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Bill George

Harvard Business School Professor, former Medtronic CEO

Takers and Givers

Today I am initiating the True North Blog as a vehicle to engage leaders interested in their development and all those who are interested in seeing better leaders throughout organizations. I welcome your inputs, challenges, inspirations, and critiques of these ideas, all with the intent of having “honest conversations,” something that is too often missing in businesses and non-profit organizations.

Back in 2003, the year after I retired as chairman of Medtronic, I wrote Authentic Leadership for two reasons: first of all, I was disgusted with the many business and non-profit leaders in my generation who were focused on “taking” rather than “giving.” Far too many leaders – not just who wound up in jail – took advantage of their power and position to reap personal benefits rather than building their companies and creating lasting value.

Cheered on by Wall Street and the neo-classical economists, they focused on maximizing shareholder value in the short-term, even if they wound up destroying it in the long-term. American icons like AT&T, Sears, General Motors, and K-Mart went into a long-term state of decline or ceased to exist, at least in recognizable form.

My second reason was to share with a wide range of leaders the insights I had gleaned from thirty-five years in the business world, and to encourage the new generations of leaders to become better leaders than my generation was.

After studying hundreds of business leaders – and personally knowing many times more – I have decided that you can divide them basically into two categories: “takers” and “givers.” The “takers” are out for themselves. They want you to support them in maximizing what they get, while you and your teammates get the crumbs left over. They want to get whatever they can, regardless of whether they perform as leaders and create lasting value.

The “givers” recognize they were chosen to lead for the purpose of serving others: their customers, their employees, their investors, and all those citizens that have a stake in the success of the organizations they lead. If you work for a “giver,” you will find that he or she is interested in your success, your ability to help fulfill the organization´s mission, and your development as an empowered leader. I call the givers authentic leaders because they are genuine people, true to themselves, who understand the purpose of their leadership, practice their values consistently, lead with their hearts, build enduring relationships, and have the personal self-discipline to produce sustainable results.

Of course, the “givers” reap big rewards as well, usually over a long period of time. Their rewards come because they have created value for others – customers, employees and shareholders. I believe their rewards are fully deserved, even when the accumulated financial gains appear quite large to the average person. The people on their teams can accept this because they too are handsomely rewarded over the long-term.

I confess that I was a large beneficiary of this approach. When I joined Medtronic the market value of its stock was $1.1 billion. It wound up at $60 billion. My original 25,000 shares of stock options split six times, giving me sixty-four times as many shares. We ensured that all Medtronic employees became shareholders as well, and they too reaped the benefits.

But the greatest benefit of all to my fellow employees and me was the intrinsic satisfaction of seeing how Medtronic products helped restored millions of people to full life and health. When I joined the company in 1989, around 300,000 new people were being restored every year. These days that number has grown to more than 8 million new people each year. That´s our real reward!

Please send me your reactions to these notions of “takers” and “givers.”