“As a Servant Leader, You Can Change the World” Commencement Address

President Pribbenow, members of Augsburg College Board of Regents, and most importantly, 2013 graduates of this great institution, it is indeed a great honor and privilege for me to receive this treasured honorary degree and to have the opportunity to share with you my thoughts on your lives as servant leaders. 

Augsburg is a unique place that unites and inspires all of us with its sense of learning, stewardship, and servant leadership in a diverse student body in this urban setting, underpinned by the beliefs and values of Martin Luther. This morning I would like to speak with the graduating seniors as servant leaders who can change the world.

The world you’re entering is not the more predictable one of my growing up years. Rather, it is a volatile and unpredictable place, as we learned in Boston two weeks ago during the marathon and the events that followed. It is often chaotic and ambiguous, filled with conflicting forces pulling you in multiple directions. It is an easy world in which to criticize others and bemoan all that is wrong with it, as our media does so well. But taking that path will ultimately lead you into a cul-de-sac of despair and disappointment.

How can you navigate this world to find the joy, fulfillment, and significance that we aspire to? My only truth is that each of us must seek and find our True North – our beliefs, our values, and the principles by which we lead our lives – and then strive to stay true to who we are at our core in spite of all the pressures and seductions attempting to pull us off course. This is not an easy task as the external forces in our lives attempt to influence us As Apple founder Steve Jobs once said, “Don't let the noise of others' opinions drown out your own inner voice.”

Each of us has a unique place in this world of seven billion people – and a calling to make a difference. How will you find your calling? What truly inspires you? I believe we are all called to lead, but how? It starts with your desire to serve others through your leadership. Would-be leaders who feel people are there to serve them are not leaders at all. This means knowing yourself and engaging deeply in the world to seek and find the purpose of your leadership. It means following your heart, not just your head, with a deep sense of passion, compassion, and courage – which are all matters of the heart.

My journey to leadership was not an easy path. As the only child of older parents, I heard from my father from a young age that he wanted me to make up for his failures to lead by heading a major company. He even named the companies: Coca-Cola, Procter & Gamble, IBM. At age eight, this was a pretty heavy trip to lay on a little kid. In junior high and high school I joined many organizations but was never asked to lead. Finally, my senior year I ran for senior class president only to lose by a margin of 2-1. It seemed clear my classmates didn’t appreciate what a great leader I was! To get a fresh start – or perhaps try to escape myself – I went 800 miles from home to Georgia Tech and repeated my mistakes all over again – six times I ran for office and lost all six! My scorecard: 0 for 7! It was pretty clear I was more of a loser than a leader. Then some seniors took me aside and gave me some blunt feedback: “Bill, no one is ever going to want to work with you, much less be led by you, because you’re moving so fast and so focused on yourself that you don’t have time for anyone else. It’s all about you.” That was like a blow to the solar plexus. .  . I realized they were right. After that, I worked hard to change and was successful in leading many organizations in college and grad school. But in the back of my mind was this calling to values-centered leader of a major company that served others. In my forties I was en route to the top of Honeywell when one day I looked in the mirror and saw a miserable person – me. I was in the midst of a crucible, but didn’t even realize it. Once again, I was striving so hard to get ahead that I was losing sight of my True North, focused more on becoming CEO that on serving others. That led me to make the most important career change of my life when I joined Medtronic and found a mission-driven, values-centered group of people dedicated to restoring people to full life and health. My thirteen years there were the fulfillment of my professional career, as we grew from restoring 300,000 people per year to 10 million new patients every year.

What is your calling? How will you use your unique gifts to serve others? I hope you won’t take twenty years to find it, but you might as you rub up against the real world and find your unique place. To find your calling, I encourage you to dive into the world and have as many experiences as you can in a short period of time. Don’t do what others say you “should” do, but rather what your heart calls you to do. Travel or live in countries that are completely foreign to your experience. Find a service opportunity that makes you uncomfortable because you’re learning from people whose lives are so different from you. Take risks, learn to fail and pick yourself up after failing to come back and do it better the next time. Keep a journal of your experiences and your feelings and return to it often to learn from your inner wisdom as well as the wisdom of others. Take a job doing what you love, not one that earns the most money or that your family wants you to take. Most important of all, follow your heart, not just your head.

By honoring your roots and diving into life’s experiences, you will gain a deeper awareness of who you are, your passions, your motivations, your unique strengths. When you come to a vocation or avocation that highly motivates you and you are really good at, you have found your “sweet spot” – that place where you can find joy, fulfillment, and success through serving others. And you will have found the purpose of your leadership, as I did at Medtronic, by striving to be a servant leader.

As a servant leader, you can change the world. Not the whole world of course, but the world in which you live, work, and interact with others. You can make this world a better place through your character and your leadership.  As anthropologist Margaret Mead once said, “Never doubt the power of a small group of people to change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” You, your classmates and your generation are the servant leaders who will make this world a better place for everyone.

When you are on your deathbed and your favorite granddaughter asks you what you did to make a difference in the world, you’ll have a clear answer for her that becomes her inspiration to go forth into this world that is filled with so much chaos, volatility, uncertainty and ambiguity – yet has so much joy, awe, and beauty all around us and the opportunity to help others find it by serving them.

Let me close with a favorite quote from Nobel Peace Prize winner Albert Schweitzer, who said: I don't know what your destiny will be, but one thing I do know. The only ones among you who will be really happy are those who have sought and found how to serve.”

As you journey through life, may you find that true happiness and deep sense of fulfillment by serving others through your leadership. As a servant leader, you can indeed change the world in which you live.

Harvard Business School Launches New Executive Education Program On Building Global Leadership

BOSTON – May 6, 2013 – Harvard Business School (HBS) announces the launch of Leading a Global Enterprise (, a course scheduled to take place from July 28–August 2, 2013, on the HBS campus. The program is intended to teach business leaders how to operate effectively in a global corporate world and work seamlessly with multicultural organizations.

Leading a Global Enterprise was created in part to expand on HBS faculty member Bill George's principles of leaders following their authentic True North and cochair Krishna Palepu's deep insights into Winning in Emerging Markets. The program focuses on global intelligence, examining studies of companies like Siemens, Tata and IBM that have developed a strong presence within their global business networks. Participants will work closely with HBS leadership faculty to study how these companies have achieved worldwide success, understand the traits of prosperous global leaders and collaborate on ways to incorporate these skills in their own businesses.

“We developed this program to give established leaders an opportunity to step back and explore their development as global influencers in the business community, building the confidence they need to work with like-minded companies around the world,” said Professor Das Narayandas, Senior Associate Dean and Chair of Executive Education and Publishing.  “In an era of industrial globalization, it is crucial to understand how to successfully work with other cultures.”

Senior executives who lead established global businesses, marketing executives running global product and marketing groups, or senior regional executives and country heads preparing for greater global responsibilities are encouraged to take this course. Alongside Bill George, Krishna Palepu and other senior HBS faculty members, participants will follow an intensive one-week program, resulting in the development of a customized global plan.

Leading a Global Enterprise will provide valuable insights for global executives looking to increase their ability to lead global organizations,” said Bill George, Professor of Management Practice. “In order to win in competitive global markets, leaders need to expand their global intelligence, collaborate cross-culturally and align their people with common missions and values that lead to superior long-term performance.”

For more information, please contact:

Jim Aisner,, +1-617-495-6157

Program Details:

Leading a Global Enterprise will run from July 28–August 2, 2013, and will take place at Harvard Business School.  Please visit for complete curriculum details and to apply.

Leading a Global Enterprise

(July 28August 2, 2013, Harvard Business School)


William W. George, Professor of Management Practice

Rosabeth Moss Kanter, Professor of Business Administration

Nitin Nohria, George F. Baker Professor of Administration, Dean of the Faculty

Krishna G. Palepu, Professor of Business Administration, Senior Advisor to Harvard's President on Global Strategy

About Harvard Business School:

Harvard Business School Executive Education, a division of Harvard Business School, is located on a 40-acre campus in Boston, Massachusetts. HBS faculty develop and deliver over  80 open-enrollment Executive Education programs and more than 60 custom programs for leading organizations worldwide. Last year, more than 9,000 business executives attended programs in classrooms across the globe, including Boston, London, Mumbai, and Shanghai. With global research centers in seven key regions, HBS faculty continue to develop groundbreaking research, forge powerful alliances with global organizations, and fulfill the mission of educating leaders who shape the practice of business and innovation.

Best Buy Is Back!

Originally published in the StarTribune.  

What a difference a year makes!

A year ago Best Buy was headed for the unending troubles that have beset retailers like Sears, Kmart, Circuit City, J.C. Penney and Mervyn’s: storied histories followed by long-term decline of their brands.

Last April CEO Brian Dunn resigned over allegations about a relationship with an employee. However, Best Buy’s problems went beyond Dunn’s conduct. Its same-store sales were declining and its stock price had dropped from $45 to $25. Security analysts were predicting Best Buy’s ultimate demise, referring to it as “Amazon’s showroom.”

How did Best Buy get back on track while overcoming a rupture with founder Richard Schulze? Let’s look beyond the headlines at the leaders involved.

Dunn’s resignation was just the beginning of Best Buy’s troubles. In May, Schulze stepped aside as chair for failing to disclose allegations about Dunn, and later resigned from the board, threatening to take Best Buy private. Meanwhile, interim CEO Mike Mikan was preparing a plan to preserve Best Buy by closing stores and cutting costs. This upset Schulze as he feared “his baby” would be dismantled.

Schulze countered in August with a preliminary offer of $26-$28 per share to take Best Buy private and bring in his own management team led by former Best Buy CEO Brad Anderson. Wall Street seemed skeptical whether he could raise $8 billion to $9 billion for the buyout. Meanwhile, Best Buy’s 170,000 employees, customers and shareholders wondered whether the retailer had a future.

Things changed dramatically in September when Carlson CEO Hubert Joly was elected CEO. Joly left the CEO post of Carlson to take on dual uncertainties of Best Buy’s ownership battle and unclear strategy. A brilliant strategist and astute observer, Joly recognized that Schulze would be his No. 1 shareholder whether BBY was public or private. He reached out to Schulze to engage in discussions, only to be rebuffed at first.

Joly recognized Best Buy couldn’t just cut costs or return to its past. Online retailing was here to stay and Amazon’s threat couldn’t be ignored. More important, Best Buy’s employees, customers and shareholders needed light at the end of the tunnel.

With Christmas approaching, Joly announced his “Renew Blue” strategy: a balance between retail and online strategies and in-store matching of online prices. His ace in the hole Amazon couldn’t match: the Geek Squad to help customers set up their home electronics. Joly also reshaped his leadership team to fit the new strategy, replacing Dunn’s team with Shawn Score to lead retail, Scott Druckslag to spearhead online, and Sharon McCollam as CFO.

Best Buy’s shares continued to fall to a December low of $11.29, as investors didn’t believe Schulze could make a fully financed offer, nor did they think Joly could turn around Best Buy. In late December, Schulze and the Best Buy board agreed to extend his deadline for two months. Meanwhile, Joly continued to reach out to Schulze.

In January, Joly announced good news: Retail sales didn’t decline during Christmas as expected, and online sales climbed 10 percent. The bleeding was stanched, and the turnaround underway.

Meanwhile, discussions between Schulze and Best Buy continued, leading to the agreement announced March 25: Schulze became chairman emeritus as Anderson and former COO Alan Lenzmeier rejoined the board, representing Schulze’s 21 percent stake. Joly’s role as CEO was cemented. To reinforce Schulze’s newfound confidence, Joly on April 5 announced a strategic partnership with Samsung to install boutiques in Best Buy stores, giving Samsung a showroom to compete with Apple stores.

While Best Buy still has a long way to go, the road ahead is now clearer. From their December low, Best Buy shares have more than doubled to $26, so Joly can focus all of his energies on making this turnaround successful.

This outcome is far better than most anticipated. Credit Schulze for his deep commitment to Best Buy, rising above wounded pride, while letting Joly run the company. Also credit Anderson’s role as honest broker, and Best Buy’s board for hiring Joly and working toward equitable solutions. The real hero here is Joly, who recognized what was needed to turn the business around and find a way to reach an accommodation with the founder — certainly not easy tasks.

In the end there are no losers here, only winners. Enlightened leadership is transforming a great retailer and preserving this bedrock of the Twin Cities. Other companies threatened by rapid shifts to online and mobile would be well advised to learn from Best Buy’s experience.

Resilience through Mindful Leadership

Please check out my Huffington Post article on Mindful Leadership. I had a great opportunity to discuss this subject on CNBC last week with Arianna Huffington, and I followed up with this article:

Making Minnesota A Global Mecca for Health Care

This article is a special to the Sunday Star Tribune.

As Minnesota and the nation implement the Affordable Care Act, the Mayo Clinic’s proposal to make Rochester a “destination medical center” is most timely. The proposal has received broad endorsements from Gov. Mark Dayton and members of the Legislature.

Serving on Mayo’s board of trustees this past year, I gained a deeper appreciation of its importance, not just to Minnesota but as a role model for improving the nation’s health.

Unlike most academic health systems, Mayo is not asking for public funds for its $3.5 billion expansion in Rochester. Rather, it is asking the state to allocate about $500 million over 20 years of the new Mayo-generated state tax revenue to help finance the public infrastructure needed to support the growth.

Already the state’s largest employer, Mayo estimates that the destination medical center will create 35,000 to 45,000 new jobs and generate $3 billion in new taxes to the state.

While the proposal works its way through the Legislature, it should inspire a broader vision for Minnesota: to become the Mecca for outstanding health and health care. Health care has long been Minnesota’s strength. We should make it our calling card. Minnesota can become the beacon for the nation in how to create a healthy population by working with the finest health care resources in the country.

Minnesota ranks No. 5 nationally in terms of population health, behind Vermont, Hawaii, New Hampshire and Massachusetts. Why shouldn’t we be No. 1? We’re already ranked first among all states for cardiovascular care, fewest sick days and health status.

On the other hand, we have challenges to reduce obesity (we’re ranked No. 15 among the 50 states) and deaths from cancer (No. 16). Minnesota has woefully underfunded public health with only $43 per person per year, which puts us at No. 48. Dayton should launch a “Healthy Living” initiative focused on healthy eating, regular exercise and reduced stress, alcohol use and smoking, supported by active programs from every health care organization and employer.

Based on Prof. Michael Porter’s theory of economic clusters, Minnesota is well positioned to become the national health care leader. With Mayo as the crown jewel, Minnesota can build on its strong base of providers like the University of Minnesota, Allina Health, Fairview, Park Nicollet, Regions and Health East that deliver outstanding patient care.

We also boast national leaders in health plans — UnitedHealth Group and its Optum Health; HealthPartners, Blue Cross and Blue Shield, and Medica. Mayo and Optum Health recently announced the formation of Optum Labs, a collaborative research initiative to analyze patient outcomes by combining Optum’s claims information with Mayo’s patient data and clinical insights — information essential to move from the current fee-for-service model to reimbursement for health outcomes.

Minnesota also is the birthplace and leader of the medical technology cluster with Medtronic, St. Jude and Boston Scientific, combined with 3M’s prosperous health care business. Just as importantly, there are hundreds of med-tech companies striving to become the next Medtronic.

Finally, Minnesota is the national leader in integrative medicine to improve health and healing. The U’s Center for Spirituality and Healing, Allina’s Institute for Health and Healing, the Marsh, Hazelden and Pathways are national leaders in promoting patient-centered care with healing therapies that emphasize individual responsibility.

Through the collaboration of these exceptional resources — a committed state government, health plans, health care providers and suppliers, and progressive employers — Minnesota should adopt the bold goal of becoming the standard-bearer for the nation’s health. In so doing, we will attract people from all over the nation and the world to Minnesota: to visit, live and improve their health.

When the current legislative session is over, Dayton should convene the state’s health care leaders to devise concrete plans to make this vision a reality.

Best Buy Is Poised To Grow, After Buyout Drama Concludes With A Wimper

The year-long saga that has paralyzed electronic retailer Best Buy ended Friday, not with a bang, but with a whimper. Founder Richard Schulze was unable to produce the funds to execute his promised plan to take the company private. While his buyout bid fell short, Schulze in effect has already achieved his goals as Best Buy has new leadership, a renewed growth strategy, and a revived stock price. After 47 years leading Best Buy, now it’s time for Schulze to settle into his role as the largest shareholder, retire fully, and let the new generation of Best Buy leaders restore the company’s greatness.


While Schulze turned over his CEO title to his longtime colleague Brad Anderson from 2002-2009, he never really relinquished his iron-fisted control over Best Buy’s board or its strategy. Anderson did a superb job in building Best Buy during its strongest period of growth, focusing on extending the company’s values and its mission as the nation’s leading electronic retailer. He also fended off competition from Wal-Mart. After seven years at the helm, Anderson turned over the leader’s role to his successor, Brian Dunn, while Schulze took a more active role from his board vantage point. Things at Best Buy deteriorated rapidly under Dunn as the retailer failed to address the growing power of on-line retailers like Amazon and an old boys atmosphere seemed to dominate the corporate culture.

Last March the Best Buy board learned from a company executive about Dunn’s inappropriate relationship with a company employee. Dunn was terminated and board member Mike Mikan, grandson of the Minneapolis Lakers great basketball player, was named interim CEO.  He immediately embarked on cutting costs to mitigate the company’s declining revenues. Then in May the board found out that Schulze had learned in December in writing about Dunn’s issues but failed to act on them or disclose the letter to his fellow board members.


That was too much even for the usually passive Best Buy board. It stripped Schulze of his chairman’s role, and longtime board member Hakim Tyabji became chair. A month later, Schulze resigned in protest. Tyabji immediately stepped up to his new responsibilities by forming a search committee to identify the right CEO. For his part Mikan intensified his cost-cutting to pare back Best Buy’s enormous retail footprint and bolster his case to be the permanent CEO.


That only seemed to anger Schulze even more. Wounded and embarrassed by losing control over the company he founded, and angry over Mikan’s retrenchment strategy, he announced his intention to offer $26-28 per share to take the company private to regain control in August. The media, always seeking drama, took Schulze’s bait. Press stories largely ignored the reasons Schulze was forced to give up his chairman’s role and played up the angle of the founding hero’s return. But the stock market remained skeptical that Schulze could raise the necessary funds.


Meanwhile, Best Buy stock continued its slide from its March high of $27 per share to $18, as 160,000 employees and millions of customers were left to wonder what the future held for this once prestigious chain.


On August 12, 2013, the Best Buy board announced the appointment of Carlson CEO Hubert Joly. The security analysts and the media were dubious that Joly, with his hospitality background and lack of retail experience, could turn around the company. Having known Joly for a number of years, I immediately believed he was an inspired choice.


A brilliant strategist with an intense work ethic, Joly wasted little time in reshaping the company’s strategy and its leadership. Facing the loss of retail sales to lower-price offers at Amazon, he adopted a “both/and” strategy of combining refreshed retail sales with an aggressive online offering, proposing to match any online offers to in-store shoppers. The key to winning the electronic retail race is Joly’s ace in the hole – Best Buy’s service offerings – a competitive advantage that online retailers simply cannot match. For consumers unable to figure out the complex maze of rapidly changing electronic technology, the Geek Squad is there to help sort it out.


Joly wasted no time in rebuilding Best Buy’s leadership. He split its line operations into retail and online, appointing new heads of each, while moving to eliminate the old boys’ culture that grew under Dunn. He also appointed a highly respected CFO who had held a similar position at William Sonoma. Unimpressed with either Schulze’s proposed bid or Joly’s “Renew Blue” strategy, however, the stock market seemed to expect that Best Buy would continue to decline as its stock fell to $11.29 in late December.


As the new year dawned, Best Buy’s fortunes started to turn. An early January announcement that the decline in its retail sales had been stemmed over the holidays and online revenues had grown 10% sent the clear signal that Joly’s leadership was paying off. From that December low, its stock has increased over 40% to $17.16 as of March 1, 2013. When Schulze failed to deliver his much-anticipated bid by the February 28 deadline, it was clear that this agonizing chapter in Best Buy’s history was over. 


Now it is time for a new chapter in Best Buy’s 47-year history. Joly should have free rein to execute his strategy with full support of an undivided board of directors. If he is at all concerned about his net worth, Schulze can let go. If he holds on, he may well benefit as Joly and company carry out the turnaround that no one except Joly believed could happen.

Leadership matters... a great deal. Let's give credit to Joly for having the vision to perceive the winning strategy and quickly take charge to make it happen. Chairman Tyabji deserves recognition also for his courage to appoint an outsider to lead the firm, while the board stood firm in the face of Schulze’s challenges. Instead of declining with a never-ending series of cutbacks as former retail stars like Sears and K-Mart have done, Best Buy is back with new leadership, a new strategy, and renewed passion from its 160,000 employees.

Book Recommendation: Leadership and the Art of Struggle by Steven Snyder

First-time author Steven Snyder has just published a remarkably deep and insightful book about how exceptional leaders learn from their struggles and their failures and have resilience to overcome adversity. Snyder takes many of the ideas from True North to a much deeper level with richer insights. He focuses on staying grounded, becoming resilient in the face of failure, making sense of a chaotic world, and illuminating your blind spots. Snyder demonstrates how you can discover your purpose and meaning through struggle and ultimately by deepening your adaptive energy in order to sustain your leadership throughout your life.

I had the privilege of writing the Foreword for this book. Here are some excerpts from the Foreword:

Do your struggles make you a better leader? Is it necessary to overcome severe challenges to become an outstanding leader? Yes, emphatically, says Steven Snyder in this remarkable book. “Clearly, struggle and leadership are intertwined,” he writes. “Great leaders use failure as a wake-up call.”

That’s a conclusion many would-be leaders are reluctant to accept. In today’s world, society often searches for perfect leaders. When their actions reveal their weaknesses and shortcomings, the general public turns away from them and continues the impossible search for perfection. Media pundits, eager to condemn our leaders, pile on the criticism. Like the two tramps in playwright Samuel Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot,” who are hoping for the savior to lead them out of their misery, the public is still searching for the perfect leader. Instead of stepping up to leadership themselves, many people continue to drift through life and fail to realize their full potential as human beings and as leaders.

In Leadership and the Art of Struggle, Snyder takes an entirely different tack. He believes, as I do, that failure is a great teacher. To learn from it, you must be prepared to face its painful realities and use failure as a learning experience. That’s what Steve Jobs did after getting fired from the company he founded. Had he not been forced to face his own shortcomings, he never could have returned to create the success that led Apple to become the most highly valued company of all time. The same is true of Oprah Winfrey, who had to face the pain of the sexual abuse she encountered as a young girl. When she did so, she changed her message to empowering people and became the most successful media star of her era.

In a room filled with 125 powerful large company CEOs, I once asked Jamie Dimon, JP Morgan’s chairman and CEO, what his defining experience was. Rather than citing his great success at JP Morgan, he replied instantly, “I got fired ... by my mentor of 22 years.” Learning from that experience, Dimon bounced back and become the world’s leading financial services CEO. Forced to face the reality of his bank’s $6 billion in trading losses, he took immediate responsibility. He went on “Meet the Press,” and said, "We made a terrible egregious mistake. We were stupid. There’s almost no excuse for it.”

The realities that Snyder addresses represent a fundamental building block required to develop healthy, effective leaders who are committed to building a society devoted to the well-being of all. Only in acknowledging our own flaws and vulnerabilities can we become authentic leaders who empower people to perform to the best of their abilities.

Shortly after joining the Harvard Business School faculty in 2004, I initiated a research project to determine the characteristics of authentic leaders and the ways they developed their leadership. My HBS colleagues encouraged me to discover the traits, characteristics and styles of these successful leaders. Then my HBS research associate presented me with discouraging news: 1,400 previous studies had been unsuccessful in determining these definitive characteristics, as all failed to establish statistical validity or replicability. Nevertheless, we went ahead with our project. Two skilled researchers and I interviewed 125 leaders ages 23 to 93, generating 3,000 pages of transcripts. To our disappointment, nothing definitive emerged about the leaders’ characteristics. Rather, many leaders said, “Let me just talk about what’s important to me.”

In reviewing the transcripts with our research team, I had a sickening feeling that the inputs might just turn out to be mush. But in rereading the deeply honest and personal stories these leaders told us about themselves, the conclusions literally jumped off the pages at us. It was the life stories of these leaders that shaped their leadership. Their challenging times and crucibles stoked their passion to make a difference through leading. Some of their failures – and nearly all had experienced setbacks and/or great hardships – had resulted from abandoning their roots and not staying grounded in who they were. We labeled these periods as “losing their way.” Others faced challenges not of their own making which nonetheless were life changing. Those who went on to greater success as leaders maintained fidelity to their life stories and who they were – their True North.

When we published these results in my 2007 book, True North, they had great resonance with business and non-profit leaders – from younger managers and middle managers up to senior executives. I was especially surprised that the ideas struck a vital chord with very powerful CEOs as they were so much at variance with what was being written and taught at the time.

Snyder’s book takes these same themes to a much deeper and richer level, as he pushes the limits much farther than I did.  He asserts that struggle is an “art to be mastered,” an intrinsic aspect of leadership and an opportunity for leaders to realize their potential. That runs directly contrary to the macho image cultivated by many powerful leaders who deny their weaknesses and vulnerabilities. With that denial, they rob themselves of opportunities for deep introspection and a clearer understanding of themselves. Small wonder that many high-level leaders feel like imposters. One Stanford professor has discovered that the number one fear of top leaders is “being found out.” Thus, it is not surprising that many leaders fail, most often because they cannot face reality and deny they are at risk of causing their own failures.

Snyder takes these fundamental truths of human nature and converts them into a set of well-conceived strategies and practices that enable leaders to become grounded – a phrase that I was too timid to use in True North in 2007 because it sounded soft. Of course, the real work of leaders of getting grounded in their authenticity, their humanity, and their weaknesses and vulnerabilities, as well as their strengths, is exceptionally hard work.

On a personal level, it took me many years to openly acknowledge my shortcomings, weaknesses and vulnerabilities. For that reason, I wound up withholding “the real me” from colleagues at work, coming across as super-confident, aggressive, and completely focused on business results. When I began sharing my weaknesses – being impatient, lacking tact, and often coming across as intimidating – as well as the failures and difficulties I had experienced in my lifetime, I learned that people opened up about themselves and resonated more with my leadership. I accepted that I wasn’t expected to have all the answers and could more frequently admit, “I don’t know.” In being willing to be vulnerable, I found I could acknowledge the fears of being rejected as a leader that went back to high school and college when I lost seven consecutive elections because others didn’t want to work with me.

For many years I tried to deny my weaknesses and blame them on my father, as if I inherited them from him. It didn’t work. When I finally acknowledged that these were my weaknesses, not his, and this was who I was, I felt the burden lifting from me. Only then could I feel comfortable in being myself. These shortcomings are still part of me, but they are far less prominent, and they no longer own me as they once did. As a result, my relations with colleagues, family members and friends have steadily improved.

In understanding how much more people were willing to trust me after that, I recognized that “vulnerability is power,” a favorite saying of author John Hope Bryant in Love Leadership. The paradox is that by acknowledging your vulnerabilities, you retain the power because others are unable to take advantage of you when you try to cover up your shortcomings and fears. At the same time you empower others to become more authentic by acknowledging their vulnerabilities.

In teaching these ideas to senior executives, I often get puzzled looks because they have steeled themselves not to reveal their vulnerabilities out of fear that others might take advantage of them. Of course, the truth is precisely the opposite. In refusing to acknowledge their roles in contributing to the problems around them, many leaders repeat their mistakes rather than learning from them. They may move to another job without ever facing themselves, thinking a fresh start will obviate their difficulties.

As mindfulness expert Jon Kabat-Zinn writes, “Wherever you go, there you are.” In other words, we can change venue but our shortcomings are with us until we acknowledge them to ourselves as well as others. When we do so, our weaknesses steadily diminish and our strengths become more powerful. That’s also the message of the positive psychology movement initiated by Dr. Martin Seligman, which is often falsely construed as burying your past difficulties rather than growing from them.

In this book, Snyder provides specific strategies to deal with these issues. He pairs his strategies with a series of techniques and exercises that enable us to stay grounded and explore new pathways to grow from our experiences. In the end he shows us how to develop the adaptive energy required to prepare for the greater challenges we will face in leadership. Through this rigorous process, we can develop the focus and discipline to work through our issues and, ultimately, to celebrate what really matters in our lives.

Having worked with many leaders who are earnestly embarking on the journey that Snyder takes us on, my advice is not to expect instant results. Being authentically self-aware and mindful of our feelings, emotions and reactions can take many years of hard work as we peel back the layers of that unique person we are. It often takes that much time to learn how to grasp the power we have within us to be the very best we can be.

This is a journey that can be difficult if not impossible to take on your own. We all need a team of fellow pilgrims to help us on the journey as we in turn help them along their paths. As the famous Hindu philosopher J. Krishnamurti wrote, “Relationship is the mirror through which we see ourselves as we really are.” How many people do you have truly open and enduring relationships with?  How many of them are willing to hold a mirror up to you?

We need a support team that helps us through the most challenging times of our lives. My team starts with my wife Penny, my faithful companion of 43 years, who has helped an engineer learn about psychology, human nature, and most importantly, myself. I have also learned a great deal from the wisdom of our two sons, Jeff and Jon, my close friends and my colleagues at Harvard Business School.

Other than Penny, nothing has been more constant and helpful than my two True North Groups – my men’s group that has met weekly for 39 years and our couple’s group that has met monthly for 30 years and travelled the world together. We have learned from our personal and professional challenges and helped each other along the way, through good times and especially in difficult times. Do you have a True North Group taking this remarkable journey with you?

Leadership and the Art of Struggle provides you the opportunity to learn from Steven Snyder’s remarkable wisdom and the experiences of his interviewees. It is also a living guide you can return to time after time when new situations arise. You may want to undertake this journey with your support team. That will give you the opportunity to share in each other’s struggles and gain the authenticity and the mastery that characterizes wise leaders.

By going through this process, you will feel more alive, energized and resilient than you ever believed was possible. You will become a better and more authentic leader, your relationships will become stronger and richer, and you will be able to accomplish more.

What more could you ask for in life?

HBS Course - Leading a Global Enterprise

We are creating an exciting new Harvard Business School course, “Leading a Global Enterprise,” for global executives next July 28 - August 2, 2013. It’s a one-week compact course that will help you become a much better global executive. Here is the link for more information: If this fits your interests, we would welcome your participation.

A Deeper Dive into Conscious Capitalism

Earlier this month I wrote a blog recommending Whole Foods founder John Mackey’s new book, Conscious Capitalism, as the most important book of the year, perhaps the decade. That's why I wrote its Foreword.

As the book is hitting the business best-seller lists, some people have pushed back because they think John Mackey is anti-union. Let’s take an honest look at what he actually believes:


  • “While we believe that the best approach is to avoid the need for unions in the first place, businesses that already have labor unions should strive to engage with them constructively rather than viewing them as adversaries.” He cites Southwest Airlines as “a great example of a company that has had a predominantly positive and win-win relationship with its labor unions.” As Herb Kelleher, former CEO of Southwest Airlines, said, “I just treated them like human beings.” This is what I have always tried to practice in dealing with unionized and non-union employees.
  • Whole Foods is a role model for treating its employees well. They are highly motivated, fairly paid with incentives, and have excellent health care and benefits. Walk into any Whole Foods store and talk to the first-line employees, as I have, and you immediately perceive they take great pride in their work and the Whole Foods mission to help people eat healthy foods.
  • Not convinced? Then buy John’s book and read Chapter 11, page 157. There he says, “There has been a long history of adversarial relationships between companies and unions. These conflicts usually have been very harmful over the long term to all the stakeholders of the company, including unions and the team members (that is, employees) they represent. To fully flourish, companies must evolve to form win-win partnerships that create value for all stakeholders. This requires the leadership of the company and the union to both become more conscious and adopt a spirit of cooperation and partnership.”
  • He goes on to note that unions grew 100 years ago in response to poor working conditions, saying, “There is no question that labor unions primarily came about because of the failure of businesses to care about their workers as human beings.” In my experience, management often gets the union it deserves. If it doesn’t treat its people well and pay them fairly, then employees will unionize and often engage in “win-lose” tactics to force better treatment. On the other hand, if employees are well treated and paid fairly, they do not feel the need for a third-party to represent them.
  • Mackey observes, “private-sector union membership peaked at 36% in 1945 but has since declined to 6.9%.” My observation about this decline is not that employees have dropped out of unions or that companies have broken up the unions. Rather, the “win-lose” approach to collective bargaining has caused both companies and entire industries to go out of business. This pattern started with the steel industry, spread through shoes and textiles and then to airlines and automobile companies and their unionized suppliers, as well as some major retailers. Meanwhile, emerging industries, such as computers, semiconductors, IT, pharmaceuticals and medical technology, treat their employees so well that they do not feel a need for a union.
  • Contrast this situation with Germany, where employees have “co-determination” with management and the two have pursued “win-win” solutions that benefit both sides and have enabled German companies in the chemical, automobile, auto parts, machine tools and high tech products to become world leaders in spite of the high cost of hourly labor.
  • Mackey concludes his rationale about employees by arguing, “A conscious business knows that treating its people well is the right thing to do; it does not need to be coerced into doing so. Unions simply aren’t necessary if a business operates with a stakeholder philosophy and if team members are seen as important stakeholders who should be well compensated, happy, and flourishing in the workplace.”


I find these statements compelling and inspiring. Collectively, they describe a philosophy that is identical to the one we followed at Medtronic. The company's bedrock philosophy is to have employees whose loyalty is to the company and the patients Medtronic serves, and who have a sense of well-being because they are well paid, fairly treated, and have “a means to share in the company’s success.”  

HBS Webinar - Leading a Global Enterprise

Last Tuesday I gave a webinar on “Leading a Global Enterprise” for HBS alums. You may be interested in reviewing the slides I used. Also, please consider attending our new course, “Leading a Global Enterprise,” for global executives next July 28 - August 2, 2013. It’s a one-week compact course that will help you become a much better global executive.