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Bill George

Harvard Business School Professor, former Medtronic CEO

Inc: How Great Leaders Avoid Burnout

From Inc. by Ilan Mochari, posted August 17, 2015

You overcame adversity on your own, through mental toughness, with no help–and it’s how you became successful. But it also could be your downfall.

One day in 2007, Arianna Huffington found herself lying on the floor of her home office in a pool of blood. After an MRI, a CAT scan, and an ECG, she learned there was no underlying problem–it was exhaustion which had caused her to faint, her head smashing the corner of her desk and cutting her eye.

The incident prompted her to ask deeper questions about her life of 18-hour workdays, seven days a week. By the time she delivered a commencement speech at Smith College in 2013, she was preaching the gospel of a good night’s sleep and asking graduates to measure their lives by a “third metric” — changing the world for the better — in addition to those timeless standards, money and power.

You’ve heard this sort of thing before. You’ve heard it from Harvard Business School legend Clayton Christensen. You’ve heard it from Simon Sinek (author of Start With Why) and TOMS founder Blake Mycoskie. And you’ve heard it in at least half a dozen TED talks from other authors and notables.

So my first question to leadership expert Bill George, who just released an update to his 2007 classic “Discover Your True North”, was, why bother? How can you persuade any young leader–whose solipsistic workaholism has been the primary factor in her success–that she needs to take a proverbial chill pill? For it often seems as if entrepreneurs have to learn this lesson the hard way–by collapsing, literally or figuratively. And reminders of retaining a moral compass and striving for work-life balance are as old as the bible–though there’s no shortage of TED-talking gurus hawking contemporary versions.

George’s answer was optimistic. He hopes the personal-transformation tales gathered in his book will help young leaders “accelerate that learning curve, and become self-aware earlier in their lives, without hitting the wall,” he tells Inc. The updated book includes stories about Huffington, Mark Zuckerberg, Chade-Meng Tan (who built Google’s employee-meditation program), and many others.

Mind you, George has lived the life and walked the walk himself. While he was CEO of Medtronic, a medical device and technology company, from 1991 to 2001, the company’s market cap grew from $1 billion to $60 billion. He then became a credentialed expert on the subject of leadership, authoring four books and joining the faculty at Harvard Business School. He’s currently a director at ExxonMobil, Goldman Sachs, and the Mayo Clinic.

So what advice can George give to hard-charging entrepreneurs who may be on the verge of hitting the wall? In an interview with Inc., he boiled the answer down to two components:

1. Find a support team of mentors you’ll actually listen to.

George believes Huffington could’ve avoided her collapse if she’d had a close support team around her–“people who could’ve been intimate with her, and told her: ‘Hey, you’re heading for trouble. Let me tell you what I see happening,'” he says. 

George cites Zuckerberg as a young CEO who found the right support team–and whose performance has thrived (without hitting a wall) as a result. In 2005, Zuckerberg met Don Graham, CEO of the Washington Post Company. Graham offered to invest $6 million in Facebook. Zuckerberg accepted, only to renege when Accel Partners offered to invest at a higher valuation.

Yet Graham, rather than feeling snubbed, was impressed with how Zuckerberg handled the situation. Later that year, Zuckerberg shadowed Graham for several days to learn how a CEO ought to behave. The relationship deepened. One benefit? Graham advised Zuckerberg to hire COO Sheryl Sandberg and encouraged Sandberg to accept the position, even though she’d be reporting to someone younger. Graham–today the lead director of Facebook’s board–benefited from the relationship too, learning from Zuckerberg about online initiatives that would engage Washington Post readers.

More than this, Zuckerberg’s relationship with Graham formed a template Zuckerberg would rely on in seeking mentorship. Today, his roster of mentors includes Bill Gates and Marc Andreessen. “People always ask, How does [Zuckerberg] have the wisdom of someone 20 years older?” says George. “The answer is, he sought out really good mentors, early on.”

2. Take a break, for at least 20 minutes a day.

No texting. No internet. Just you and your introspective practice. What you do during this time can vary. What matters most is that you’re away from your tasks. “I use meditation,” says George. “Others go for a run or take a long walk. Religious people pray. The point is, they do something where they’re pulling out of the world.”

George says the meditation time has helped him make better decisions. In 1997, under his watch, Medtronic had the chance to complete a $15-billion merger. Many employees had reservations about the deal, anticipating a major culture clash between the other company’s top-down approach and Medtronic’s empowered middle tier of engineers and marketers.

Despite these reservations, the merger was enticing to George, as a way to add to Medtronic’s top-line revenues. “The numbers worked well and the [combined] strategy would’ve been brilliant,” says George. Still, his colleagues and coworkers were warning him about the potential culture clash. “They were expressing concerns to me, and I was not listening as much as I should have,” he says.

George credits his daily mediation practice for giving him the perspective to heed those warnings. “Then I took the time and did listen,” he says. He recognized that while the fiscal and strategic synergies might please merger-drunk investors, the culture clash would ultimately undermine any short-term gains in the stock price. “It took me a while to see that,” he says. “I had to back away.”

The larger lesson here–and another focus of “Discover Your True North”–is value-based leadership: The idea of using not only fiscal numbers, but also a moral compass and a set of personal beliefs to guide your decisions.

The combination of a support team and daily introspection can help you stay mindful about what’s really important in life: Your health. Your loved ones. Their health. Your reputation as an ethical person. Staying out of jail. When those essentials are your true north–and they are reinforced by a support team you’ll listen to–you’ll be unafraid to back away from lucrative deals for the sake of larger principles. “You don’t have to hit the wall or get fired,” says George. “You can learn to pull yourself back, to get back to your true north.”