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Bill George

Harvard Business School Professor, former Medtronic CEO

Bill George Interview: ‘Northern’ Exposure to Leadership

From Workforce, Published on Oct. 12, 2015

by James Tehrani

No one ever said leading is easy. You hear about leading by example all the time, but what about examples of leading? Bill George, the former CEO of medical-device-company Medtronic Inc., draws up a road map to leadership in his recently updated book “Discover Your True North.” In the book, he interviews 125 people about their ideas on leadership. What he concludes is that people who learn from their life experiences, or “crucibles” as he calls them, and follow their leadership compass “northward” can achieve “authentic leadership.” Workforce editor James Tehrani recently caught up with George, now a Harvard University business professor, to learn more. An edited transcript follows.

Workforce: Can you give me an idea of what you mean by ‘true north’?

Bill George: True north is your most deeply held beliefs, the values you live by and the principles you lead by. So it’s really the essence of who you are. Who are you as a person? You know your center; it’s like your moral compass.

WF: You talk about the myth that leaders are born. Can you explain that?

George: I think it’s [leadership] a combination of the qualities you’re born with, but then you have to develop. It’s no different from a cellist who’s going to Carnegie Hall. You don’t just show up; you have to practice every day. And I think people need to practice their leadership every day.

WF:  What are some of the qualities that you would look for in a leader?

George: Far and away No. 1 is authenticity. Are they genuine people? Are they good in their skin? Are they real? And do they come across as who they are? There’s some free-flowing ideas about faking it to make it or pretending you have charisma or putting on a good impression for an interviewer. That’s a good way to get in trouble and hire the wrong person. … I think all too often we look at résumés rather than the person behind the résumé. That’s where big mistakes are made.

WF: You interviewed 125 leaders for your book, was there an answer that surprised you?

George: We asked people about their traits and characteristics, and they wouldn’t talk about that. They wanted to talk about their life experiences, their life story. We never expected how important that was going to be. … We hit upon the thing that was the most important, and that’s the impact of the greatest crucible of their life, the most challenging experience they’ve ever had and how they framed that. And the great leaders framed those experiences not as victims — they didn’t just stuff them and forget about them — they used them as opportunities for growth. In the new book, we talk about an emerging concept called ‘post-traumatic growth’ of how people are using challenging experiences early in life to grow as leaders and as human beings.