fundraiser, John Whitehead was deeply involved in philanthropic efforts, particularly after leaving the State Department in 1989. Whitehead served on the boards of many non-profit organizations, including the International Rescue Committee, the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the United Nations Association of the United States of America, and the Asia Society.

Whitehead’s experiences as a board member led to his interest in encouraging good management practices in non-profit organizations. In 1995 he joined professors James E. Austin and V. Kasturi Rangan to co-found the Social Enterprise Initiative (SEI) at Harvard Business School. Whitehead donated the funds to establish the SEI program at HBS.

John Whitehead's papers are open and available for research. Contact Baker Library Special Collections to learn more about accessing and using our collections. 

Research Links

John C. Whitehead Papers, 1935-2015

The John C. Whitehead Papers at Baker Library Special Collections document Whitehead’s long business career, his public service, and his many philanthropic activities. The collection includes correspondence, speeches, board records, subject files, photographs, news clippings, and biographical materials, dating from 1935 to 2015.

Interview with John C. Whitehead, 2002

In July 2002, John Whitehead was interviewed as part of the HBS Entrepreneurs oral history project. During the interview, Whitehead discussed his education and military service, his career at Goldman Sachs, his views on leadership, entrepreneurship, and business ethics, his diplomatic service, and his philanthropic activities. The site includes a transcript of Whitehead’s comments.