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Harvard Business School Professor, former Medtronic CEO

Category: True North Groups

Fortune – The Church of B-School

FORTUNE — About an hour into a leadership class at Columbia Business School, all 50-odd students were sitting rail-straight with their eyes closed. A blonde research associate with the slightest hint of a German accent cooed instructions at the front of the class. “Notice the sensation of your shoes,” he said.

Personal Leadership & Success, which is taught by leadership expert Hitendra Wadhwa, is considered one of the “softer” offerings at Columbia, especially when compared to “hard” courses such as finance. The idea behind it is that good leadership begins with self-knowledge, hence the meditation exercise.

It may seem far out, but there are similar classes at business schools across the country. Stanford has offered a class called “Touchy-Feely” since 1966. And a class at Harvard Business School takes this idea of self-knowledge through group learning a step further.

Recreating the community group

The class, developed by former Medtronic (MDT) CEO and Harvard management professor Bill George, runs on the premise that groups of business-minded leaders can offer better leadership guidance than other networks, including family and friends. For this class, Harvard MBAs from different backgrounds are put into small groups where they complete coursework together and share deeply personal experiences.

Those shared experiences can fill an unmet need for community. Americans have become less social, George argues in his recently published book True North Groups. He cites the work of fellow Harvard professor Robert Putnam, whose research has shown that Americans’ participation in groups outside of work, such as rotary clubs or religious groups, has plummeted. According to Putnam’s research, the number of people attending meetings of any kind of club in the U.S. dropped by 58% from 1975 to 2000.

That’s where some business schools are starting to step in, and students are responding. Personal Leadership & Success is one of the top 10 most popular electives for second-year MBA students at Columbia out of about 200 elective courses. Since 2008, over 600 students have applied every year for the 240 spots in Bill George’s class at Harvard (George now teaches a version for executives). This year, the Personal Leadership & Success program for MBAs is expanding to take on 60 more students per year.

Some students say they are attracted to these kinds of courses because they feel like they are learning to lead in a vacuum. According to Rye Barcott, a Duke Energy (DUK) employee and Harvard Business School alum who took George’s class, the problem with many leaders today has little to do with their ability to crunch numbers, but rather a lack of values. “When you think about the biggest failures of corporate executives, they’re not necessarily technical failures, but ethical ones, ” Barcott says.

Programs like George’s class can help sharpen those ethics in future executives, says HBS alum and film executive Peter Bisanz: “I think that if our business leaders had insight into their own strengths and weaknesses, we would not have had the excessive greed that would have led to the financial crisis.”

Granted, both of these men were star students in the class and they believe in the methodology. But they both opened up to their peers in ways that may seem, at first glance, out of place in a business school setting.

The crux of George’s class is the students’ identification of a “crucible” moment, described in True North Groups as sharing with their groups “the singular experience that has tested you to the limits and impacted your life.” Some choose to open up in front of everyone, and these crucible moments can be intense — one person stood up and came out as a homosexual in front of the whole class, Bisanz says. Bisanz himself shared his experience with alcoholism.

It can be tough to have the kind of intimate interactions with personal friends that are necessary to grow as a leader, George argues in his book. Barcott agrees: “How do you bring up what the crucible moment is in your life without sounding like a tool?”

The program is no stand-in for therapy though, George insists, and some topics should stay out of these discussions. For example, in his book, he refers to a married couple in a True North group that wanted to talk about issues they had been having as swingers. It was disruptive.

But students likely to be at Harvard Business school could use the self-reflection a True North group requires, perhaps more than anybody, says Bisanz. “A lot of them haven’t had to be subjected to deep personal examination of their lives,” he says, because their paths have led to a top business school, so they’ve been pretty successful by most standards. But he thinks that makes business-oriented soul searching even more necessary. “When those people are tried and tested, they’re going to have to decide who they are and what they believe in.”

A generation in search of purpose?

This idea that your beliefs should guide your career resonates among younger students and employees. Take Ben Austin, one of the students in Wadhwa’s class at Columbia. He used to work for film crews in Hollywood, fetching lattes, he jokes, but actually scoping out promising films at festivals. He hopes Wadhwa’s class will help him hone his sense of purpose and match that to his career goals. He isn’t so much looking for a job as a skill set, he says.

Millennials tend to, on the whole, crave jobs with a greater purpose. In a survey by consulting firm Mercer, young jobseekers ranked a company’s good reputation as one of the most important draws for a job, although salary still held the No. 1 spot. More than other workers, “Millennials are looking for a value congruence — it’s very important for them that the company they work for reflects their values,” says Jason Jeffay, a senior partner at Mercer consulting firm.

Clearly, that’s not true for all young people. Plenty of MBAs are strictly salary-driven, and both George’s and Wadhwa’s classes are electives, so they select for a population that’s searching for this kind of guidance. It’s unclear whether coursework like this could ever be mandatory, George says.

When work and personal life become one

At its core, these courses try to teach “social intelligence,” otherwise known as compassion mixed with common sense. Being a decent, fulfilled person will help you become a better leader and manager, the thinking goes.

In truth, the business and personal worlds are collapsing in on each other. Many of us carry work with us wherever we go and spend more time with colleagues as the workday grows longer and longer. So it makes sense that business schools are turning into places where students want to learn how to be good at life in general.

Ben Austin said as much. He suggested that this article open with a description of the students meditating, then continue to describe how no, this wasn’t a scene at a temple of worship but rather [dramatic pause] “Columbia Business School: a temple of commerce.”

Austin has a point. The lines between where we go for moral guidance and where we go to learn how to balance a budget are growing blurrier these days.


Orginially Posted on on September 15, 2011

True North Groups Offer Approach to Developing Leaders

Minnesota companies like General Mills, 3M and Cargill have developed national reputations for their leadership development programs. As a result, they have developed many exceptional leaders, which has enabled them to sustain their performance for decades.

As these companies have expanded globally, they also have led the business world in the shift from hierarchical organizations to collaborative, horizontal ones. This is especially important with younger generations because the command-and-control model so prevalent in the 20th century has ceased to be effective. It fails to motivate front-line employees and take advantage of their knowledge and wisdom, especially in global organizations that require collaboration across different cultures.

IBM’s CEO Sam Palmisano pioneered the notion of a globally collaborative organization in 2003 as he transformed IBM’s hierarchy from functional and geographic silos into an integrated global network. He started with a “values jam” involving 300,000 employees over four days and articulated his ideas in a 2006 Foreign Affairs article, “The Integrated Global Enterprise.”

The shift to collaborative organizations with flat structures is causing a reassessment of the ways that organizations develop leaders. Traditionally, organizations have focused on a select group of leaders who can assume the organization’s top roles and have invested substantial sums on a few, while leaving others to rely on traditional management skills. Rather than just a few stars, global organizations will need many talented leaders — hundreds, even thousands — operating throughout the organization.

For the leaders of today, we are learning that emotional intelligence (or EQ) is more important than IQ. EQ is based more on authenticity and how well-grounded leaders are. In my experience leaders haven’t failed for lack of IQ, but rather a lack of emotional intelligence.

In interviews with 125 authentic leaders for True North, we learned that EQ starts with self-awareness about your life story and the crucibles you have experienced. Becoming self-aware is hard to do on your own. People need safe places where they can share their experiences, challenges, frustrations and then get honest feedback. Such a place can be provided by True North Groups — intimate peer groups where people talk openly in a confidential setting. These groups enable people to gain a deeper understanding of themselves by revealing hidden areas and blind spots.

In a True North Group, people feel comfortable in challenging members when they sense they are losing their bearings or deviating from their values. Members learn to accept others rather than judge them, and celebrate the differences of people with different life experiences. Groups provide support when people face challenges in their work or their lives. Psychologist Daniel Goleman, who wrote “Emotional Intelligence,” says, “At a time when we need authentic leaders more than ever, True North Groups … should be part of every leader’s development.”

Co-author Doug Baker Sr. and I first formed a True North Group back in 1975. Along with six other men, we have met weekly for the past 36 years. In 1983 we formed a monthly couples group with our spouses and two other couples. These groups have been a godsend in my life, helping me think through my decision to leave Honeywell to join Medtronic and later supporting my wife Penny and me when she was diagnosed with breast cancer.

At Harvard Business School, 1,500 MBAs and executives have experienced these groups in our leadership development courses. Their evaluations have been uniformly positive. Many describe the experience as transformative. Unilever is asking its top 500 executives to participate in True North Groups.

Baker, a former executive at American Express Financial Advisors (now Ameriprise), and I have formed the True North Groups Institute to enable other companies to create similar groups. They have minimal cost and no professional leaders are required (although some organizations use facilitators to get them started). Only limited staff is needed to support them, making them scalable for organizations that need to develop large numbers of leaders.

I believe these groups can be instrumental in developing values-centered, collaborative leaders at all levels for large global organizations, and transforming leadership in the process.


Originially Posted: Star-Tribune on September 3, 2011

Launch of True North Groups

Last Thursday we had the launch of True North Groups at the University of Minnesota. Following an opening reception, we had a “Conversation on Personal and Leadership Development” with 450 people participating in the event that was hosted by the Center for Spirituality and Healing. Center director Dr. Mary Jo Kreitzer moderated the dialogue with my co-author Doug Baker and me, with many stimulating and profound questions and comments from the attendees.

For those who were not able to attend, the entire conversation was videotaped and will be hosted soon on and Doug and I would welcome your comments on our website about your experiences in small groups like True North Groups. 

Follow me on Twitter and connect with me on Facebook to see comments from the event.