Shortly after its publication in 2007, Bill George’s renowned book True Northbecame a go-to guide on leadership at a time of financial turmoil and misuse of power.
Today, a newly expanded and updated edition of the book comes at a time when leaders face increasing pressures and when public trust in leadership is at one of its worst lows.
We spoke with Bill George about leadership and about the second edition of the book called Discover Your True North. He is a senior fellow at the Harvard Business School and former chairman and CEO of Medtronic. Under his leadership, the company’s market capitalization grew from $1.1 billion to $60 billion.
Monster: Are today’s leaders facing significantly different challenges than they did a decade ago when you first wrote True North?
Bill George: Definitely I think they are. Back in the ’90s and early 2000s, leaders were revered and today I think everyone is somewhat skeptical and cynical about our leaders, and that’s because so many leaders in my generation dropped the ball and caused great harm first in the corporate governance crisis in the early 2000s and then in the financial crisis of 2008-09.
I’m convinced that the root cause of those problems was not corporate governance or credit default swaps or subprime mortgages but failed leadership.
I am very hopeful about this generation of leaders. I think we’re seeing very, very positive signs that they have learned a lesson from their predecessors and we have an outstanding group of new leaders coming up from the CEOs that have been elected in the last 7-8 years to the young leaders, the Millennials, taking on much more responsibility these days.
Monster: The new edition of the book features 47 new interviews with leaders. What stands out about them?
Bill George: In this new set, we tried to get a much more global set of leaders, much more diverse and spread across all age ranges.
For example Indra Nooyi, who is the chairman and CEO of PepsiCo, is an amazing, remarkable leader. Born in India, educated in India, she came to the United States, completed her education and eventually became head of PepsiCo.
She took a fierce challenge from the outside world because she said that she wanted to create healthy foods and beverages in addition to PepsiCo’s traditional line.
The stock market was critical, various consumers were critical. She even endured a withering challenge from an activist, but she stayed the course throughout this period. Now, all the things she predicted are coming to pass.
Another person I found really interesting in the interviews is Kenneth Frazier. Ken is now the head of Merck, the world’s leading pharmaceutical research company, 58 years old.
The interesting thing about Ken is his grandfather was a slave. He was born before 1863, so you can see a lot of years have transpired. Ken is still carrying out the mission and the narrative started by his grandfather, which is really remarkable, to be your own person and to try to use your life to make a difference in the world, carried through his father, who never professionally went above the level of janitor but had enormous influence on Ken.
Ken’s mother died when he was 12. Throughout his life, he has taken the wisdom of his father and grandfather and tried to carry that now into creating life-saving drugs for people. As he says, they may not come to pass for 10 years, 20 years, but they’ll have huge impact on human health for the next 50 years.
Those are just two examples of quite diverse leaders with remarkable life stories.
Monster: So much of the book was really an eye-opener to me in the sense that true authentic leadership is defined by a capacity to look inward, understand your life story, understand what you call your crucibles, your challenges, and then figure out what are the values that come out of that.
Bill George: That’s the big change. I think back in the 20th century, we thought leadership was something that went from the outside in. We could patch it on with improving your leadership style, how you dressed, how you appeared, how you communicated outwardly. Honestly, I think those things are the outward manifestation of who you are as a person, but a lot of times we don’t understand ourselves, we don’t know what really motivates us.
I think it’s knowing who you are that enables us to be the person we were meant to be, not to try to emulate some other leader, but to be ourselves, that unique person, and the toughest part is to stay on course of our true north, not lose sight of what we’re called to do.
Monster: Are there instances where people do the work of finding or understanding what is their true north and the realization that this position that I’m in isn’t really aligning with what is my true north?
Bill George: Absolutely. A lot of us face that at one point in time. I faced that personally in the middle of my career. I thought I was on route to being CEO of Honeywell, and I may have been, but I was getting pulled off course. I was chasing the CEO title more than being the value-centered leader I was self-called to be. I was blinded by the big company idea and not seeing, hey, this is where I should be, with the kind of mission I can really resonate with.
Monster: There’s a wonderful expression that is in the business vernacular now, which is, “Vulnerability is power.”
Bill George: This is a whole new idea. For many years of my life I was afraid to be vulnerable for fear you’d think I was weak. I think that was the norm when I was coming up.
I got the idea originally from a man named John Hope Bryant. John is one of the most interesting people I interviewed. John was actually a homeless man, and he came to my class at Harvard, believe it or not, a class for young global leaders of the world economic forum. He was selected to this because of the work he did with the poor and creating financial literacy and did some remarkable work, raised $500 million to help the poor overcome financial illiteracy.
John has used this phrase, and he wrote a book and I adopted it and used it in the classroom and found it had great resonance with people. If they could be willing to be vulnerable, they felt so much more comfortable because they could be who they were.
I think it is a new idea and one of the most powerful ideas in the book.
Monster: Do authentic leaders view their workforce and their position in the organization in a significantly different way than, say, someone who was a CEO 20-30 years ago?
Bill George: I think they definitely do. Before, we were so hierarchic and everything was honestly very bureaucratic. We were trying to manage the whole company by systems and procedures. Now, with humanity, today’s great leaders are really engaged with the people that work for them.
Leaders like Howard Schultz go to two dozen Starbucks stores a week just to hang out and see what’s going on and watch the relationship between the barista and the customers, because he knows that’s the essence of what Starbucks does.
Monster: You mentioned Starbucks CEO, Howard Schultz. I was really touched by the realization that he had after many years of having a tense relationship with his father.
After his father’s death, Schultz realized that his father never had the opportunity to find meaningful work. It seemed to me that then impacted Howard to go on and create a company culture that was really about helping workers find meaningful work.
Bill George: Exactly. I think Howard has done a brilliant job of that. He’s living his life story. There is a congruence for him of what it was like to grow up in the Bayview Housing Projects where he had nothing and there was a lot of crime and drugs and poverty around him and seeing his father lose 30 jobs, saying, “I don’t want that. I want to create great jobs for people.” People at Starbucks who work there really resonate with that. As a customer, you feel that.
Monster: I’m wondering, too, about applying these principles to leaders of smaller companies or companies that are growing – the start-ups. There’s a lot of energy in that space, and I would think it’s just as applicable for those people as well.
Bill George: Absolutely. One of the reasons I wrote the book is I believe there’s no greater vehicle for impacting society than corporations in a free enterprise system properly run. It can go off the rails if it gets too extreme, as well as non-profits, by the way.
I think leaders have such impact. Whether it’s a small business, it’s a mid-size business or startup, if they have a sense of mission, they’re going to attract people to their cause and to want to come there both as employees and as customers.
Good decisions are made collectively by people with diverse life experiences. If we just have someone at the top making all the decisions like command general, it’s not going to work.
Monster: That leads into this idea that’s in the book which I thought was very powerful, the importance of mentoring, both leaders who mentor others in the organization as well as the leaders having a mentor.
Bill George: All relationships are a two-way street, including mentoring. It’s got to be both ways. I think that’s really what mentoring is all about. I recommend to senior people now, CEOs, you need to have some young mentees.
I always had that when I was at Medtronic. I had young mentees in as running partners. I couldn’t understand how the company felt to somebody new coming in, so I had them as mentees and I would just ask them, “What’s it like to be a new employee or a younger employee of this company?” I wanted to see if there were rose-colored glasses as I saw it, but that wasn’t necessarily the way they saw it, so this became very, very important to me to do the job and trying to lead an organization of 30,000 people.
Monster: Would we be going too far to recommend that employers themselves obviously work to find their true north and encourage all of their employees, give them the means to find their true north, regardless of their role in the organization or their level in the organization?
Bill George: Absolutely not. I think we all have to do that, because if we don’t have a sense of where we’re going, why would I follow you? You don’t know what your true north is, why would I follow you?
Monster: How does one start this discovery process? How do you start this journey to becoming an authentic leader?
Bill George: Everything starts with your life story. We go out and we explore who we are as people. I think you have to do two things. You have to write it down and really think through who are the people that influenced me? What was the experience I have? Then get into the difficult times. I think you can’t ignore the difficult times, the crucibles, as I call them. Then as you’re telling your story to another person, actually you reframe it.
You asked earlier about Howard Schultz reframing his image of his father not as a failure but as a guy who never had a shot, never had a chance. Instead of being so hard on his father as he was earlier in life, he reframed it as his father was in a society that didn’t give people a chance, so Howard wanted to change that. His passion came out of that, and we find your passion comes out of your life story.
Monster: It goes back to that wonderful line in the book that really stood out to me, and that is, “The hardest person you will ever have to lead is yourself.”
Bill George: Yes. I created that phrase and at first, people thought, this is odd. What are you talking about? Leadership is not about leading yourself, it’s about leading other people.
In my study of leaders when I came to Harvard Business School 12 years ago, what I found in studying hundreds and hundreds of leaders, is the ones who fail all failed to lead themselves. It wasn’t that they weren’t smart enough. It wasn’t they couldn’t lead other people. It’s that they got off track. They lost sight of their true north and they got their ego tied up, they couldn’t deal with the possibility of failure, all the things we’ve been talking about.
We found that you had to do that first, then you become a great leader of other people, because people can’t ask more of you than who you are as a person. They can’t ask you to be a façade or something else, nor should you let them. You just have to be who you are, but that comes from the capacity to lead yourself.
“Suffering is universal: You turn it around so that it becomes a creative, positive force,” (Terry Waite).
Psychologist Abraham Maslow found that tragedy and trauma are the most important human learning experiences. Crucibles enable people to learn life is uncertain, and that they have limited control over events.
In recent years, a new reality is emerging that empowers individuals to look at their crucibles and difficult experiences as growth opportunities — we term this approach, Post-Traumatic Growth.
Think of the most challenging moment in your life. Perhaps it was a time when a loved one passed away, or you had a personal health crisis. Or your lost your job or your family. Whatever it was, it was a time of crisis for you — but also a moment that caused you to reflect deeply about who you are and what is truly important in your life.
Traumatic moments propel many people into a downward spiral. As they refuse to address or even acknowledge their crucibles, they make the memories more painful. As a result of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, we are painfully aware of “Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder” — or PTSD — but this phenomenon doesn’t just happen to war victims or military veterans.
New research shows that traumatic experiences can result in post-traumatic growth (PTG). PTG starts by recognizing life’s uncertainties and embracing them as fundamental tenets of human existence. It also requires self-awareness to acknowledge your personal responsibility for the choices you make in life coupled with the desire to undergo personal transformation. As Warren Bennis explained inGeeks and Geezers, “Some magic takes place in the crucible of leadership. Whatever is thrown at them, leaders emerge from their crucibles stronger and unbroken.”
All of us face trials in our lives. How can you respond to your crucible to transform your deep feelings of loss — which are real and natural — into opportunities for personal growth?
After reading True North, Pedro Algorta, one of the survivors of the famous 1972 crash in the Andes mountains, reached out to me. In his letter, he wrote while flying with 45 friends, his plane crashed into the Andes. “After 72 days barely surviving in the mountains without food or clothing, sixteen of us were finally rescued.”
For 35 years, Algorta never mentioned being part of this experience to anyone other than his wife, in spite of the worldwide publicity the event received. As an MBA student at Stanford, he didn’t even share it with his classmates. After reading True North, he began to process how this event had shaped his life. When he visited my Harvard Business School classes in 2008 and 2013, he shared three ways to deal with crucibles:
Focus on the event, and live your life looking backward, often an angry life of blaming others.
Live your life as if nothing happened, while the memories and the pain remain deep inside you.
Use the event to transform your wound into a pearl.
In my new book, Discover Your True North, Algorta shared the metaphor of the oyster pearl. When sand grates against the oyster, its natural reaction is to cover up the irritant to protect itself with a substance called nacre (mother-of-pearl), which eventually forms the pearl itself.
Are you turning your wounds into pearls?
To do so, you will need to reflect on the impact your crucible has had on your life and what you learned from the experience. After discerning its meaning, you can reframe it as an opportunity for personal growth.
My crucible came when I least expected it. In my mid-20s, I was engaged to be married, just 18 months after my mother’s sudden death. A few weeks before the wedding, my fiancée started having severe headaches. I took her to a leading neurosurgeon, but all her exams were negative. On a Saturday night three weeks before the wedding, we talked about final plans. The following morning her parents called to say she died during the night from a malignant brain tumor.
In the aftermath of her death, I could have easily become bitter and depressed and even lost my faith. In times of personal crisis, the power of faith and the support of close friends can provide the basis for healing. I was blessed to have both. Together, they enabled me to accept this tragedy and to learn just how precious every day is and to appreciate fully the value of those who are there for us when things go wrong in our lives.
Tragic as the event was, it opened my heart to the deeper meaning of life. This tragedy caused me to think more profoundly about what I could contribute to others during my lifetime. As my wife Penny explained about her breast cancer diagnosis in 1996, “Life is what happens when you’re expecting something else.”
With all of life’s uncertainties, we learn to accept what life brings us and to use each experience as an opportunity for personal growth. You cannot go through life without getting knocked down. The question is how you will respond, and whether you will come back stronger than ever. Rather than living an angry life, suppressing your crucibles, or living a fearful life, I urge you to embrace life’s uncertainties and reframe them as learning opportunities in order to turn them into pearls of wisdom.
If you do, you will lead a fuller, richer life, and you can help others to cope with life’s challenges.
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.
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.
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
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.
Since 1975, Doug Baker and I have been actively involved in small, personal groups that have helped us navigate personal challenges with our families, careers, and health. Our group is a place where we have explored the important questions in life, and clarified and reinforced our own True North values. At their best, group members serve as caring coaches and thoughtful mentors.
Over the years we have been asked by friends and acquaintances, “How can I form such a group?” So the idea for True North Groups was born. It describes the important role that small, intimate groups are playing in personal growth and in developing leaders with high levels of self-awareness and emotional intelligence. The latter part of the book provides “how-to” manual for creating a True North Group. Our belief in the value of these groups is what motivated us to write True North Groups and form the True North Groups Institute.
What is a True North Group and what sets it apart from other groups?
6-8 people meet regularly for personal discussions
Primary purpose is the journey of self-awareness that develops stronger leaders
The members follow a structured curriculum to guide that journey
Participants develop their hearts, forming a balanced head-heart combination
True North Groups provide the best vehicle to help people develop as human beings and leaders, providing a powerful path between our personal lives and the organizations we engage every day. They enable us to become fully alive, awakening to the enormous possibilities within each of us.
A True North Group can serve as a nurturer, truth teller, mirror and an inspirer, among other roles. It can be an antidote to social isolation, which is being increasingly recognized as a serious issue in modern society. This sense of isolation helped give rise to the “Facebook phenomenon,” which helps connect millions of people online. But social media is certainly not a substitute for intimate, trusting relationships where people can discuss their most difficult challenges, as they can in True North Groups.
The book is organized around a familiar sequence – forming, norming, storming, performing, and reforming. In forming your new group, the most important thing is to gather a strong group of members who are compatible and respectful of each other. Groups of people in similar age range and life stages are usually most effective.
It is my hope that this book will provide you with a deeper understanding of the important role that a True North Group can play in your life and how you can form one. I invite you to share your stories of True North Groups on my website and connect with other True North Group members on Twitter with the hashtag #TrueNorthGroups or on Facebook.
Tomorrow marks the Minneapolis launch of my new book, True North Groups: A Powerful Path to Personal and Leadership Development, written with co-author Doug Baker. We have had 1,500 students at Harvard Business School participate in these groups, which we refer to there at Leadership Development Groups. The comments on True North Groups in the following video come from participants in last February’s first executive education course in Authentic Leadership Development. They give a good cross-section of opinions about the value of small groups for leaders.
Today at 2:00 pm EDT (1 pm CDT/11am PDT) I will be giving a Webinar on “How to become a Better Leader with True North Groups.” At this time we will discuss ways to develop as an authentic leader, and the importance of having a support group in your life, including a True North Group. The Webinar will also include a preview of my new book, True North Groups: A Powerful Path to Personal and Leadership Development, written with my colleague Doug Baker. It will be published on September 1. I hope you can join us on line. You can register for free here.
We have scheduled a second course at HBS on September 25-30, 2011 with the same great faculty: Dean Nitin Nohria, Rob Kaplan, Scott Snook and Joshua Margolis. Hope you can join us. Applications are open at HBS executive education.
Last week I served as faculty chair for Harvard Business School’s new executive course, “Authentic Leadership Development.” Sixty-four executives from 60 global companies spent five intense days honing their leadership.
Here’s the catch: They concentrated almost entirely on leading themselves, not others.
What does leading yourself have to do with becoming a leader? Everything, actually.
Traditional leadership development programs have missed the mark for years, as they tried to remake leaders into someone different. I had this unfortunate experience numerous times in my career. It was never successful.
One boss told me that I needed to improve my management style, which was an accurate observation. When I asked for clarification, he said, “Be more like me.” That feedback wasn’t helpful, as his style and strengths were completely different than mine. If I emulated him, others would have seen me as phony, and I would have been much less effective as a leader.
We’ve all seen dozens of leaders fail in trying to emulate great leaders. At a recent conference, I asked the participants, “Can we all agree that the ‘Great Man’ theory of leadership is dead?” The essence of leadership is not trying to emulate someone else, no matter how brilliant they are. Nor is it having the ideal leadership style, achieving competencies or fixing your weaknesses. In fact, you don’t need power or titles to lead. You only have to be authentic.
In observing leaders for 40 years, I have never seen someone fail for lack of IQ. But I have seen hundreds fail who lacked emotional intelligence (EQ). Psychologist Daniel Goleman first popularized the concept in his 1995 book, “Emotional Intelligence.” He defined EQ as competencies driving leadership performance, including:
• Self-awareness: reading emotions and recognizing their impact;
• Self-management: controlling emotions and adapting to change;
• Social awareness: understanding others’ emotions and comprehending social networks;
• Relationship management: inspiring, influencing, and developing others while managing conflict.
In researching my 2007 book, “True North,” several colleagues told me they hoped we could identify the definitive traits of successful leaders. More than 1,000 prior studies had failed to do so. In interviewing 125 authentic leaders, we learned that the essence of leadership comes from not from having pre-defined characteristics. Rather, it comes from knowing yourself — your strengths and weaknesses — by understanding your unique life story and the challenges you have experienced.
Everyone has a life story they are eager to share if anyone will listen in an accepting, nonjudgmental way. I have great admiration for Sen. Scott Brown’s courage in telling his story of being sexually abused as a child. His story acknowledges the life forces that shape who we are. In sharing their stories at last week’s program, the executives found liberation and power by claiming who they are, not by trying to emulate someone else.
This isn’t a new idea. Four thousand years ago the Oracle of Delphi said, “Know thyself.” What’s new is that we are learning how important self-awareness is to leadership development. Being self-aware is easier said than done. That’s why so many leaders engage in self-defeating behaviors that cause them to fail.
How can you become a self-aware leader? Start with experiences in leading others in school, sports, or early work assignments. However, having one experience after another is not sufficient. Instead of plunging immediately into the next experience where you are prone to repeat your mistakes, you need to reflect on what you learned. Introspection can come from keeping a journal, meditating, praying or just sitting quietly.
Next, seek honest feedback from people you work with. The best developmental tool is 360-degree feedback from peers, subordinates and superiors. As one leader said, “Feedback is the breakfast of champions.”
Finally, develop a small group of people with whom you can be completely open and honest in sharing your joys, sorrows, fears and dreams. They will support you in challenging times and provide invaluable insights that enable you to grow as a human being and leader.
We call these small groups “True North Groups” because they help you stay on course.
Leadership is not exerting power over others or exhorting them to follow you. Rather, it results from your example of empowering others to step up and lead. Leaders do that by learning to lead themselves, becoming self-aware and behaving authentically.
I am very excited to share with you information about a new leadership course that I will be leading for executives on the HBS campus, along with Dean Nitin Nohria and a terrific faculty. Called “Authentic Leadership Development,” it compresses the popular 12-week MBA course I created in 2005 into five days. It will be held on February 12-18, 2011. Joining us on the faculty will be Professors Rob Kaplan, Joshua Margolis, and Scott Snook.
This course is aimed at rising executives who want to develop their leadership and are prepared to participate openly in discussing their leadership journeys, their crucibles, and the challenges they face. The course will draw on my book, True North, along with exercises drawn from Finding Your True North: A Personal Guide. We will focus on the leader’s inner journey and ways to improve your EQ and self-awareness in order to become a more effective leader. In addition to personal reflection exercises and class sessions, you will be part of a 6-person Leadership Development Group.
On August 13-14, 2010 Yongey Mingur Rinpoche and I co-led a two-day retreat in Minneapolis on the subject of “Mindful Leadership.” Over 400 people participated actively in the retreat. To our knowledge, this is the first time that a Buddhist Rinpoche and a leadership professor have joined forces to explore this subject and see how Eastern teaching can inform our Western thinking about leadership, and vice versa. Rinpoche led several guided meditations over the course of the two days, but this was strictly a secular event, not a Buddhist teaching.
The Mindful Leadership retreat enabled us to explore such complex subjects as the impact of mindfulness on leadership, new neurological research on the impact of meditation on the brain, understanding and framing your crucibles, the role of emotional intelligence and self-awareness in leadership effectiveness, gaining self-compassion, shared awareness through small group support, leading others mindfully, and self-actualization to contribute to a better world.
None of these subjects was easy, nor did we reach definitive conclusions. Our dialogue took the issues to a deeper level that engaged the participants and enabled each of us to gain a deeper understanding of ourselves.
Gaining awareness of oneself – our motivations, our destructive emotions, our crucibles, and our failings – is essential to being an effective leader. Based on my research into leaders, I have found the greatest cause of leadership failures is the lack of emotional intelligence and self-awareness on the part of leaders. I cannot name a single high-level leader who failed due to lack of IQ, but am aware of hundreds of leaders that have been unsuccessful due to their lack of emotional intelligence (EQ). The destruction of organizations caused by their shortcomings is staggering.
Mindfulness – the awareness of one’s mental processes and one’s mind works – offers leaders a path to address these issues in a non-judgmental, non-threatening way. Meditation is the secular process that enables us to develop mindfulness and to approach challenging issues in a calm, thoughtful manner.
Even more exciting are the research indications that meditation can enable us to reshape our brain (much more so that we can do for the IQ). One leading researcher at the seminar explained that measurable impacts have been found even after as short a period as eight weeks of meditating. Of course, people need to have consistent practices in order to sustain and strengthen the impact.
As Rinpoche said, we spend a great deal of time and effort in developing our bodies; shouldn’t we do the same for our minds? Just as we need sound habits for keeping our bodies in shape, we need regular practices to be mindful.
After working with Rinpoche and the Dalai Lama during the course of the past year, I have reached a preliminary conclusion that gaining mindfulness through meditation may be the most effective way to gain self-awareness and to develop self-compassion. Another important aspect is through group support that provides honest feedback, compassionate support, and deeper understanding of oneself. Having practiced meditation and having been part of a support group for thirty-five years, I have personally experienced the highly beneficial impact that they have had on my leadership effectiveness.
Having observed hundreds of leaders under pressure, I have no doubt that self-awareness and self-compassion are the essential aspects of effective leaders, especially when they are under stress and pressure. Leaders who develop and maintain these qualities are better able to lead others mindfully and to empower people to perform at a very high level. With a shared sense of purpose and common values, organizations can then take on very challenging goals and overcome great difficulties and achieve outstanding results on a sustainable basis.
Let’s look at some of the specifics of these two days and what can be learned from them:
Reflections on Day 1
The first day of sessions focused on developing self-awareness through leadership and though meditation. A key part of the Summit was devoted to learning from Rinpoche how to become mindful through meditation. After I outlined the plan for the summit, Rinpoche shared the story of how he first started meditating at nine years old. Suffering from panic attacks, Rinpoche turned to meditation as a method for facing his panic and calming his anxiety rather than letting them dominate his mind and his life.
Rinpoche noted that everyone has love and compassion within themselves, yet the hardest person we have to lead is ourselves. Through meditation we can become mindful in our leadership, especially when we are facing extreme challenges. He taught the group many different types of meditation: open awareness, breath, sound, object, and emotion.
Here are some of Rinpoche’s takeaways on meditation:
Mindfulness is like space, it is always there. But the monkey mind, the restless, confused part of our mind that is filled with random thoughts, often takes over our thinking. Give the monkey mind a job by focusing its restlessness to find greater clarity. Problems come to the surface during meditation, which is natural. The key is to use these problems, rather than surrendering to them.
Rinpoche suggested that we need to challenge our minds to bring those things that we don’t like about ourselves into our meditation. By owning them, they don’t own us.
Don’t force the mind to focus on one specific thing, but become mindful through awareness of our body and our surroundings.
Self-Awareness and Leadership
In the following session, I challenged the group to think about how they can gain self-awareness through understanding their life stories and their crucibles that will enable them to discover their authentic leadership and develop their emotional intelligence.
I also recommended Professor Paul Lawrence’s new book, Driven to Lead, which discusses how the mind can be remodeled for leadership. Lawrence has rediscovered Darwin’s theories that are not about the survival of the fittest, but development of the mind’s leadership qualities that can enable more effective decision-making. Developing a clear mind enables leaders to integrate the drivers of their minds – security, material acquisition, bonding with others, and the search for meaning – into an effective whole.
In the 21st century, leaders need to empower other people to lead rather controlling them through a hierarchy. Leader must learn to empower those around them to feel that they are a part of something special and to take on leadership challenges. Leadership no longer means getting people to follow us but rather about serving those around us.
Becoming a leader is not a straight line process; rather, it is a series of ups and downs. In those down periods it is your values, or your True North, that will enable you to successfully navigate the crisis.
We closed the first day with a joint session on destructive emotions. Rinpoche and I encouraged the group to face their fears and those things that were dragging them down. We need to recognize that the things we don’t like about ourselves – our negative qualities – are just as much a part of us as are our positive qualities. I shared part of a David Whyte CD where he read his poem, “One Day the Hero Sits Down,” as a way of illustrating the importance of recognizing those things about ourselves that we suppressed long ago.
Reflections on Day 2
Day one of the Summit prepared us for the work on self-compassion that came on day two. Rinpoche opened with a remarkably effective meditation on compassion. It was composed of four successive parts: compassion for someone you care about; compassion for yourself (which is much more difficult than compassion for others); compassion for those you don’t know; and, most difficult of all, compassion for someone you don’t like or respect.
In my following session, I examined how to gain self-awareness, how to develop compassion for yourself, and the role of shared awareness through group support. We also talked about how support groups work, noting there are five keys to a successful support group: 1) openness, 2) trust, 3) confidentiality, 4) honest feedback, and 5) candor. The group then divided into six-person groups to practice the technique.
I have shared some slides from my discussion on developing a support group. I encourage you to think through how you can develop a group among your peers that you can turn to in times of crisis.
Leading Others Mindfully and Self-Actualization: Toward a Better World
In the final afternoon, Rinpoche and I had two dialogues on “leading others mindfully” and “how self-actualization can lead to a better world.” The mindful leadership dialogue focused on how to empower others, and how to give them honest feedback and compassion through effective leadership. In the final dialogue we talked about how we can create greater compassion for the world around us and that through compassion gain greater wisdom.
I was moved by the turnout this past weekend, not just the numbers but the depth to which people actively engaged in these complex topics and dealt with them on a personal level, not strictly an intellectual plane. For all of them, our hope is that this seminar will result in an acceleration of their journeys to authentic leadership.