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Bill George

Harvard Business School Professor, former Medtronic CEO

Leadership Lesson: Can you be a great leader and great manager at the same time?

By Tom Zender
Contributing writer
Sep 30, 2021

“Leaders are people who do the right thing; managers are people who do things right.” – Warren Bennis, American professor, author

It depends upon the situation. In a startup and small organization, the leader will likely need to be a manager, too. But in the larger organization, the leader will need to give overall management responsibility to a chief operating officer.

Most of all, it is critical to understand the primary roles of leaders and managers. They are not the same.

Contrasting leader and manager roles

Here are some primary distinctions for leaders and managers. These are generalized views and they sometimes cross over between the two:

  • Leaders lead people. Managers manage processes.
  • Leaders create and communicate the vision. Managers implement the vision.
  • Leaders take the first step. Managers take the next step.
  • Leaders ask “why” and “what.” Managers ask “how” and “when.”
  • Leaders align people. Managers organize people.
  • Leaders motivate and inspire. Managers administrate and direct.
  • Leaders mentor, teach and pull the team. Managers coach, show, and push the team.
  • Leaders challenge the status quo. Managers work with the status quo.
  • Leaders unleash potential. Managers coordinate resources.

This does not mean that leaders are more important than

Differences and similarities
The contrasts do not mean that leaders and managers cannot share characteristics and behaviors – in different measures. There can be leaders at every level of the organization, not just the CEO. Individual employees in a company can be excellent leaders. A CEO might be a great leader, but not a strong manager.

The truth is that we need both great leaders and great
managers. This does not mean at all that managers have lesser values than leaders. And, there are leaders at every level of an organization. Including individual employees. We need both leaders and managers.

Those who are both
Some great visionary leaders also dig deep into details – their industry and organization – so that they could dream and lead, and manage the minutia. Harvard Business Review noted several of them: Francis Ford Coppola (film), Steve Jobs (Apple), Ann Mulcahy (Xerox). The former leader of Medtronic, Bill George, spent 75% of his time during the first nine months in his job watching surgeons put Medtronic devices in their patients – and he talked with doctors, nurses, patient family members, and hospital executives to learn in-depth the details of his industry and customers. This was management work in addition to his leadership role.

The bottom line
There are leaders, there are managers, and sometimes they are the same person. Learn the characteristics and behaviors of each. Then, strive to be both.
Tom Zender is a Phoenix business coach and CEO mentor

This content was originally published on on 9/30/21.

McKinsey: Lessons in Leadership and Well-Being from Bill George

“When I was 32, life was very stressful,” says Bill George. “I was traveling all the time, my wife was working, we had a young child at home, and another on the way. It was a very stressful time.” It’s perhaps a good thing that it was. To cope, Bill took a transcendental meditation course, which inspired a daily practice that the former Medtronic CEO and Harvard Business School professor continues to this day.

His example has now inspired a generation of business and organizational leaders everywhere to embrace humble, authentic, and inclusive styles of leadership. In his recent book True North: Discover Your Authentic Leadership, 125 of them share what they’ve learned through their successes, failures, and tragedies.

Across the challenges of the past 15 months, we’ve seen many of our colleagues and clients embrace the importance of well-being. Our global leader of industry practices, Liz Hilton Segel, recently invited Bill to join McKinsey senior partners Manish Chopra and Ryan Davies for an in-depth conversation on well-being: how to create it, protect it, and grow it on our teams and in our lives. In the edited excerpts that follow, we share some of Bill’s most memorable insight and advice from the session.

Authentic leadership and well-being

Leaders need to adapt to the era. If they don’t adapt to the era they’re in, they will not be effective. But they need to do so authentically, and I think it does require a sense of well-being. To me, that’s what’s required to be a great leader.

It’s not just something you do off the job, it’s something you do on the job. You can always tell when you’re engaging with someone whether they have that sense or whether they’re so stressed out they really aren’t focused on you.

As a leader, you want to give encouragement to the people you work with to bring their ideas forth, to be real people, to be authentic and to be mindful and to have their own practices and give them the opportunity to do that.

To do so, you have to take control of your schedule. I don’t care what your job is, you’ve got to take control of your schedule. And so you need to set aside things for mind, body, spirit—and encourage people who work for you or with you or around you or on your teams to have that schedule.

Clarity and resilience through meditation

I don’t think you can be really creative about big ideas if you’re working off a task list. You can’t think of original ideas until you clear away all that clutter and think about what’s really important and what the big picture is. A meditation practice can help you do that.

As leaders, we’re going to get knocked down. Things are not going to go our way. You’re going to lose a client or a client’s going to be unhappy or something’s going to go wrong. Meditation gives me a sense of resilience, so I can come bouncing back. We all need that. And I can tell you the higher up you are, the more stress you feel. You need that sense of well-being and resilience.

The power of community

Each office is a community. Each group, each team you work on; it could involve people in five different offices, but that should be a team that works as a community and checks in with each other, even if only for a couple of minutes. “How are you doing? What’s going on in your life?” So that there is a humanity there. That’s the authenticity people want.

There’s a direct correlation between one simple question, which is, “Do you have a best friend at work,” and employee engagement scores. We want everyone to be fully engaged. So how do you get that engagement? Make everyone at your organization feel like, “This is my home. This is where I want to be, and you respect me for who I am.”

When my wife had breast cancer, the support we got from the Medtronic community was incredible. And after she finished her chemo, seven months, eight months later I wrote a Thanksgiving Eve note to everyone. I used to write notes all the time about our business performance—no one responded. But to that note, I got 18,000 responses. People related to it. It was all about humanity.

Leading today

You lead from where you are. You don’t have to look for that next promotion. Wherever you are, you have that opportunity to step up and lead right now. Because we lead with teams today. It’s not about who you have control over. It’s really much more about how you inspire people to come together with a common purpose and to come forth with really great ideas.

If senior people are not authentic and don’t have a sense of purpose that can help early tenured people see, “Why am I working so hard?” those colleagues won’t bring their best to work and aren’t going to do what you’re asking them to do.

For CEOs today, look, somebody else can run the numbers. You have plenty of people to run numbers. I had a great CFO. But I had to inspire people around the Medtronic mission and values. That’s the job for CEOs today.

Fostering mind, body, and sense of purpose in individuals, teams, and organizations is a skill that can lead to a more resilient workforce and improve well-being in the workplace. For additional insights, visit our Well-being in the Workplace collections page here.

This content was originally published on on 7/6/2021.

The Good Leader: Leading Through the COVID-19 Pandemic with Corie Barry and Bill George

On May 20, 2021, Glen Nelson Center presented The Good Leader featuring Best Buy CEO Corie Barry. This digital event focused on Barry’s leadership during the COVID-19 pandemic and how she continues to steer Best Buy through one of the greatest challenges in its 46-year history.

Harvard Business School Senior Fellow, Bill George, joined Corie on stage in a far-ranging conversation about the qualities that make a good leader and how leaders can confront crisis, lead through uncertainty, and build a more resilient culture.Corie and Bill were also joined remotely by other local and national leaders to share their experiences leading through the pandemic and visions for a post-pandemic future.

The Good Leader was produced by Glen Nelson Center and generously sponsored by the George Family Foundation, St. Catherine University, Best Buy and the Carlson Family Foundation.

Wall Street Journal Forum: CEOs and Social Issues

Bill George joins the Wall Street Journal’s Executive Member Breakout session to discuss the role of CEOs today and the importance of transparency and authenticity.

Click this link to watch the full video.

CEOs today are not just responsible for managing companies — they are public figures as well. And according to the New CEO series at Harvard Business School, this is the area CEOs are most uncertain about today. Stakeholders and customers want to know what companies stand for, and they want to hear it directly from the CEOs, not the public relations department.

Note: the conversation with Bill begins around the 5 minute mark.

Fortune: ‘Even when it’s painful, tell the truth’: It’s high time for business to meet higher ethical standards

When I reach professor Jill Atkins by Zoom in late March, she is still working from home in the mountains of Wales, some 160 miles from Sheffield University School of Management, where she holds a department chair. Behind her, on a narrow bookcase, are all five editions of the seminal textbook she coauthored, Corporate Governance and Accountability—the first of which grew out of her lecture notes in 2001 and the most recent of which was published in October. There, on that cramped bookshelf, is a timeline of sorts, revealing how the mandate of business accountability has changed over the past two decades. “The biggest difference,” says Atkins, “is that a corporation’s social responsibility, and indeed its ethics, are no longer considered a separate realm from traditional corporate governance functions.”

As far as society is concerned—as far as a company’s customers, employees, and even investors are concerned—how a company behaves in the world is now as important as what it sells or produces. “Auditing at the board level has shifted completely over the last 20 years to include more environmental and social issues,” says Atkins. “And what may be one of the most fascinating things we’ve now got is institutional investors all over the world who are pushing companies toward greater accountability—not just in financial issues, but in issues such as employee treatment, diversity, and climate change.”

Accountability. It’s one of those rare things like newborn puppies and afternoons in the park that are unlikely to find many detractors. Who, but a relative handful of anarchists and performance artists, doesn’t think people should be responsible for their actions? But corporate accountability—particularly when it comes to social policies and politically fraught issues—can be tricky to measure, let alone devise appropriate parameters for. It’s hard to set a growth target for ethical behavior. And yet more and more of us are demanding just that of the companies we work for, buy from, and invest in.

The complexity, and increasing urgency of this challenge, drew us to devote a special issue to the subject of corporate accountability. In the twisting and wonderful stories that follow, we’ve examined everything from who’s responsible for America’s staggering health care bill to the cost of lying in an election; from a loss of faith within one of the mightiest fast-food franchise families to the seemingly impossible quest for humanely produced chocolateHow “green” is green investing? Can Facebook really fight hate speech and misinformation? Will unions rein in big tech—and if not, will Europe’s formidable antitrust czar? We’ve tried to answer them all.

Still, at the risk of giving away their surprise endings, there is a common strand that weaves through and binds these tales. It’s trust, says Harvard Business School professor Bill George, a legendary former CEO of Medtronic and author of the bestselling leadership book True North. George, who teaches a course for chief executives, offers them one critical piece of advice: “Tell the truth. Even when it’s painful, tell the truth: ‘We had a quality problem with one of our products. This is the consequence. Here’s what we’re doing to fix it.’ ”

For some abject lessons, the professor fires out a slew of catastrophes wherein obfuscation, rather than candor, ruled the corporate response: Boeing, with its 737 Max engine failuresWells Fargo, with its phony bank accounts; BP, with its massive oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. (Plus: See our extraordinary graphic of corporate misdeeds). “You think that any consumer feels like any of these companies told them the truth?” he asks. “Forget about your PR department. No more spin. Just tell us what’s going on.

“Trust,” says George, “is the coin of the realm.” We couldn’t agree more.

This article appears in the April/May issue of Fortune with the headline, “Honest accounting.”

This content was originally published on on 4/12/2021.

Chad Foster & Bill George: Authentically Leading with Blind Ambition

The stories we tell ourselves either limit us or propel us towards our goals. Are you ready to turn your biggest obstacle into your biggest advantage?

When most people were preparing for the adventure of adult life, Chad E. Foster was watching the world he grew up with fade to black. But going blind in his early 20’s didn’t stop him from living. Becoming an avid coder, he built software Oracle thought was impossible and won over $45 billion in contracts in the business world.

Overcoming his own struggles and inspired by Bill’s teachings at HBS, Chad discovered blindness was a “gift” from which he developed the mental stamina and resilience to live his best life.

Chad and Bill discuss how finding the courage to authentically lead offers us a path forward in life, regardless of our circumstances. They also review the journey, lessons learned and the tools Chad used to adapt and mold himself into who he is today, which he describes in his upcoming book Blind Ambition: How to Go from Victim to Visionary.