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Bill George

Harvard Business School Professor, former Medtronic CEO

Huffington Post: The Triumph of Authentic Leaders

From The Huffington Post, posted July 13, 2015

In late 2006, Alan Mulally arrived as the new CEO of Ford with a plain shirt, slacks, and a big smile. That smile quickly faded, however, when he asked to meet workers in the main factory. “I’m sorry”, a colleague told him, “but Ford executives don’t talk directly to factory employees.” Unflinching, Mulally insisted on going to the factory floor. Once there, he spoke to the workers about their dreams, their hopes for the company, and the values of Ford.

In my new book, Discover Your True North, I profile Mulally and his leadership at Ford. During his seven years there, he transformed Ford from the brink of bankruptcy to an $8 billion profit. Mulally’s low-key, “aw shucks” demeanor helped him connect with employees. As his workers grew to trust him, he made difficult deals for the company — cutting the total cost of hourly workers from $97 to $55 per hour.

This change made Ford’s UAW workers in the Midwest competitive with foreign, non-union assembly plants in the South, enabling Ford to shift jobs from Mexico to the Midwest. When he stepped down in 2014, Mulally left Ford as the most successful and financially stable automobile company in the U.S.

The key to Mulally’s success? Authentic leadership.

As he said in 2013, “Leadership is being authentic to who you are, thinking about what you really believe in and behaving accordingly.” Mulally lives that every day. At Ford, he attended strategic meetings in person. He then followed up directly to ensure successful outcomes and a supportive team.

Authenticity has become the gold standard for leadership. No longer is leadership about developing charisma, emulating other leaders, or looking good externally. Instead, leadership is about inspiring and empowering those you lead.

All of us want to be led by real people, not figureheads. As our organizations become less hierarchical, we yearn for leaders we can relate to as regular human beings. As a leader, the only way you can achieve this is to be your authentic self. You cannot “fake it ’til you make it,” because people sense intuitively whether you are genuine or not. As Cameron Anderson at the University of Berkeley explains, there are always physical signs — shifting eyes, rising voice, and other giveaways — that identify imposters.

Unfortunately, not all leaders focus on being real. A year after Mulally joined Ford, Robert Nardelli took the reins of another Detroit automaker: Chrysler. Nardelli had been highly successful at General Electric, where he was one of three finalists to succeed Jack Welch. After leaving GE, he had an unsuccessful term as CEO of Home Depot before joining Chrysler.

At Chrysler, he tried to emulate the leadership style of his mentor, Jack Welch, which caused many to refer to him as “Little Jack.” Unlike Mulally, who enjoyed casual conversation with employees and often ate in the company cafeteria, Nardelli preferred a command-and-control style. At Chrysler, this aloof style created a barrier between him and employees.

In contrast, Mulally created trust with his employees, enabling them to face the reality that Ford was going out of business unless dramatic changes were made. Eventually, Mulally’s straight-forward approach enabled union workers to embrace lower wages. This move saved Ford jobs and helped create others. Nardelli, however, couldn’t convince Chrysler workers to take similar pay cuts. Just two years after starting, Nardelli resigned as CEO of Chrysler, and the company filed for bankruptcy.

Authenticity drives our success. Without it, today’s leaders are destined to fail.

What makes an authentic leader? Authentic leaders have discovered their True North, align people around shared purpose and values, and empower them to lead authentically in order to create value for all stakeholders.

Authentic leaders are constantly focusing their calling and purpose — their True North. The only way to discover your True North is through rigorous examination of your life story, acceptance of your crucibles, self-reflection, and getting honest feedback as you rub up against the world.

To be an authentic leader, you must have both integrity and vulnerability. Integrity is the commitment to tell the whole truth, even when it is easier to conceal it. Vulnerability is the act of sharing your whole self, even when it’s more comfortable to hide those parts you don’t like.

Authentic leaders are true to themselves and to what they believe. Rather than letting the expectations of others guide them, they are their own persons and go their own ways. They engender trust and develop genuine connections with others. Because people trust them, authentic leaders are able to motivate them to achieve high levels of performance. 

This is not to say that authentic leaders are perfect. Far from it. All leaders have weaknesses and are subject to human frailties and mistakes. Authentic leaders constantly try to improve themselves. By acknowledging their shortcomings and admitting their errors, their humanity comes through, and they are able to connect with people and inspire them. 

Shakespeare wrote, “To thine own self, be true.” To become an authentic leader, you should do the same.