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Bill George

Harvard Business School Professor, former Medtronic CEO

Harvard Life Hack: 5 Steps to Authentic Leadership with Bill George

Recently, I had dinner with the Franklin Fellows at Harvard College, which led to a very stimulating discussion about life and the purpose of their leadership. Here is an interesting blog about authentic leadership written by one of the group’s leaders, Stephan Turban:

From HarvardLifeHack.com, March 23, 2015

“Each day, as you are tested in the world, you yearn to look at yourself in the mirror and respect the person you see and the life you have chosen to lead.”

– Bill George, True North

Bill George is the uncle you wish you had. With his quick smile, bright blue eyes, and perpetually-tanned skin, he is cooler than any professor should be.

This week the Franklin Fellows had dinner with Bill. And, as we quickly realized, he’s much more than a pretty face. Within moments of meeting, he’d asked for each of our name, shook each member’s hand, and began inquiring about our life’s stories.

For reference, Bill George is a professor at the Harvard Business School, former CEO of Medtronic, and author of “True North”. Over the past decade, Bill dedicated his life to discovering the qualities of the world’s top leaders.

Bill joined us for a whirlwind dinner. During our talk, he focused on the lessons of his newest book. In particular, he pushed us to answer a number of questions.

How do you lead with heart? How do you become an authentic leader?  And finally, how do you find your true north?

We can’t cover it all. But, as a teaser, here are five lessons from his book, our talk, and his life-story.

1. Discover your leadership in your life story

“Asked what motivates them to lead, authentic leaders consistently say they find their motivation through understanding their own stories.”

How do you enter other’s life stories? You give your own first.

Bill George began dinner by talking about his childhood. Growing up, his father pushed him to become a CEO. So, as Bill admits, he grew up driven, but self-focused. Bill’s earlier years were characterized by success. He graduated with high honors from Georgia Tech and became Baker scholar at HBS. But, as he shared, there were many losses along the way. Weeks before his wedding, Bill learned his fiancé died from a malignant brain tumor.

Bill’s vulnerability set the foundation for other member’s to share their stories. Bill had told this story before. But, it hadn’t lost authenticity in retelling.  It was intentional, but not rehearsed. Logical, but not mechanic. His story contextualized who he was and how we fit into the story.

To become an authentic leader, you need to be vulnerable. Understanding your own narrative is the first step. Find your story in your life. Develop it. Then share it with others.

2. Embrace Your Greatest Crucible

“While many leaders have a deep-seated fear of failure, the irony is that they learn the most from their failures”

How do you respond in the face of crisis? When your true north is challenged, how do you change? Bill’s largest challenge came with an election for Georgia Tech’s student body president. He lost miserably.

Losing the school election setback his public confidence. But, Bill didn’t respond by moping. Instead, he took the defeat as an opportunity to improve. He met up with fraternity brothers, friends, and rivals to talk about why they didn’t elect him. In doing so, he began a journey of self-reflection.

During dinner, Bill pushed us to reexamine our life’s challenges. We can all pinpoint turning points in our lives. As he urged, there are many more to come. To find “True North” we shouldn’t avoid setbacks . Rather,  we should embrace them. Good leaders understand crises are just opportunities for growth.

3. Transform from “I” to “We”

“You have to realize it’s not about you”

– Jaime Irick

We all begin as heroes of our own story. But, to become an authentic leader, your mission must focus on elevating others.  As Bill George writes, “ Only when leaders stop focusing on their personal ego needs are they able to develop other leaders… how else can they unleash the power of their organizations unless they motivate people to reach their full potential?”.

As Adam Grant’s research shows, individuals who focus on elevating others  lead more effectively than individuals who focus on themselves. Reframing leadership as for others isn’t easy. But, it’s vital to becoming an authentic leader.

4. Practice your values and principles

“Leaders with principles are less likely to get bullied or pushed around because they can draw clear lines in the sand”

– Narayan Murthy, founder and former CEO, Infosys

As Bill George explains in True North “Those who develop a clear sense of their values before they get into a crisis are better prepared to keep their bearing and navigate through difficult decisions and dilemmas when the pressure mounts”.  The first step to prioritizing your values is to understand them. (link). But, only by practicing them, do they become real.

Bill George didn’t tell us this during dinner. He showed it. In True North, Professor George argues the third stage of life (60 – 90 years old) should focus on “wisdom and giving back”.  He didn’t need to have dinner with a group of undergraduates. But, because he values the growth of others, he did. In doing so, he became a mentor and an inspiration to many.

5. Hone your leadership effectiveness

“The final step in… (becoming) an authentic leader is to hone your leadership style.”

Bill George argues that great leaders work to find their authentic selves. But, this doesn’t happen all at once.  Reflect on your leadership style.  Develop your strengths.  And constantly seek feedback.

Here at LifeHack, we love 5 step lists. But, becoming an authentic leader is never that easy. Nonetheless, with grit, a dash of lifehacking, and dazzling blue eyes (link to Bill George). We have no doubt you can begin on this path.

To learn more deeply, I highly recommend purchasing (or checking-out) True North by Bill George.

As well, Bill provided a number of free exercises online. These are a great way to reflect and to learn more about his method. You can learn more by going to www.billgeorge.com

Until next time,

Stephen Turban