Yesterday I had the privilege to participate as a speaker at “Celebrating the Life and Legacy of Warren Bennis” at University of Southern California,” along with a number of speakers. It was a moving and upbeat memorial service, done with great grace and elegance, just as Warren lived his life. Warren was a great leadership scholar who have justifiably earned the title of “The Father of Leadership.” Over 600 friends, mentees and admirers joined his wife, Grace Gabe, and members of his family in celebrating this great man. Here are my remarks:
University of Southern California, September 30, 2014
Warren Bennis was my friend, mentor and colleague. I met Warren in the late 1990s, and he has been a loyal friend ever since – always available with positive encouragement and a helping hand. He had an enormous impact on the lives of so many people in just the same way – always with kindness, deep insight, and warmth.
Warren was a giant in his intellect, his heart, and his spirit. He transformed the understanding of what it means to be a leader. Rejecting the notion that leaders are born with certain traits, Warren opened the door to the real source of leadership: within you. It is who you are. He showed us how leaders develop through their life experiences, are shaped by their crucibles, and emerge ever stronger to take on responsibilities of leadership. As he said, “The process of becoming a leader is similar to becoming a fully integrated human being.” Which is how Warren led his own life.
In his younger years he worked with some of the finest leadership thinkers of the greatest generation, Douglas McGregor, Abraham Maslow, Erik Erickson, and Peter Drucker. Just as his thinking was influenced by this generation, Warren shaped the thinking of my generation of business leaders, showing us how to develop ourselves as leaders.
I first encountered Warren’s writing in 1989 when I read On Becoming a Leader, as I was joining Medtronic. It was a revelation: finally, I had found a philosophy of leadership I could resonate with! As Warren wrote: “The most dangerous leadership myth is that leaders are born. That’s nonsense; in fact, the opposite is true. Leaders are made rather than born.” Throughout my years at Medtronic and at Harvard, I have carried his philosophies into my work and teaching.
Warren’s influence on business leaders was widespread and profound. So many who never had the privilege of knowing him were inspired by his writings and adopted his approach to leadership. Countless CEOs have told me personally what a profound influence he had on their leadership. For that, he is known as “The Father of Leadership.”
As president of the University of Cincinnati, he said: “I realized my personal truth. I was never going to be able to be happy with positional power. What I really wanted was personal power: having influence based on my voice. My real gift is what I can do in the classroom and as a mentor.” At USC, he found his “sweet spot” for the last 35 years. What other professors do you know who are still teaching at age 89?
In December of 2000 I invited him as a guest patient to an annual Medtronic event where he graciously thanked the employees who designed and manufactured his defibrillator. Warren was fond of saying that he had Medtronic “in his heart,” and then would describe how his defibrillator saved his life half a dozen times. I once witnessed this in person at Harvard while he was speaking: The defibrillator went off, and Warren slumped to the ground, dropping his papers. Ever the gracious soul, he picked up his papers, apologized for the disruption, and continued his talk. Ten minutes later when it went off a second time, the Cambridge Fire Department escorted him to safety.
Warren gave me the courage to embark on a new career of teaching and writing. He was even arranged for us to rent his Cambridge apartment my first semester at HBS. Warren generously shared his ideas on leadership, and was executive editor on four of my books. While writing True North, Peter Sims and I spent five days with Warren going over the ideas and stories in the book. Unlike many scholars who protect their ideas, Warren genuinely wanted us to expand on his and make them fully accessible to the new generation of leaders.
In Geeks and Geezers, Warren described his philosophy with the little known term neoteny: “Neoteny is the retention of all those wonderful qualities we associate with youth: Curiosity, Playfulness, Eagerness, Fearlessness, Warmth, and Energy. Undefined by time and age, older people with neoteny are open, willing to take risks, courageous, hungry for knowledge, and eager for each new day. Neoteny keeps older people focused on all the marvelous undiscovered things to come, rather than on past disappointments. Neoteny gives you a hungry heart. It is a metaphor for all the youthful gifts the luckiest of us never lose.” This describes Warren perfectly, right to his final days.
This past April Warren asked Penny and me to discuss leadership with him in the next-to-last class he ever taught. While his physical health was declining, his mind was as sharp as ever. Over dinner that evening Penny asked Warren what he would like on his tombstone. He replied, “Generous Friend.”
Warren, a generous friend is just what you were to me and Penny, to all of us here, and thousands of friends, students, scholars, and mentees whom you influenced with kindness, buoyancy of spirit, and wisdom. We miss you deeply, but will carry your love in our hearts and your wisdom in our work. That may your greatest legacy of all.
From New York Times Dealbook, September 22, 2014
I spoke with Alibaba’s founder, Jack Ma, at a private luncheon on Friday, just an hour after his company had gone public. Mr. Ma is unlike any Chinese leader I have ever met. He is emerging as the face of the new China: a free enterprise entrepreneur working within the confines of a rigid government.
Alibaba’s stock had just started trading on Friday, and it immediately jumped in value. It ended the day up 38 percent, at $93.89, giving the company a market value of $231 billion. The company set the record for the largest initial public offering in history. Yet Mr. Ma was humble, preferring to talk about building a great company that helps its customers, creates jobs and serves society. “They call me ‘Crazy Jack,’” he said. “I hope to stay crazy for the next 30 years.”
China’s large and growing economy has made it an increasing economic force over the last two decades, but it had not produced global companies. Chinese businesses focused domestically and mass-produced products for international companies. Mr. Ma is taking a different approach. Alibaba has initially concentrated on China’s enormous markets, but he understands the Internet is a worldwide phenomenon that knows no borders. He believes that Alibaba can compete internationally and across sectors, and intends to serve the American, European and emerging markets. But he said he won’t stop there. He has plans to disrupt China’s commercial banking and insurance sectors as well.
Asked about his success, Mr. Ma shares his life story. He was raised in humble origins in Hangzhou in the 1980s, just as China was opening up to the West. Growing up, he overcame one obstacle after another. He was rejected at virtually every school he applied to, even grade schools, because he didn’t test well in math.
He persevered. From age 12 to 20, he rode his bicycle for 40 minutes to a hotel where he could practice his English. “China was opening up, and a lot of foreign tourists went there,” he said. “I showed them around as a free guide. Those eight years deeply changed me. I became more globalized than most Chinese. What foreign visitors told us was different from what I learned from my teachers and books.”
As a young man, he applied for jobs at 30 companies and was rejected every time. At Kentucky Fried Chicken, 24 people applied, 23 got jobs; only Mr. Ma was rejected. So he became an English teacher at Hangzhou Electronics Technology College. In 1995, he visited America for the first time. “I got my dream from America,” he said. “When I visited Silicon Valley, I saw in the evening the road was full of cars, all the buildings with lights. That’s the passion. My role model is Forrest Gump.”
Returning to Hangzhou, he and Joe Tsai, now Alibaba’s executive vice chairman, founded the company in Mr. Ma’s modest apartment. They called the company Alibaba because it is “easy to spell, and people everywhere associate that with ‘Open, Sesame,’ the command Ali Baba used to open doors to hidden treasures in ‘One Thousand and One Nights.’”
Mr. Ma focused on applying his team’s ideas to help businesses and consumers find hidden treasures of their own. Yet he was unable to raise even $2 million from venture capitalists in America. Once again, Mr. Ma persevered. Eventually he raised $5 million through Goldman Sachs. Later, Masayoshi Son of Japan’s SoftBank invested $20 million, making it Alibaba’s largest shareholder. That stake is now worth about $75 billion. Today, the Alibaba companies serve 600 million customers in 240 countries.
With Friday’s I.P.O., Mr. Ma became China’s wealthiest citizen, worth more than $18 billion. Yet when he asked his wife several years ago whether it was more important to be wealthy or to have respect from business people, he said they agreed on respect. Mr. Ma talks about building the Alibaba ecosystem to help people, a philosophy that is baked into the DNA of the company. At the founding of the company, Mr. Ma issued generous stock option packages to early employees because he wanted to enrich the lives of all involved in his venture. He insisted that Alibaba’s six values — customer first, teamwork, embrace change, integrity, passion and commitment — be placed on the pillars of the New York Stock Exchange the day of the I.P.O.
For all his success, Mr. Ma has retained his authenticity. He recognizes that leadership is character, and he is focused on building his team. His role model is a well-oiled soccer team where 11 players work together for the success of the team. He would rather hire entrepreneurs than seasoned business executives, who are always looking over their shoulders, trying to please their bosses rather than their customers.
His own commitment to a cause larger than himself has propelled him onward. “My vision is to build an e-commerce ecosystem that allows consumers and businesses to do all aspects of business online. I want to create one million jobs, change China’s social and economic environment and make it the largest Internet market in the world.”
American tech leaders like Steven P. Jobs, Larry Page, and Mark Zuckerberg have emphasized technology and product above everything. Not Mr. Ma. “I’m not a tech guy,” he said. “I’m looking at technology with the eyes of my customers, normal people’s eyes.”
Mr. Ma said this was not just about making money. “I’m just a purist. I don’t spend 15 minutes thinking about making money,” he said. “What is important in my life is influencing many people as well as China’s development. When I am myself, I am relaxed and happy and have a good result.”
His lighthearted nature has helped create a unique culture and fun atmosphere at Alibaba where employees are given cans of Silly String, encouraged to do handstands to bolster their energy during breaks, and participate in an annual talent show where Mr. Ma sings pop songs. He practices tai chi and uses the nickname “Feng Qingyang,” a reference to a Chinese kung fu guru who trained an apprentice into a hero. Mr. Ma called martial arts “the most down-to-earth way of explaining Confucianism, Buddhism and Taoism,” adding, “They cherish brotherhood, morality, courage, emotion and conscience.”
He said he worried that China lost an entire generation when Mao Zedong phased out Confucianism and other forms of spirituality. But he said he hoped to restore that sense of values and purpose to the next generation. “It’s not policies that we need, but genuine people,” he said. Asked about corruption in China, he said, “I would rather shut down my company than pay a bribe.”
He listed three worries: continuing to create genuine value for his customers, working cooperatively with the government and building his team of global leaders. What will he do with his fortune? His big dream is to found a university for entrepreneurs that can create the new generation of Chinese entrepreneurs.
Jack Ma is a force of nature. He may become the role model for the new generation of global leaders, not only in China, but also throughout the world. “Our challenge,” he said, “is to help more people to make sustainable money that is not only good for themselves but also good for society. That’s the transformation we are aiming to make.”
From TwinCities.com, September 15, 2014
The George Family Foundation and the Guthrie Theater will honor female leaders tonight at a Celebrating Twin Cities Women Leaders event.
The event will recognize 84 local women who have made a difference in the Twin Cities through business, government, education, social service, media and the arts. Among those recognized are Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., former Minnesota Supreme Court Chief Justice Kathleen Blatz and St. Thomas University President Julie Sullivan.
"These women are leading or have led our major corporations, government organizations, nonprofit foundations, health care, universities and colleges and the arts," said Bill George, former Medtronic CEO and Harvard Business School professor. "We are proud to recognize these outstanding leaders."
The private ceremony precedes dinner and a preview of the Pulitzer Prize-winning play "The Heidi Chronicles."
I am pleased to take on the Ice Bucket Challenge from HBS Dean Nitin Nohria, Medtronic CEO Omar Ishrak, and good friend Miles Sovell. We are also giving $1,000 to the ALS Research Association to help discover cures for this dreaded disease that took the life of my cousin Tessa. In turn, I challenge my Harvard colleagues David Gergen, Rosabeth Moss Kanter and Scott Snook to take the challenge: http://youtu.be/vg07VQyiUgs
With the passing of Warren Bennis this past Thursday, a giant oak has fallen with an impact felt throughout the world. Small in physical stature, Warren was a giant in his intellect, his heart, and his spirit. Like the oak, Warren had deep roots that carried his wisdom and nourished blossoms that made the world more beautiful and humane.
Just as Peter Drucker was “the father of management,” Warren Bennis will be remembered as “the father of leadership.” It was Warren who first said leadership is not a set of genetic characteristics, but rather the result of the lifelong process of self-discovery. That process enables people to become fully integrated human beings who know themselves and bring out the best in others. As he once wrote:
The most dangerous leadership myth is that leaders are born - that there is a genetic factor to leadership. This myth asserts that people simply either have certain charismatic qualities or not. That's nonsense; in fact, the opposite is true. Leaders are made rather than born.
Warren’s early life was deeply influenced by his association at Antioch College and later MIT with Douglas McGregor, author of The Human Side of Enterprise. While in Cambridge, Warren connected with Abraham Maslow (“Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs”), Peter Drucker, Paul Samuelson, and Erik Erikson, whose theories on the eight stages of human development influenced Warren’s own “generativity” in his later years (Erikson’s Stage 7). Many of today’s influential leadership authors like Tom Peters, David Gergen, Jim O’Toole, Bob Sutton, Jeff Sonnenfeld, and Doug Conant are indebted to Warren for their ideas.
Warren Bennis’ life had its ups and downs. His first marriage ended in divorce in 1962. Thirty years later, he married his first sweetheart, psychiatrist Grace Gabe. In the early 1970s he was president of the University of Cincinnati during turbulent years for college presidents. There he realized he did not enjoy the transactional aspects of being president. As he said in a long interview he granted for my book, True North: “I realized my personal truth. I was never going to be able to be happy with positional power. What I really wanted was personal power: having influence based on my voice. My real gift is what I can do in the classroom or as a mentor.” Following his 1979 heart attack, Warren returned to teaching and writing, joining the faculty at the University of Southern California. He went on to write almost 30 books.
Personally, Warren was my mentor, friend, and intellectual colleague. He gave me the courage to become a writer. He generously shared his ideas on a whole new approach to leadership based on being authentic. He encouraged me to develop this thinking into the idea of True North. Warren was the editor on all four of my best-selling books, whose aim has been to influence the new generation of leaders to lead organizations with a clear sense of purpose, to serve others, and make this world a better place.
As I was joining Medtronic in 1989, I read Warren’s classic, On Becoming a Leader. For the first time an author described the kind of leader I wanted to be: purpose-driven, values-centered, passionate, and resilient. His book shaped my approach to leading Medtronic long before I considered writing about these ideas.
I first met Warren in the late 1990s when we were together at the World Economic Forum. My wife Penny and I had a very stimulating dinner with him and David Gergen, hosted by Dan Vasella, then CEO of Novartis. Warren suffered from heart problems, and had recently had a Medtronic defibrillator implanted. In December of 2000 I invited him as a guest patient to an annual Medtronic event where he graciously thanked the employees who designed and manufactured his defibrillator in front of 10,000 people.
Warren was fond of saying that he had Medtronic “in his heart,” and then would describe how his defibrillator saved his life half a dozen times. I once witnessed this in person at the Harvard Kennedy School where Warren was doing a program with James MacGregor Burns. The defibrillator went off – it feels like getting kicked in the chest by a horse – while Warren was speaking. He slumped to the ground, dropping his papers. Ever the gracious soul, he picked up his papers, apologized for the disruption, and continued his talk. Ten minutes later when it went off a second time, the Cambridge Fire Department escorted him to safety. Nevertheless, Warren continued his work unflaggingly for the next decade.
In 2002 Penny and I attended a seminar led by Warren and David Gergen at The Aspen Institute. At the time I was eager to write a book on my experiences at Medtronic, but was struggling to find a publisher. My intent was to incorporate many of the ideas I first learned from Warren into a practical approach to developing leaders that enabled people to be their authentic selves, rather than emulating others.
Warren encouraged me to broaden this concept into a book on Authentic Leadership. Ultimately, it was published by Jossey-Bass as part of the “Warren Bennis Signature Series”, with Warren as the executive editor. In his Foreword, Warren wrote, “Timeless leadership is always about character, and it is always about authenticity.” He closed by paying me one of the greatest compliments of my life, “Bill George will be remembered as much, perhaps more, for this book as for his extraordinary leadership achievements extending over four decades.”
In the midst of writing True North, Peter Sims and I spent five days with Warren at his home in Santa Monica going over the conceptual ideas and many of the stories we used in the book. Unlike many great scholars who protect their ideas, Warren genuinely wanted me to expand on his and make them fully accessible to a new generation of leaders, which he later called “the crucible generation.” Warren’s notions of crucibles and purpose-driven leadership permeate True North.
This past April my wife Penny and I had the privilege of participating with Warren in the next-to-last class he ever taught at USC, as he interviewed us about leadership. While his physical health was declining, his mind was as sharp as ever. Over dinner that evening Penny asked Warren what he would like on his tombstone. He replied, “Gracious Friend.” Warren was a feminist, always trying to develop women leaders. He had a special relationship with Penny. His wife Grace told us after he died that he was so pleased Penny had referred to him as “the older brother she wished she had.”
Warren’s legacy will be found in the leadership of the people he touched personally with inspiration, kindness, and thoughtful mentoring. After his True North interview, Warren emailed: “When asked what advice I would give to young leaders about preparing for the future, I recalled a poem by John Cage:
“We carry our homes within us, which enables us to fly.”
During the Franklin Institute awards day, I had the opportunity to discuss leadership with Wharton's Michael Useem, one of the world's great leadership thinkers. My emphasis was on "being who you are: letting the authentic leader within you blossom, rather than trying to emulate other leaders." Here is the video and text of my interview:
Michael Useem: You ran one of the great medical equipment makers of the world, Medtronic, for a decade. You’ve been on the faculty at the Harvard Business School for a decade. You served on the boards of ExxonMobil, Goldman Sachs [and] the Mayo Clinic. Today, we’re going to talk about your own leadership at Medtronic and what you’ve been doing in more recent years to help others develop their leadership. Let’s start with a day at the office [at Medtronic]. When you walked in, the security person was happy to see you. You got a cup of coffee, sat down in your office – and then, some people might say, “it’s all downhill” from there. So, what was a day like? A week?
George: For me, I’d have to say it was all uphill. It just was an amazing time. I became very quickly engaged in the life-saving mission of Medtronic and how we were engaging with patients and what we were doing in our labs to try to save lives — whether it was cerebral palsy or with the drug pump or Parkinson’s disease. [It] took us 10 years to get there, Mike, but it was so exciting to see people who were just locked inside their brains with Parkinson’s disease, and all of a sudden they had their lives transformed by these miracle treatments.
Useem: I would add the pacemaker [to that list]. There are some people out there walking down the street today who [could not do] that without that particular product.
George: Right. But [with] the implantable defibrillator, we were locked out by patents. We had to go to the Supreme Court to get into the game. We had huge competition from Guidant, which was an [Eli] Lilly spin-off.
It was an amazing experience with the lives saved. My mentor in the last decade has been Warren Bennis (leadership expert and professor of business administration at the University of Southern California). I was with Warren last week, and he said he had his life saved six times by his Medtronic defibrillator.
Useem: Let’s talk about Warren Bennis a bit — an author and a well-known commentator on leadership. He’s written probably a dozen books on the topic. Bill, I’ve heard you say previously that you were not a natural born leader. You learned how to lead at Medtronic. You took the company from $1 billion to $60 billion in market cap over [your] 10 years [there]. What are some of the events, some of the people, some of the mentors, some of the books and some of the experiences that changed you from the person you were at age 20 to the chief executive of Medtronic?
George: Part of it was having a negative experience at Honeywell before I came, where I’d felt like I’d hit the wall, so to speak. I wasn’t being myself. I was the heir apparent to become CEO of this giant company. But I just wasn’t happy. I wasn’t passionate about the business. [It had] great people, but it was so bureaucratic, and it wasn’t me. I had to face that in order to go to a smaller company. Like one of my mentors once said, “Sometimes you have to take the elevator down a floor to go up further.” That’s what I learned at Medtronic. It was like an open, free culture. You could breathe the air. I could be myself [and feel] the passion, the excitement. I saw 700 medical procedures [including] a defibrillator implant. I saw somebody’s life saved in brain surgery. [I saw] a stent put in their heart.
That’s where I really learned about the business. I then tried to integrate that into the company. Instead of the internal bureaucracy we had to bring much more of an external look. You’d sit around the lunch room and dream up new ideas. You’d sit in a business meeting and say, “Is this product good enough to go to patients — so 100% of all patients who get it are going to have their lives improved? If it’s not, we’re going to have to go back to the drawing board.”
Useem: Did you have a mentor along the way?
George: I’ve had a lot of mentors. Win Wall (Winston Wallin, former Medtronic CEO), my predecessor, was one of my mentors when I was CEO. And I’ve had a lot of mentors. My mentors are different today. Warren Bennis is one of them but also Nitin Nohria, our dean at Harvard Business School, [who] has shown me the ropes at Harvard. I look at them as wisdom people — wise people whom you can consult.
Useem: Let’s take you into a year or two at Medtronic. I’ve often heard it said that in the corner office, your day is just one darned decision after another, and all the easy decisions somebody else took care of at a lower level. Think back on your 10 years there. What was among the toughest decisions you made? What went into it? How did you resolve it? Looking back with the benefit of hindsight, what might you have done differently?
George: Well, there were some big decisions. The toughest one I had was in 1998. We’d had a growth front started by my predecessor [Winston Wallin] 1985. And so we had a 13-year unblemished run of 18% growth in revenues and 22% in earnings. Yet that year (1998), we weren’t growing. We had one business losing $50 million — a vascular business. We had a lot of people inside the company from the old line core business — pacemakers, defibrillators — that wanted me to pull back and not get into so many new businesses. We had a lot of ventures losing money.
We had to make the call because we weren’t growing. We had a 15% growth goal, and we were lucky if we were growing 7% that year. We were working hard to keep the earnings up, but you can only do that a while. We had two choices. We could pull back to what we were really good at, [where] we knew we could make a lot of money, but probably be acquired by a larger company like a GE or a Johnson & Johnson. Or we could go for it and take some risks, take advantage of our high priced earnings ratio and expand the company.
We chose the latter course. Even though a number of members of our executive committee were opposed to doing that, we decided to go out and expand the company. We did five acquisitions — $13 billion in sales that transformed the company. I remember having a problem after that. One of the acquisitions didn’t go well. The stock market beat us. [It was the] first time we’d missed quarterly earnings [forecasts] in 10 years. They beat us up pretty bad. I said, “Look, there’s a great company; it’ll come back.” And we did. Two years later, the market cap had tripled from $20 billion to $60 billion because we did the right thing.
But it could have gone the other way. The whole thing could have backfired on us, and we could have made some really bad deals and blown up the company.
Useem: You’ve got to take a risk. That’s what business is. [You’ve] got to live a little bit on the edge.
George: Sometimes you have to go against the grain. You have to go against what prevailing wisdom is telling you. And certainly go against what securities analysts are telling you.
Useem: The U.S. Army for long had a phrase abbreviated as AAR — the After Action Review. [It is] always good to look back when things have gone well or not well and ask what you might have done differently. Anything you would have done differently on that one with the benefit of looking back?
George: When something goes well, you wish you’d done it sooner. We did a pretty good job of integrating [acquisitions]. So, I don’t have a lot of regrets about that call. It’s interesting that the first acquisition Medtronic [made was] eventually spun off. It was interesting because it was not a fantastic [deal], but it opened the door to a lot of other things and put us in the game and gave us self-confidence. So, I don’t even regret doing that [one]. We were in chains and we had to bust loose from those chains. So I don’t have a lot of second thoughts about those deals.
Useem: Bill, when you became chief executive, you, like all first-time chief executives, were doing it for the first time. Thinking back about becoming chief executive, was there anything that was surprising, even shocking, that you didn’t anticipate until you got into that corner office? Was there anything that really seemed counter intuitive, [or] even shocking, as you took up the mantle of leader of the firm?
George: Well, I was fairly new to Medtronic at the time. I’d been with the company [for about] two years as president and chief operating officer. My predecessor stayed on as board chair. I always said he was one of my wisdom advisors. It took a while [to get] our whole team fully on board. A lot of them weren’t quite sure. A couple of them had wanted the job. [I had to] get them to fully embrace the company. Then what really shocked me was that [despite our company’s] great values, we ran into huge ethical problems outside the United States. I appointed the president of [Medtronic’s European operation] … and it turned out he was running a bribery fund. He’d come from a subsidiary company [and] was running it there. But still, he had to be fired. I had to admit my mistake and say, “I made the mistake [of] appointing this guy.”
It took a long time to get our team up to speed [while facing these] ethical problems around the world. [We had to] change out our manager in Italy. We had to change out people in China and Argentina and Brazil. [We] had to shut down every operation we had in Korea back in 1992 or 1993, because we ran into some significant ethical problems there, and just start over.
But I was shocked [at] how a company with such good values could tolerate such actions around the world. I think tolerate is the right word. One of my closest colleagues was a Frenchman who was head of international [operations]. He wasn’t unethical, but he looked the other way. He was passive. He had to be replaced so that we could take the lid of all these operations and make a lot of changes. But that took longer than I thought.
Useem: Bill, let me reference maybe one of the miracles of the modern universe. You come to work in the morning, but at that time another 5,000 people come to work.They’ve all got to get their job done [and] work together, pull together. That has to be aligned with where you’re going. If there was one thing you did to keep the 5,000 people working for you all over the world pointed in the right direction, above that ethical line, productive, [and] ultimately profit-producing, what was maybe the most important secret of your own leadership?
George: Talk about the mission — every day, every minute, every hour — till you sound like a broken record. Travel around the world. Do mission and medallion ceremonies and give people that Medtronic medallion that says, “Our job is to restore people to full life and health.” You start to say, “My gosh, people must be really bored hearing this.” No, they want to hear it every time. Bring in role models. Bring in examples. They want to know why quality on the production line is so critical. It’s not to satisfy some quality inspector over there. It’s because we know a human life hangs on the end of this heart valve. Or when you’re in the operating room, you know that if you don’t provide the right product to the doctor at the right time, someone’s going to die. I watched somebody die in Paris in an operation once in a venture we had. Or he died later that night. [The message needs to] pervade every aspect of what you’re doing.
We turned down some very large acquisitions because in the end, there was not a coming-together around the mission and the culture — Boston Scientific, U.S. Surgical — companies we spent a lot time talking to, visiting with, talking to the CEO. But it was clear that there was not going to be a meeting of the minds around those points. That was what counted. That was the thing I always tested people for.
At the end of my tenure, I had to fire a chief information officer because he didn’t get it. He wanted to know where his reserved parking place was. We don’t have that. We don’t have any company planes. Get over it. He didn’t get the mission. He’d only been there a week or two. I said, “This isn’t going to work.” So he went away because it was clear I made a mistake. I’m not blaming him. I’m blaming myself.
Useem: You’ve written four books since you were there. Two of them have the following titles: Authentic Leadership — that’s the first book you did and [it] became a bestseller, [and], a little bit later on, True North. A question I’m often asked as I reference the concepts [in those books] is if you don’t feel that you’re being the authentic you, and if you don’t really have a North Star yet, how can you develop that authenticity?
George: When I first started writing, I was in Switzerland. I’d just given up being CEO of Medtronic about a year before. I [had] realized we were losing sight of what we were called to do. I thought that all the leadership literature was going the wrong way. It was talking about how we can pace the trade characteristics, competency and models, and all the HR community was going this way. I just felt it was wrong. I felt leadership has to be coming from who you are. You have to be authentic and the genuine you. You have to follow your true north. You have to be the real person that you’re called to be. That was the year of emulating Jack Welch. And how would you like to be a female executive emulating Jack Welch? It can’t be done.
You’ve got to be yourself. We’ve got to get away from this “great man” theory of leadership and get down to [the fact that] everyone has qualities of leadership, but they have to be developed. That was the whole thesis of everything that I did. That’s what I always told people: “Just be yourself. You can’t be something [else]. If you’re a tulip, be a tulip. If you’re a rose, and you’ve got some [thorns], it’s okay. You can produce beautiful buds. But you’ve got to be who you are. And then bloom from that position.”
Useem: Bill, you’re optimistic in that if we are being ourselves and we’re not performing to the level that we know we have to, we’ve got to take ourselves and we’ve got to build out what works, what’s strong. How should people go about doing that?
George: [The] first thing you have to do is accept yourself. You have to know yourself and have self-awareness. Then you have to accept yourself. That requires compassion for your weaknesses. You’ve got to realize that’s the core. A lot of people say, “I don’t want to deal with it.” [However, you] can’t be a leader until you do it. That’s who you are. You have to accept who you are. There’s nothing wrong with that. Until you can accept that you came from poverty, you came from a broken family or whatever it was, until you can gain that level, you can’t be a leader. Helping people walk through that process is just amazing in how it frees people up. It’s exciting.
Useem: Once we’ve got that, we need to go where we’re going … and that metaphor of a point of light that’s always there, your true north.
George: Your true north is, “What is your purpose in life? What are you called to do? I’m just one of seven billion people on the planet — how can I make a difference in the world? That’s what I’m passionately [exploring] today with young leaders coming in. How can each of us make a difference in the world through our work – [and it is] not that one is greater and one is lesser. [It is about] having a sense of your true north and what you really believe in, and following that. We all get pulled off course, but you have to find a way of coming back to true north, to what really is you.
Useem: Somebody says, “I want to find my true north. I’m 22 years of age. I’m still trying to get that direction figured out. How do I go about figuring out what my true north should be?”
George: Very straight forward. First of all, let’s review your life story and the various phases. What are the high points and low points, really in depth? What is the greatest crucible of your life? What did you learn from that experience? Let’s understand. What do you believe [in]? What are your beliefs? What are your deepest held values? What are your principles [regarding] humankind and people? Put those things together, and now we’re ready to talk about the purpose of [a person’s] leadership.
I learned the hard way [that] you can’t start out talking about [true north]. People don’t know. Until you go through [this kind of questioning process], it doesn’t come into focus. “What are the gifts I have? What are my greatest strengths? What are the things I’m most motivated by?” That’s what we call your sweet spot — because it’s intrinsic motivation, not just money, fame and power, [which are] extrinsic. And it’s your greatest strength.
I had people trying to fix my weaknesses in previous jobs at Litton and Honeywell for 20 years. They were always unsuccessful because you couldn’t fix them. I’m still impatient. I’m still too direct. I still lack tact. I still have all those weaknesses I’ve had all along. I hope I’ve moderated them a little bit and they aren’t quite as strong, but they’re still there. They are part of who I am.
Useem: Bill, a question to shift gears ever so briefly here. You’ve been a chief executive who has had a board, and now you serve on the board of Goldman Sachs and ExxonMobil, among others. How does a chief executive go about getting the most from the amazing people in most board rooms — or if you’re a non-executive director, as you are at Goldman [Sachs] and ExxonMobil, how do you work to ensure that the board can give the chief executive and his or her team what they need — which is strategic guidance and much more?
George: Well, the best boards are made up of diverse people who’ve had a lot of experience. [At Medtronic] we had doctors on the board, we had business people — we [executives] just tried to have the dialogue and discussion and listen to what they had to say.
Sometimes [board members] get it wrong. Or sometimes they don’t say things quite right. That’s fine. But what insights can we get from our board and really use? …Make sure you’re getting everyone engaged and that you have private time to do it. You can’t do it with the whole management team in the room. Use your board, in the sense of gaining from their wisdom, knowledge and experience.
That’s the only reason I would serve on a board. The best board I was on was Novartis, where former CEO Dan Vasella really used the board and really appreciated our input. He would give us unformed decisions and say, “What do you think about this?” We’d give him inputs, and he’d come back a few months later and say, “Okay, now we’re ready to take the next step.” I’ve encouraged the boards I’m on to do the same thing.
Useem: What advice would you have for a young person just coming into their career in the light of what you’ve done?
George: Don’t do what I’ve done! (Laughs) You should do what you feel called to do. What turns you on? What are your passions? What gets you really excited? How do you want to make a difference in the world? When you get on your death bed and you’re 97 years old and your favorite granddaughter asks you, “What did you do to make a difference?” What are you going to tell her? Think about that now when you’re 22. How are you going to make your mark? There are seven billion people. How are you going to make a difference? What can you leave behind? What’s the legacy? Who is the real you? I guarantee you it’s not going to be how much money you make, because there will always be somebody who makes more money. What did you do to make a difference?
I found it really gets down to the lives you touch every day in your life … and people you don’t even know sometimes whom you’ve impacted by who you are, what you stand for, by being true to what you believe. If you can just do that — follow your own passions — you can fulfill every dream you have. It doesn’t matter what your title is and how much money you make. It doesn’t matter how famous you are. But what does matter is: Did you make a difference? Did you use your greatest gifts that your creator gave you to make a difference in the world — to make this a better place, to solve problems?
Returning to Berlin for the first time in several years, it is remarkable to see this great city progress as the cultural center of Germany. Penny and I had the privilege of staying at the magnificent Adlon Hotel as our hotel room looked out on Brandenburg Gate, the former dividing line between East and West Berlin. I still have vivid memories of standing under the gate on October 3, 1990 – the day of German reunification – when Maestro Leonard Bernstein conducted the Berlin Philharmonic playing Beethoven’s 9th Symphony with its glorious “Ode to Joy.”
Some thoughts on our impressions of Berlin circa 2014:
- I wish I could have been here on Sunday, July 13 for the spectacular triumph of the German soccer team as 250,000 Germans watching on large screens on Unter Den Linden saw young Mario Götze’s brilliant goal in the 113th minute to bring the World Cup back to Germany.
- Two days later 400,000 Germans gathered to greet their heroes as the team arrived home from Rio. Prior to landing at Berlin’s Tegel airport, their airplane did a flyover and wiggled its wings to salute the cheering masses. What a contrast with the 1930s ...
- Speaking of the 1930s, German contrition and ownership of the terrors of the past are present everywhere, but no more apparent than at the stunning and horrifying Topography of Terror. This museum documents the shame of the past without pulling any punches. Just one block from Brandenburg Gate is the haunting Holocaust Memorial, with its images of large blocks protruding from the grounds (representing those who died in the Holocaust?). As horrifying as these monuments are, one has to credit the German people for owning the sins of their past. Where in the U.S. can one find an owning of our past of destroying Native American cultures (or attempting to do so) or bringing slaves to our shores in chains? Or in Russia of the 25 million people “eliminated” by Joseph Stalin?
- These monuments constitute but a small fraction of the architectural wonders of Berlin, as many of the world’s greatest architects have come here with the freedom to showcase their greatest creations – not the least of which is amazing Sony center. Berlin today is a modern, beautiful city that all Germans can be proud to call their capitol.
- I have long admired the German economic miracle which has occurred since the rapprochement in the past decade, thanks to the leadership of former Chancellor Gerhard Schröder. He brought together business, labor and government leaders to act in concert to build the German economy. The result of their efforts has been years of improved competitiveness, thanks to highly skilled workers, flat wages and benefits, low inflation, and net exports exceeding $200 billion – a sharp contrast to the U.S.
- Now there are cracks appearing in the vaunted German resolve, as wages are rising again at 3-4%, well above Germany’s low inflation rate of 1%, and German industry finds itself far too dependent on Russian gas that costs three times the price paid by its U.S. counterparts. Meanwhile, a rift is emerging between complacent German politicians and German industrial CEOs forced to expand outside Germany in order to remain competitive. How will Germany resolve these differences? We left Berlin without any clear answers to this question, in spite of asking many leaders to respond to it. One hopes that Germany will continue to be not only the leader of Europe, but a role model for all industrial nations, including the U.S.
- Meanwhile, one of the weaknesses of the German economy – the lack of entrepreneurship and risk-taking – does not appear to be any closer to resolution than it was a decade ago. Time and again, we were told of the fear of failure that so many German leaders have and their unwillingness to embrace the kind of innovation so commonly seen in Silicon Valley due to the personal risks involved.
While Germany has its share of challenges, they pale by comparison with the political gridlock we face in the U.S. I have the clear sense that the diligence, commitment, and pragmatism of Germany’s business, government and labor leaders, and the strong sense of unity among them, will enable Germany to resolve the issues it faces, and continue to be a strong, competitive player on the world scene – and a role model for all developed economies.
On Sunday, Germany became the champion of the soccer world, winning the World Cup for the 4th time, defeating a rugged Argentina team with Lionel Messi as its star. Germany’s surge through the tournament – undefeated in seven games with only a tie with Ghana marring its record – wasn’t a fluke, nor was it lucky. It was the result of 14-year rebuilding program that began in 2000 when soccer was at a low point in Germany’s vaunted history.
In 2000, Germany had been embarrassed by being ousted in the group stage of the European Cup, finishing in 14th place. Its aging greats were retiring and no young stars were emerging. When Coach Erich Ribbeck resigned, the German Federation decided it needed to overhaul its entire player development system. It took 14 years for these decisions to pay off fully. On Sunday Germany’s dreams were fulfilled, thanks to 22-year-old Mario Götze’s brilliant goal in overtime, assisted by 23-year-old André Schürrle, both of whom entered the game as substitutes.
Here are five lessons that business leaders can learn from the German soccer experience that apply to running your business.
#1 - The team is more important than any individual. This maxim was evident throughout the tournament as Germany prevailed over such extraordinary individuals as Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo, holding both scoreless. The German victory was definitely a team effort, thanks to the coaching of Joachim Löw, who took over in 2006. Germany was such a well-unified team that FIFA could not single out one player as MVP, so it gave the award to a disappointed Lionel Messi. Is your organization truly a team effort, with the leader as coach, not director, or is it directed from the top? If the latter, you will never get the best efforts from your teammates or enable them to develop fully.
#2 – Develop a broadly-based cadre of emerging stars for the long-term. Germany’s youth movement was launched by former star Jürgen Klinsmann, now coach of the U.S. national team, when he became coach in 2004. It has been carried on by his former assistant and now head coach, Joachim Löw, for the past 8 years. They deserve credit for producing such great players as Thomas Müller (24), Mesut Özil (25), Toni Kroos (25), Jérôme Boateng (25), Mats Hummels (25), and Benedikt Höwedes (26) as well as Götze and Schürrle. Business leaders need to think less about immediate succession plans and more about long-term development of outstanding future leaders. That takes intense work with young leaders in their twenties and thirties who will have the breadth and depth of leadership experiences to be prepared for top-level assignments.
#3 - Rely on your veterans, but give emerging stars their chance to shine. Unlike Klinsmann who dropped Landon Donovan, America’s all-time leading scorer at age 32, Löw moved 36-year-old Miroslav Klose, Germany’s all-time leading scorer into the starting lineup, for the final two games. He responded with the winning goal against Brazil, making him the leading goal scorer in World Cup history. Yet when Germany desperately needed a goal with the clock ticking down, Löw called on young Götze, who responded with the goal that won the Cup. All too often, business leaders fail to take risks on their best young leaders by giving them the big opportunity to step up in the most challenging situations. An exception is former Novartis CEO Dan Vasella, who promoted two leaders in their thirties to run the company’s most challenging divisions.
#4 – As the coach, position your players in their “sweet spot” on the field. The key to leading a business organization or team is very similar to soccer: the leader needs to ensure that the players are positioned on the field in their optimal positions, where their strengths can be maximized and their weaknesses not exposed. That’s what Germany’s Löw did in starting three forwards, while keeping his rock-solid defenders in place. Midway through the tournament he made a key tactical move to get Captain Philipp Lahm back to his “sweet spot” at left defense, moving Bastian Schweinsteiger to center midfield, which strengthened both positions. Business leaders need to ensure they get their key leaders into the right positions so their strengths can be fully utilized.
#5 – You’re building for the long-term, but you must win today’s game. Business leaders often complain about the pressures of quarterly earnings reports while they are investing for the long-term. Every great soccer coach knows you have to win today’s game to have a shot at building for the long-term. As well as Germany has done in developing its cadre of talented players, it still had to beat Argentina to establish its success. Had it lost in a shootout, I doubt everyone would be hailing German soccer today. It’s the same for companies: performance matters. But the key is not to win a single tournament or have a great year; it’s to sustain that performance year-after-year. As in soccer, that’s hard to do with new competitors constantly nipping at your heels. Most important of all, it is essential to invest in your people for the long-term, and to know how to use an aging star like Klose and when to trust a young star like Götze.
From Vail Daily, July 14, 2014
“The mountains are calling and I must go,” wrote naturalist and writer John Muir.
And the mountains called and the people came, despite showers and reverberating thunder, to celebrate Walking Mountains Science Center at the Reach for the Peak award dinner held on Thursday at the school’s campus in Avon. “Nature Nurtures” was the theme, and several stations were set up with experiential learning for the guests on meditation, local plants as aromatherapy and healing plants.
Penny and Bill George were the honorees. Through the support of the George Family Foundation over the past eight years, the school built a state-of-the-art educational facility, the George Meadow Learning Center.
Penny’s passion is in transforming medicine with a holistic approach focusing on the integration of mind, body and spirit. She has started programs, including the Penny George Institute for Health and Healing in Minneapolis. Bill has led several companies, including Litton Industries, Honeywell and Medtronic. He is passionate about leadership, has published several books on leadership and is a professor of management practice at Harvard Business School. They believe in giving back to the communities where they live and visit.
“It’s very important that the students of the valley and those from out of state have an appreciation for the environment,” said Bill George. “Without the young people learning about our land, there may be no environment in the future.”
Penny concurred. “Everyone needs a chance to experience what nature is all about,” she said. “The children will be running the valley. It’s important they have a sense of place of here.”
Originally founded in 1998 by Kim Langmaid, Walking Mountains took root in the county as Gore Range Natural Science School in a small building in Red Cliff. The magnificent campus, which opened in 2011 is located in a pristine setting north of Interstate 70 in Avon on land donated by the Tang family. Not only the county’s school children but also adults and visitors benefit annually from their many programs including the STEM Leadership Academy, programs for graduate students, nature hikes, winter snowshoes and much more.
Nancy Ricca, who splits time between New Jersey and Vail, was drawn to Walking Mountains early in her Vail residence.
“There are a lot places to put your dollars in the valley, but this is one organization that lines up what I love: hiking, nature and learning. Walking Mountains puts me in touch with the reason I came here in the first place.”
Alpine Bank stepped up as a major sponsor. Claggett-Rey Galleries donated the exceptional wines being poured from Twomey Cellars and Silver Oak. After the presentations and dinner provided by Vail Catering Concepts, the guests danced to the music of the Diamond Empire Band.
On Thursday, July 10, Penny and I were honored to receive the Reach for the Peak Award from Walking Mountains Science School in Vail. Here’s the video they produced for us. https://vimeo.com/100357007