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Bill George

Harvard Business School Professor, former Medtronic CEO

Monster.com: Authentic Leadership: An Interview with Bill George

From Hiring.Monster.com, posted September 3, 2015

Shortly after its publication in 2007, Bill George’s renowned book True North became a go-to guide on leadership at a time of financial turmoil and misuse of power. 

Today, a newly expanded and updated edition of the book comes at a time when leaders face increasing pressures and when public trust in leadership is at one of its worst lows. 

We spoke with Bill George about leadership and about the second edition of the book called Discover Your True North. He is a senior fellow at the Harvard Business School and former chairman and CEO of Medtronic. Under his leadership, the company’s market capitalization grew from $1.1 billion to $60 billion.

Monster: Are today’s leaders facing significantly different challenges than they did a decade ago when you first wrote True North?

Bill George: Definitely I think they are. Back in the ’90s and early 2000s, leaders were revered and today I think everyone is somewhat skeptical and cynical about our leaders, and that’s because so many leaders in my generation dropped the ball and caused great harm first in the corporate governance crisis in the early 2000s and then in the financial crisis of 2008-09. 

I’m convinced that the root cause of those problems was not corporate governance or credit default swaps or subprime mortgages but failed leadership.

I am very hopeful about this generation of leaders. I think we’re seeing very, very positive signs that they have learned a lesson from their predecessors and we have an outstanding group of new leaders coming up from the CEOs that have been elected in the last 7-8 years to the young leaders, the Millennials, taking on much more responsibility these days.

Monster: The new edition of the book features 47 new interviews with leaders. What stands out about them?

Bill George: In this new set, we tried to get a much more global set of leaders, much more diverse and spread across all age ranges.

For example Indra Nooyi, who is the chairman and CEO of PepsiCo, is an amazing, remarkable leader. Born in India, educated in India, she came to the United States, completed her education and eventually became head of PepsiCo.

Indra Nooyi

She took a fierce challenge from the outside world because she said that she wanted to create healthy foods and beverages in addition to PepsiCo’s traditional line.

The stock market was critical, various consumers were critical. She even endured a withering challenge from an activist, but she stayed the course throughout this period. Now, all the things she predicted are coming to pass. 

Another person I found really interesting in the interviews is Kenneth Frazier. Ken is now the head of Merck, the world’s leading pharmaceutical research company, 58 years old. 

The interesting thing about Ken is his grandfather was a slave. He was born before 1863, so you can see a lot of years have transpired. Ken is still carrying out the mission and the narrative started by his grandfather, which is really remarkable, to be your own person and to try to use your life to make a difference in the world, carried through his father, who never professionally went above the level of janitor but had enormous influence on Ken. 

Ken’s mother died when he was 12. Throughout his life, he has taken the wisdom of his father and grandfather and tried to carry that now into creating life-saving drugs for people. As he says, they may not come to pass for 10 years, 20 years, but they’ll have huge impact on human health for the next 50 years.

Kenneth Frazier

Those are just two examples of quite diverse leaders with remarkable life stories.

Monster:  So much of the book was really an eye-opener to me in the sense that true authentic leadership is defined by a capacity to look inward, understand your life story, understand what you call your crucibles, your challenges, and then figure out what are the values that come out of that.

Bill George: That’s the big change. I think back in the 20th century, we thought leadership was something that went from the outside in. We could patch it on with improving your leadership style, how you dressed, how you appeared, how you communicated outwardly. Honestly, I think those things are the outward manifestation of who you are as a person, but a lot of times we don’t understand ourselves, we don’t know what really motivates us.

I think it’s knowing who you are that enables us to be the person we were meant to be, not to try to emulate some other leader, but to be ourselves, that unique person, and the toughest part is to stay on course of our true north, not lose sight of what we’re called to do.

Monster: Are there instances where people do the work of finding or understanding what is their true north and the realization that this position that I’m in isn’t really aligning with what is my true north?

Bill George: Absolutely. A lot of us face that at one point in time. I faced that personally in the middle of my career. I thought I was on route to being CEO of Honeywell, and I may have been, but I was getting pulled off course. I was chasing the CEO title more than being the value-centered leader I was self-called to be. I was blinded by the big company idea and not seeing, hey, this is where I should be, with the kind of mission I can really resonate with.

Monster: There’s a wonderful expression that is in the business vernacular now, which is, “Vulnerability is power.” 

Bill George: This is a whole new idea. For many years of my life I was afraid to be vulnerable for fear you’d think I was weak. I think that was the norm when I was coming up. 

I got the idea originally from a man named John Hope Bryant. John is one of the most interesting people I interviewed. John was actually a homeless man, and he came to my class at Harvard, believe it or not, a class for young global leaders of the world economic forum. He was selected to this because of the work he did with the poor and creating financial literacy and did some remarkable work, raised $500 million to help the poor overcome financial illiteracy.

John Hope Bryant

John has used this phrase, and he wrote a book and I adopted it and used it in the classroom and found it had great resonance with people. If they could be willing to be vulnerable, they felt so much more comfortable because they could be who they were. 

I think it is a new idea and one of the most powerful ideas in the book.

Monster: Do authentic leaders view their workforce and their position in the organization in a significantly different way than, say, someone who was a CEO 20-30 years ago?

Bill George: I think they definitely do. Before, we were so hierarchic and everything was honestly very bureaucratic. We were trying to manage the whole company by systems and procedures. Now, with humanity, today’s great leaders are really engaged with the people that work for them. 

Leaders like Howard Schultz go to two dozen Starbucks stores a week just to hang out and see what’s going on and watch the relationship between the barista and the customers, because he knows that’s the essence of what Starbucks does.

Monster: You mentioned Starbucks CEO, Howard Schultz. I was really touched by the realization that he had after many years of having a tense relationship with his father. 

After his father’s death, Schultz realized that his father never had the opportunity to find meaningful work. It seemed to me that then impacted Howard to go on and create a company culture that was really about helping workers find meaningful work.

Bill George: Exactly. I think Howard has done a brilliant job of that. He’s living his life story. There is a congruence for him of what it was like to grow up in the Bayview Housing Projects where he had nothing and there was a lot of crime and drugs and poverty around him and seeing his father lose 30 jobs, saying, “I don’t want that. I want to create great jobs for people.” People at Starbucks who work there really resonate with that. As a customer, you feel that.

Monster: I’m wondering, too, about applying these principles to leaders of smaller companies or companies that are growing – the start-ups. There’s a lot of energy in that space, and I would think it’s just as applicable for those people as well.

Bill George: Absolutely. One of the reasons I wrote the book is I believe there’s no greater vehicle for impacting society than corporations in a free enterprise system properly run. It can go off the rails if it gets too extreme, as well as non-profits, by the way.

I think leaders have such impact. Whether it’s a small business, it’s a mid-size business or startup, if they have a sense of mission, they’re going to attract people to their cause and to want to come there both as employees and as customers. 

Good decisions are made collectively by people with diverse life experiences. If we just have someone at the top making all the decisions like command general, it’s not going to work. 

Monster: That leads into this idea that’s in the book which I thought was very powerful, the importance of mentoring, both leaders who mentor others in the organization as well as the leaders having a mentor. 

Bill George: All relationships are a two-way street, including mentoring. It’s got to be both ways. I think that’s really what mentoring is all about. I recommend to senior people now, CEOs, you need to have some young mentees. 

I always had that when I was at Medtronic. I had young mentees in as running partners. I couldn’t understand how the company felt to somebody new coming in, so I had them as mentees and I would just ask them, “What’s it like to be a new employee or a younger employee of this company?” I wanted to see if there were rose-colored glasses as I saw it, but that wasn’t necessarily the way they saw it, so this became very, very important to me to do the job and trying to lead an organization of 30,000 people.

Monster: Would we be going too far to recommend that employers themselves obviously work to find their true north and encourage all of their employees, give them the means to find their true north, regardless of their role in the organization or their level in the organization?

Bill George: Absolutely not. I think we all have to do that, because if we don’t have a sense of where we’re going, why would I follow you? You don’t know what your true north is, why would I follow you? 

Monster: How does one start this discovery process? How do you start this journey to becoming an authentic leader?

Bill George: Everything starts with your life story. We go out and we explore who we are as people. I think you have to do two things. You have to write it down and really think through who are the people that influenced me? What was the experience I have? Then get into the difficult times. I think you can’t ignore the difficult times, the crucibles, as I call them. Then as you’re telling your story to another person, actually you reframe it. 

You asked earlier about Howard Schultz reframing his image of his father not as a failure but as a guy who never had a shot, never had a chance. Instead of being so hard on his father as he was earlier in life, he reframed it as his father was in a society that didn’t give people a chance, so Howard wanted to change that. His passion came out of that, and we find your passion comes out of your life story. 

Monster: It goes back to that wonderful line in the book that really stood out to me, and that is, “The hardest person you will ever have to lead is yourself.”

Bill George: Yes. I created that phrase and at first, people thought, this is odd. What are you talking about? Leadership is not about leading yourself, it’s about leading other people.

In my study of leaders when I came to Harvard Business School 12 years ago, what I found in studying hundreds and hundreds of leaders, is the ones who fail all failed to lead themselves. It wasn’t that they weren’t smart enough. It wasn’t they couldn’t lead other people. It’s that they got off track. They lost sight of their true north and they got their ego tied up, they couldn’t deal with the possibility of failure, all the things we’ve been talking about. 

We found that you had to do that first, then you become a great leader of other people, because people can’t ask more of you than who you are as a person. They can’t ask you to be a façade or something else, nor should you let them. You just have to be who you are, but that comes from the capacity to lead yourself.