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Bill George

Harvard Business School Professor, former Medtronic CEO

Leadership Styles: Becoming an Authentic Leader

From Monster.com, posted August 28, 2015

The capacity to develop close and enduring relationships is one mark of empowering leaders. Unfortunately, many leaders of major companies believe their job is to create the strategy, organizational structure, and organizational processes. Then they delegate the work to be done, remaining aloof from the people doing the work.

The detached style of leadership will not be successful in the twenty-first century. Today’s employees demand more personal relationships with their leaders before they will give themselves fully to their jobs. They insist on having access to their leaders, knowing that it is in the openness and the depth of the relationship with the leader that trust and commitment are built. 

Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, and Jack Welch were so successful because they connected directly with their employees and realized from them a deeper commitment to their work and greater loyalty to the company. Welch, in particular, was an interesting case because he was so challenging and hard on people. Yet those very challenges let people know that he was interested in their success and concerned about their careers.

In Eyewitness to Power, David Gergen writes, “At the heart of leadership is the leader’s relationship with followers. People will entrust their hopes and dreams to another person only if they think the other is a reliable vessel.” Authentic leaders establish trusting
relationships with people throughout their organizations. The rewards of these relationships, both tangible and intangible, are long lasting.

Rule #1: Just Show Up
Woody Allen once remarked, “Eighty percent of success is showing up.” Surprisingly, many leaders get so busy that they don’t take the time to be there for people. They don’t bother to attend award ceremonies, company picnics, or sales meetings. Nor do they walk around the offices, factories, labs, and field sales and service locations. Often they are too busy to come to important customer meetings or trade shows. 

As a result, their teammates never get to know them personally. Their only contact with their leaders is through impersonal media, such as speeches, voice mail, videotapes, and Web streaming of company events.

Target CEO Brian Cornell makes frequent visits to stores around the country, often going alone and unannounced, shaking hands and getting to know people, as well as using his astute powers of observation to see how effective Target team members are in connecting with their guests. 

Brian Cornell, CEO of Target

These visits have given him a clear understanding of his new organization and what needs to be improved. It also led to what he termed “the most difficult decision of my career” — to close his predecessor’s ill-fated foray into Canada.

Not only did Cornell have multiple business analyses prepared to search for a way forward, but he also visited nearly empty stores the week before Christmas and realized that Target’s efforts should focus entirely on the lucrative U.S. market.

Likewise, Howard Schultz told of visiting a Starbucks store one Saturday morning:

I walked in, dressed so nobody would recognize me. When I sat down, the manager came up and said, “Howard, is that you?” I said, “Yes, it is.” She told me about receiving Starbucks stock and what it did for her and her family. Then she started crying and said, “I’m so moved that you’re in my store.” Later I got a voice mail from her, saying how powerful that moment was for her. I immediately called her back and thanked her for sharing with me.

Howard Schultz, CEO of Starbucks

Stories of basic human interactions like this one are very powerful. All Cornell and Schultz had to do was show up. Being at important events or engaging on the front lines at unexpected times means a great deal to people and enables them to take their leaders off their proverbial pedestals and see them as real people.

Mutual Respect: The Basis for Empowerment
To bring out the best from teammates, authentic leaders must develop trusting relationships based on mutual respect. There is no substitute. Like loyalty, respect provides a basis for empowerment, but leaders must earn it. Here are some of the things empowering leaders do to gain the respect of their colleagues:

  • Treat others as equals
  • Listen actively
  • Learn from people
  • Share life stories
  • Align around the mission

Treat Others as Equals
We respect people who treat us as equals, especially when they are successful investors, such as Warren Buffett. He has the same sandwich and Cherry Coke combination with a group of wide-eyed students as he does with his close friend Bill Gates. 

Buffett does not rely upon his image to make people feel he is important or powerful. He genuinely respects others, and they respect him as much for those qualities as for his investment prowess. By being authentic in his interactions, Buffett empowers people to lead in their own authentic way.

Listen Actively
We are grateful when people genuinely listen to us. Active listening is one of the most important abilities of empowering leaders, because people sense such individuals are genuinely interested in them and not just trying to get something from them. 

Warren Bennis was an example of a world-class listener. He patiently listened as you explained your ideas and then thoughtfully contributed astute observations that came from a deep well of wisdom and experience.

Learn from People
We feel respected when others believe they can learn from us or ask for our advice. The best advice I ever got about teaching came from my Harvard Business School (HBS) colleague Paul Marshall, who was one of HBS’s greatest teachers. He told me, “Bill, don’t ever set foot in an HBS classroom unless you genuinely want to learn from the students.” 

I have taken his advice into every class I have taught for the past 12 years, telling MBA students and executives, “I feel certain I will learn a lot more from you than you do from me.” The students find that hard to believe at first, but they soon see how their feedback helps me understand how today’s leaders and MBA students think.