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Bill George

Harvard Business School Professor, former Medtronic CEO

Leadership in the 21st Century

Leadership in the 21st Century
Address by Bill George
The Economics Club of Grand Rapids November 7, 2006

Leadership in the United States is in a disturbing state – in politics, government, business, education, religion and non-profits.  From Congress to the United Health Group, the National Association of Evangelicals, and the American Red Cross, many of our leaders seem to be ethically challenged, to use a polite euphemism.

The Root Causes of the Leadership Crisis
The roots of the current leadership crisis go much deeper than a few ethical deviants.  This may surprise you, but I am far less concerned with Jeff Skilling, Bernie Ebbers, Jack Abramoff, or Bob Ney because our legal system has proven to be quite effective and equitable in dealing with them.  My far greater concern lies with the way we are choosing our leaders, setting them up as heroes, and then stomping on them as they fall.

We have a national obsession with leaders at the top of organizations, from the President to CEOs.  Unfortunately, our wrongheaded notion of what constitutes a leader often results in the wrong people attaining critical leadership roles.  Boards of directors, search committees, and voters often select leaders for:

  • Their charisma instead of their character;
  • Their image instead of their integrity;
  • Their style instead of their substance

If they are chosen for charisma, image and style, why are we surprised when our leaders lack character, integrity, and substance?

The root cause of the leadership crisis is our fundamental misunderstanding of leadership.  We are mired in a 20th century view of leadership that emerged from two world wars that gave us the image of the great leader leading his troops up the hill to plant the flag.  Or the manufacturing model of General Motors’ Alfred P. Sloan, where thousands of workers, timed by the stopwatches of efficiency experts, do their small part to make the assembly line run efficiently.  Or, more recently, the charismatic, all-powerful leaders of the 1990s in the image of GE’s Jack Welch, who dominated the business world with basic models like Six Sigma and 20/70/10 vitality curves.  If only our lives these days were that simple!

Instead, we face snipers in Baghdad, and a wide array of constituencies in business, from hedge funds to short sellers,, disgruntled customers, and aggrieved employees suing us, to whistle blowers, NGOs, and federal regulators, all with individual demands that bear little relationship to the fundamentals of our business, but which can distract us and pull us down.

Redefining 21st C. Leadership
Amidst all this complexity, the time is ripe to redefine leadership for the 21st century around the needs and desires of people today.  The military-manufacturing model of leadership that worked so well fifty years ago does not get the best out of people today.  People are simply too will informed and educated to be led by a set of rules or to blindly follow their leader over the hill.  In the 21st century we have well-educated knowledge workers who want to follow their own drumbeats, but not give themselves over to someone they do not trust.

The good news today is that there is no shortage of people with the capacity to lead.  There are many, many leaders throughout organizations – and many outside organizations – just waiting for the opportunity to step up and lead.  In too many organizations, however, people do not feel empowered to take charge, nor are they rewarded for doing so.

Leadership is not just being in charge of a large organization: it is stepping up to the leadership challenges in the environment around you.  Does this mean anyone can lead?  In a real sense, yes, anyone who has the passion to lead and the commitment to develop as a leader can become an effective leader.  As Ann Fudge, CEO of Young & Rubicam says, “All of us have the spark of leadership in us, whether in business, government, or as a non-profit volunteer.  The challenge is to understand ourselves well enough to discover w2here we can use our leadership gifts to serve others.  We’re here for something.  Life is about giving and living fully.”

What 21st Century Leadership Is All About
The best 21st century leaders are authentic people who are uniquely themselves – the genuine article, if you will.  They have the capacity to bring people together around a common mission or purpose and a shared set of values and empower them to step up and lead, each in their own authentic way.

The bottom line is this:

  • You can discover your authentic leadership right now.
  • You do not have to be born with specific characteristics or traits of a lead
  • You do not have to be on top of an organization.
  • You do not have to wait to be tapped on the shoulder.
  • You can step and lead at any point in your life.

Why not right now?  Is anything holding you back?  In considering whether to step up and lead authentically, ask yourself these two questions:

If not me, then who?  If not now, then when?

I wrote Authentic Leadership in 2003 as a clarion call to the new generation of leaders to lead authentically:

  • With a passion for their purpose,
  • By practicing their values every day, especially when under pressure,
  • To lead with their hearts, with compassion, empathy and courage,
  • By establishing connected relationships with people,
  • And by having the self-discipline to get results.

There is good news in leadership happening right in front of our eyes.  Since the fall

Enron, a generation of leaders is stepping up to lead our major corporations, people like Jeff Immelt of GE, Sam Palmisano of IBM, Andrea Jung of Avon Products, and Anne Mulcahy of Xerox.  They are transforming their organizations to inspire people throughout their organizations to lead authentically, and producing sustainable long-term results because of the cultures they are creating.

Discovering Your Authentic Leadership
After Authentic Leadership was published, many people asked me the question: How do I become and remain an authentic leader?  With the efforts of two colleagues, Peter Sims and Diana Mayer, we interviewed 125 authentic leaders about they developed as leaders.  From them we learned that the essential difference in their leadership was not their characteristics, traits, and styles.  Rather it was in the inspiration that they gleaned from their life stories and how framing their stories, including their crucibles and transformative experiences, gave them the passion to make a difference in the world by leading and impacting other people.  We also learned that the hardest person you will ever have to lead is yourself, and that failure to lead oneself was the cause of so many leaders in recent years losing their way and being derailed in their careers.  From the 3,000 pages of transcripts from these interviews, we boiled the process of discovering your authentic leadership down to these five basic points:

Having self-awareness and an understanding of your True North;

Understanding your values, leadership principles, and ethical boundaries.

Balancing your extrinsic motivations with your intrinsic motivations.

Building a support team that can help you stay on track.

Living an integrated life.

By working on these five areas of development, leaders grew to understand the purpose of their leadership and developed the capacity to inspire others to lead around a common purpose and set of values, as they continued to hone their leadership styles and their ability to use their power most effectively.

If we can build organizations of empowered leaders, we can resolve our leadership vacuum and create lasting institutions that sustain their success and fulfillment for all of the participants.

The Fulfillment of Leadership
In approaching whether and how you want to step up to lead, think ahead to the end of your life.   Your whole family is gathered around your bedside when your granddaughter looks up at you and says, “Tell me what you did to make a difference in the world.”  What are you going to tell her?  If you can honestly say that you made a difference by bringing people together around a common purpose as you empowered them to lead, then you will have known just how fulfilling leadership can be.  No experience can be as thrilling as working hard to accomplish a bold goal with a group of people, facing great challenges as you do, and then realizing your greatest dreams together.

That is the fulfillment of leadership.