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Bill George

Harvard Business School Professor, former Medtronic CEO

Another Leader Loses His Way

John Edward’s confession of marital infidelity is a sad, but common, story: outstanding leader gets caught up in his power, and loses sight of why he is leading in the first place. If Edward´s situation were unique, it wouldn´t be worth a column. But so many leaders lose sight of their True North, it is worth probing the question, “Why?”

Just in the past two years, we have witnessed:

  • United Health Group William McGuire forced to resign and give back hundreds of millions in stock option gains due the backdating scandal;
  • Merrill Lynch CEO Stan O´Neal losing billions of dollars and placing his entire firm in jeopardy;
  • New York Governor Eliot Spitzer admitting he secretly arranged a liaison with prostitute in Washington, DC;
  • Siemens Chairman Heinrich von Pierer acknowledging his firm had paid over $2 billion in bribes that he “knew nothing about”;

These examples are hardly unique. Many leaders get so caught up in the spoils of leadership that they lose sight of the reason they are leading in the first place. They commit the cardinal error of placing their personal interests ahead of their institution. As Peter Drucker wrote, “Leadership is not about money, fame, and power. Leadership is responsibility.”

 

Leaders have a special responsibility to preserve and build their institutions. They should be role models for all their stakeholders as well as for society at large. This is an awesome responsibility, but certainly not too much to expect from our leaders.

 

After studying both successful and failed leaders, I have reached the conclusions that the difference between success and failure is not competency, characteristics, or ability to lead. In fact, all of the leaders I have studied who have failed did not fail to lead others; rather, they failed to lead themselves.

 

The only discernable difference between successful and failed leaders is how well grounded they are within themselves, which includes a high level of self-awareness and an understanding of their motivations.

 

Successful leaders know who they are. They like themselves and are proud of their life stories. They have dealt with difficult times, faced their own failures, and admitted their weaknesses and vulnerabilities. People often observe “they are good within their skins.” Beyond that, they feel an inner calling to lead with a clear purpose in mind.

 

Their rewards are not external symbols like compensation, rising stock price, acclaim of the media, or admiration of the powerful. Instead, their reward comes from the knowledge that their leadership enables their organizations to make important contributions to the world. They find their fulfillment in the success of their teammates and the contributions they can make through others.

 

Admitting their weaknesses, they focus on their strengths, while surrounding themselves with others who make up for capabilities they lack. They are always striving to develop their leadership. They are open to constructive feedback about their shortcomings and ways to improve. They operate from a clear set of beliefs, principles and values, and understand the purpose of their leadership.

 

Failed leaders, on the other hand, often feel a sense of deprivation or emptiness within. They use aggression and power to mask these feelings, which in turns separates them from others. They need admiration and adulation of those around them and the outside world. Titles, compensation, and perquisites are symbols of power they need to make up for the emptiness within.

 

When they stumble and are criticized, they turn inward and become bitter toward their critics, rather than seeking to use that criticism to improve their leadership. They resist negative feedback and surround themselves with sycophants who reinforce them in spite of their shortcomings.

 

How can leaders avoid losing their way? It isn´t easy, but it can be done. First, they need to examine their life stories and the crucibles they have experienced in their lives in order to understand why they want to lead and their calling to lead. Next, they need to develop self-awareness – the ability to see themselves as others see them – by getting honest, in-depth feedback from people who know them well.

 

They should focus on understanding their “True North” – their beliefs, values, and reasons for leading. Then they need to take steps to cope with the pressures of leadership and resist its seductions. That includes building support teams of people who care about them and will offer feedback when they start going off track. Finally, they need to focus on leading an integrated life so that their work life and personal and family lives are in relative balance.

 

If leaders do these things, they can engender the trust required to empower others to step and lead. As a result of building organizations of empowered leaders, their institutions achieve superior performance and the satisfaction of making a positive impact on the world through their leadership.