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Bill George

Harvard Business School Professor, former Medtronic CEO

Forbes: Why Leaders Need To Keep Their Eyes on True North

From Forbes, Posted October 5, 2015.

The term “authenticity” is much bandied about in leadership circles these days. Politicians like the new leader of the British Labour Party Jeremy Corbyn or the would-be Democrat candidate for President Bernie Sanders seem to be gaining from a desire among the public (some parts of it at any rate) for a change from the slick and manufactured. Similar notions are abroad in business, too. Brands seek to demonstrate their authenticity – through how they manufacture their goods, how they do business or just where they come from. And now corporate leaders – perhaps because they are having to guide their organizations through turbulent times – are trying to show how real and genuine they are.

To be fair, Bill George, whose book, Discover Your True North (Wiley), is published this month, has been a proponent of authentic leadership for some time. The current book continues a theme that began back in 2003, when he published Authentic Leadership: Rediscovering the Secrets to Creating Lasting Value, and continued four years later with True North: Discover Your Authentic Leadership. Indeed, a significant part of the book deals with leaders interviewed for the 2007 book, and George is pleased to report that “the vast majority of them are doing exceptionally well.”

However, while there are many fascinating stories of leaders who have overcome great adversity – for example, Howard Schultz of Starbucks, who still remembers his roots in a poor neighborhood of New York City and Reatha Clark King, who has gone from the cotton fields of Georgia to become a director of such companies as Exxon-Mobil and Wells Fargo – the book is not a parade of feel-good stories about down-home values winning out. Rather, George, a former CEO of the medical technology and services company Medtronic who now teaches leadership at Harvard Business School, devotes space early on to how leaders can “lose sight of their True North” and so run into trouble. “People who lose their way are not necessarily bad people. They have the potential to become good leaders, even great leaders. However, somewhere along the way, they get pulled off course,” he writes.

Given that there is plenty of advice available on how to become a good or even great leader, it is perhaps worth lingering on the ways in which George believes people can drift off course.

Losing Touch with Reality. “Leaders who focus on external gratification instead of inner satisfaction have trouble staying grounded,” writes George. “They reject the honest critic who holds up a mirror and speaks the truth. Instead, they surround themselves with sycophants – supporters telling them what they want to hear.”

Fearing Failure. “Underneath their bravado lies the fear that they are not qualified for such powerful leadership roles,” says George. As a result, they become paranoid that at some point they will be found out.

Craving Success. This is the other side of fearing failure. “Most leaders want to do a good job for their organizations, be recognized, and rewarded accordingly,” George writes. However, when they achieve success, they gain added power and enjoy the prestige that accompanies it. “That success can go to their heads, and they develop a sense of entitlement. At the height of some leaders’ power, success itself creates a deep desire to keep it going, so they are prone to pushing the limits, thinking they can get away with it.”

The Loneliness Within. As the cliché has it, it is lonely at the top. Quite simply, even the ablest people can be thrown off balance by the enormity of the task – and the responsibility – that they have taken on. In their efforts to stay on top of things, many leaders end up losing touch with people outside work – friends, spouses, children – to the extent that their work becomes their life. A particular aspect of this is that in seeking to satisfy all the external forces putting pressure on them, they lose sight of their own view. “Over time little mistakes turn into major ones. No amount of hard work can correct them,” says George. “Instead of seeking wise counsel at this point, they dig a deeper hole. When the collapse comes, there is no avoiding it.”

In examining leaders who have lost their way, George and his colleagues identify five types. All are linked directly by their failure to develop themselves. They are:

Imposters, who lack self-awareness and self-esteem;

Rationalizers, who deviate from their values;

Glory Seekers, who are motivated by seeking the world’s acclaim;

Loners, who fail to build personal support structures; and

Shooting Stars, who lack the grounding of an integrated life.

Through asking readers to look closely at the archetypes – and the well-known examples he cites (who include former New York Stock Exchange CEO Richard Grasso and former Lehman Brothers CEO Richard Fuld but are not confined to fallen financial services giants) – George hopes to instill in leaders and those aspiring to join them that just wanting the position is not enough. “Before you take on a leadership role, ask yourself: ‘What motivates me to lead this organization?’ If the honest answers are simply power, prestige and money, you are at risk of being trapped by external gratification as your source of fulfillment,” he writes. “There is nothing wrong with desiring these outward symbols [his italics] if, and only if, they are balanced by a deeper desire to serve something greater than yourself. Extrinsic rewards exert a force that can pull you away from True North if not counterbalanced by a deeper purpose or calling that gives you a passion to lead.”