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Bill George

Harvard Business School Professor, former Medtronic CEO

My Defining Moment

As I explore in “7 Lessons for Leading in Crisis,” every leader faces a defining moment that shapes their career.  Below, I’ve selected an excerpt from “7 Lessons” that describes my defining moment:

My defining moment came in 1988 on a beautiful fall day in Minnesota, with the maple trees ablaze in reds and oranges. Driving around the lake near our home, I looked in the rear view mirror and saw a person in agony who was in the midst of a crisis and drifting away from his True North.

I asked myself, how could this be? In my wife Penny I had an amazing life partner of twenty years, two wonderful sons, and a great job as executive vice president of Minneapolis’ leading company.

What I saw in that mirror was a person striving so hard to become CEO of a large company like Honeywell that he was rapidly abandoning his True North. I was getting caught up in the politics and appearances at Honeywell, which were rampant at the time, rather than ignoring them as I had done in the past. I was even wearing cufflinks to impress senior people, something I had never done before.

In that instant I recognized that Honeywell was not the right place for me, nor was I proud of what was happening to me in this environment. That was the defining moment when I decided to stop striving to become CEO of Honeywell and to get back to focusing on values-centered leadership.

I drove home and told my wife Penny what I was feeling. She said wisely, “I’ve been trying to tell you this for a year, but you weren’t prepared to hear it.” How right she was.  Often it is the person closest to us who looks through our blind spots and sees us as we really are.

Just three months before, I had turned Medtronic down for the third time in ten years to become its president, most likely because the company wasn’t large enough to fit my image of what I should be doing. When I walked through Medtronic’s front door six months later as its new president, I felt like I was coming home – home to an organization where I had never been before. It felt like home, a place where I could grow personally and make a difference in helping to fulfill our shared mission of “restoring people to full life and health.”

Everything that has happened in my professional life in the past twenty years followed from that decision, from my thirteen years at Medtronic to my focus the last seven years on helping leaders develop themselves.