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Bill George

Harvard Business School Professor, former Medtronic CEO

7 Reasons Why I Wrote 7 Lessons for Leading in Crisis

In March of 2009 I wrote an op-ed for the Wall Street Journal entitled, “7 Lessons for Leading in Crisis.”  Several publishers encouraged me to expand that article into a book.  Now that it’s been released, I thought I’d reflect on the (seven) reasons I thought this topic worthwhile:

1) It’s important to study leadership under fire. It’s easy to follow your True North – the internal compass of your beliefs, values, and principles that guide you through life – when times are easy.  But when times are tough, leadership is tested, and I believe it is highly beneficial to profile the ways business  leaders have resurged and triumphed under pressure

2) Young leaders need a reality check. The next generation of leaders must understand the inherent vulnerability of leadership, particularly in crisis.  CEOs occupy a precarious space in the world as they make tough decisions with far-reaching impact and face scrutiny at nearly every turn.  I highlight this not to scare potential leaders, but to insure they assume their posts with the necessary principles and humility.

3) Successful people deserve praise. Leaders like Anne Mulcahy at Xerox, Greg Steinhafel at Target, Indra Nooyi at Pepsi, and Warren Buffett at Berkshire Hathaway deserve to have their principled leadership applauded.  Leaders like Chuck Prince at Citigroup, Martin Sullivan at AIG, and Richard Fuld at Lehman Brothers likewise deserve to stand as cautionary tales.  It’s crucial that we try to emulate examples of good leadership, while also recognizing and avoiding common temptations that steer towards poor leadership.

4) I’m a tinkerer. I’m an engineer at heart – graduated from Georgia Tech with a Bachelor’s in Industrial Engineering – so I like to know how things work.  I wanted to explore the basic cultural tendencies driving leaders’ decision-making because I knew that certain core lessons could be drawn out that can inform our future behavior.

5) The record needs to be set straight, and the right lessons learned. As I say in the book’s introduction, the economic calamity of 2008-09 was not caused by subprime mortgages, credit default swaps, or even excessive greed. The root cause of the problem was failed leadership.  Lessons in leadership are just as important as lessons in economics if we wish to avoid another economic collapse.  The future harbingers of recession will look entirely different from credit default swaps and subprime mortgages, so the way to insure we do not over-leverage them again is to insure we have knowledgeable leaders at the helm.

6) The subject of crisis is timely.  While showing progress, there is a great deal yet to be done if we want to pull America out of the economic doldrums.  I hope this book can help those in charge to keep sight of their True North, and lead this country back to economic prosperity.

7) Legacies are made in troubled times. Overall, I wanted to convey a very important lesson.  The good times do no define define you.  The tough times do.  This was true of my career, and I am sure if you speak with my contemporaries, they will say the same.  With every crisis comes opportunity to truly lead, and I wanted to make sure you dictate the terms of your legacy.