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Bill George

Harvard Business School Professor, former Medtronic CEO

Category: True North

How Did Landon Donovan Become America’s First World-Class Soccer Player?

As the minutes ticked away in the U.S.’ decisive World Cup match against Algeria, U.S. superstar Landon Donovan was determined not to permit a repeat of the U.S. 2006 World Cup disaster, when the Americans went home without a single victory.  As his teammates felt their 2010 dreams slipping away, Donovan knew the soccer hopes of the nation rested on his shoulder. This time he could not fail.

As the U.S. saw chance after chance denied by the tenacious Algerian defenders and a lone goal disallowed on a missed call by the referee, even the neutral announcers declared the U.S. deserved to win. This time around an older and wiser Landon Donovan knew deserving success and achieving it are two different things.

Taking an outlet pass from his keeper, he raced down the hundred meter field, looking more like a track star than the crafty midfielder he is, and played the ball forward to teammate Jozi Altidore. When the Algerian keeper pushed away yet another shot, Donovan didn’t hold back. Moving forward toward the goal, he pounced on the loose ball and drove into the back of the net. Pandemonium erupted in the stadium and throughout the U.S. as the entire team piled on top of Donovan’s prostrate body.

When the game ended two minutes later, Donovan buried his head in tears. All he could say to the announcer was “We worked so hard the last four years, we couldn’t let this opportunity slip away.”

What enabled Landon Donovan to rise to this leadership moment? The answers can be found in the disappointments he has suffered from the 2006 letdown, to disappointments playing in Germany and a failed marriage in 2009.

Since he was a teenager, soccer watchers have seen Donovan’s potential to become America’s first world-class soccer player and fulfill the dreams of American soccer lovers. After a solid debut as a 20-year-old on the 2002 U.S. World Cup team that reached the quarter-finals, Donovan was expected to lead the Americans to even greater success in 2006.

It never happened. More than any sporting event in the world, the World Cup is an intense national competition that requires both mental and physical toughness. In 2006, Donovan hadn’t learned what that required. Nor was he prepared to step up to the leadership role expected by his teammates and his country. 

Needing a win against Ghana to advance to the Round of 16, the U.S. instead lost the match and was eliminated.  Donovan and his teammates earned only a single point in three games.  Donovan himself had a rough ride, as he went scoreless and was criticized by U.S. fans for a soft, directionless performance.   

Things didn’t get any easier for Donovan after the Cup.  He endured difficult stints playing professional soccer in Germany where he only occasionally saw time on the pitch.  He endured a difficult breakup with his wife and additional professional strife when news broke of a rift with world-renowned David Beckham, Donovan’s L.A. Galaxy teammate.

But Donovan did more than just “play through” the tough times.  He dug deep into the root cause of his problems, and used his self-exploration to grow as a player, a person, and a leader.  He even took up meditation to become more introspective.

Donovan told that his recent struggles made him realize that all-important leadership lesson: the buck stops with him.  “I am in control of what I do,” Donovan said, “and before, I thought different things determined how I would play or how I would respond or how I would act on the field.” 

That sort of take-charge leadership style has propelled Donovan to new heights.  He received the MLS MVP award in 2009 and won the championship with the Galaxy.  On the world stage last week, as the U.S. stared at a 2-0 deficit at halftime against Slovenia, Donovan’s new calm and resolve showed through. In the third minute of the second half, he ignited a U.S. rally with a perfectly slotted ball from an impossible angle. When the U.S.’ winning goal was called by another erroneous call, he shrugged it off, saying, “We will focus on what we can control.”

Landon Donovan has learned from the searing pain of his personal crucibles. Rather than deny his disappointments, instead he used them to become a more mature leader, ready for the burdens of leadership placed on his shoulders by his teammates and his country. As the pressure mounted, he played through fatigue and disappointment and somehow kept going at a tireless rate.

When the opportunity presented itself, he didn’t flinch or choke. As he said, “in that instant, time just stopped,” no doubt as he recognized the chance to overcome the pain of the past and achieve his goal. Afterward he even thanked his ex-wife on national television for her help.

Was Donovan lucky? Not exactly, unless you believe (as I do) in Oprah Winfrey’s definition of luck as “preparation meeting opportunity.”

Now Donovan leads the U.S. team against Ghana on Saturday in the playoff round, with a chance to revenge the difficult 2006 loss. He is a battle-tested leader, who has learned to share the pressure, excitement, and joy of the World Cup with his teammates and now-loyal fans.  As the Italian and French superstars head for home, Landon Donovan has learned from his crucible and is ready to lead with confidence. 

Engaging the Millennials

The Millennial generation — those offspring of the baby boomers — are not short on the “three D’s”: dedication, drive, and delivery.

Young adults today study harder and more often, engage in more community service, participate in greater numbers of extracurricular activities, and hold a more optimistic outlook on the future than any other generation in modern history.  Lauded by parents and pundits alike as beacons of youthful optimism that shine in uncertain economic times, these future leaders are eager for leadership opportunities and thirsty to impress.

Having grown up on Twitter and Facebook, today’s youth respect their communities and recognize the importance of staying engaged.  As the 2008 elections showed, Millennials proved they could walk the walk and flocked to the voting polls, many for the first time.  Moreover, Millennials appear to have a high moral compass.   Case in point: youth from around the nation responded to the earthquake disaster in Haiti with food drives led on Facebook, service trips, and fundraising efforts via email campaigns.  A number of my HBS students embarked on trips themselves to lend a hand in subsequent months, writing blogs and sharing their experience with others back home.

Millennials seem eager to stay in touch, any way they can, double-timing on iPads and Smartphones. They have grown up in a culture where the defining theme is “velocity,” both in terms of the rate of change and the pace of information.  Consumer and behavioral trends shift monthly, technology evolves constantly, and information flows with sometimes overwhelming abandon, saturating Millennials with 24/7 political newsfeeds and social networks. 

This hyper connectivity certainly has many useful purposes — workplace productivity, community engagement, and civic mindedness, among others.  But does it come at a price?

Despite their collective activity level and propensity for community engagement, this generation may be at risk of becoming too accustomed to constant exposure, of becoming too quick to say: “Got it – on to the next one.”  In charging ahead, are Millennials failing to take time to focus and reflect?  Are they so caught up in keeping up that they will ignore vital real-life lessons that are needed to gain the wisdom to stay pointed toward their True North?

Over the next decade, Millennials will be asked to step into important leadership roles and take part in helping to resolve the complex issues facing the U.S., and the globe.  As Timothy Egan notes in last week’s NY Times, they are the ones who will have to live with the consequences of actions taken today.  From foreign policy to the environment to international economic issues, Millennials will need to adopt a long-term sustainable view.  Who wants to create a startup, invent a new product, serve in politics, or generate a new business model 20 years if our society is selfish, partisan, and dysfunctional?

To develop the insights and the intuition required to address these daunting hurdles with experienced perspectives and informed temperaments, Millennials must commit to their long-term leadership development.  Such a commitment will prepare them for the more daunting challenges that will inevitably come their way.  Developing the qualities of emotional intelligence like self-awareness, introspection, empathy, and empowerment will determine their future success, but this requires the time and commitment to reflection and introspection.

Here are some of my ideas on how to develop these qualities:

  1. For my family and me the most important step we have taken is to meditate daily.  Back in 1975, my wife dragged me to a meditation retreat “kicking and screaming,” and I have meditated twenty minutes twice a day ever since. My sons – Jeff, a business executive with Novartis, and Jon, a head-and-neck surgeon – both meditate regularly.  Meditation has enabled me to find calm, creativity, and clarity, in spite of leading a high-stress life.
  2. A second approach is to take time for yourself to reflect.  There are many ways to do this – through prayer, journaling, jogging, yoga, or just sitting quietly.  The important thing here is to turn off all the instant communications and just be with yourself.
  3. A very different approach involves having a leadership development group (LDG) – six to eight people with whom you meet regularly.  Since 1975, I have been part of group of guys that meets weekly to discuss the important issues of life and to share our challenges and joys.  My wife and I are also part of a couples group that has met monthly since 1983.  These two groups have been a godsend in my life, providing support in difficult times, deeply honest feedback, and wisdom that have helped me in so many ways.
  4. A fourth idea is to get involved in service to your community, being engaged with diverse groups of people whose life experiences are entirely different from your own.  Community service, especially in leading volunteers, is an excellent way to develop skills like empowering others to lead.  You learn a great deal about yourself through helping others and understanding their perspectives about life. Service opens you up to developing compassion and empathy for others, especially those less fortunate that you. 

It is important to build habits and practices like these into your daily life at a relatively young age. You may be surprised at how you stick with them for decades.  At first, you may feel like you don’t have time for them.  That was my reaction, but now I realize that these practices make me much more efficient in using my time, more compassionate in dealing with other people, and ultimately more effective in leadership roles.  Most important of all, I feel better about myself and my life.

What’s not to like about that?  It’s the best way I know to stay on the course of your True North.

The New Leaders: Collaborative, Not Commanding

Originally posted in the Wall Street Journal on March 19, 2010

A revolution is reshaping America’s best-led companies. Authentic leaders focused on customers are replacing the old guard of hierarchical leaders who concentrated on serving short-term shareholders. The old “command-and-control” style is being replaced with an empowering, collaborative style.

During the last half of the 20th century, business leadership became an elite profession, dominated by leaders who ruled their enterprises top down. Influenced by two World Wars and the Depression, organizational hierarchies were structured like military models.

Their leaders used multi-layered structures to establish control through rules and processes. People climbed hierarchies in search of power, status, money and perquisites. As stock holding periods dropped from eight years to six months, hierarchical leaders focused on generating short-term results, often to the exclusion of long- term growth.

In the past decade it all blew up, from the ethical scandals exposed by Enron and WorldCom to the Wall Street meltdown. As a result, people lost trust in business leaders to build sustainable institutions instead of serving themselves and short-term shareholders.

In my 1960s class at Harvard Business School our professor cited the Department of Defense and Catholic Church as the most iconic organizations. Business followed their lead, as General Electric, General Motors, AT&T and Sears became their role models.

By century’s end, the latter three were in long-term decline, while GE was revolutionized by Jack Welch. Hundreds of other organizations like KodakMotorola and Westinghouse followed similar patterns of self-destruction. The hierarchical model simply wasn’t working.

In retrospect, it seems obvious people weren’t responding to “top down” leadership. Why not?

  • The craftsman-apprentice model has been replaced by learning organizations, filled with workers with greater knowledge than their bosses.
  • Young people are unwilling to spend ten years waiting for their chance to lead; instead, they want opportunities now, or they move on.
  • People are looking for more than money, as few are willing to spend their lives in unfulfilling jobs, just for the compensation. Rather, they seek genuine satisfaction and meaning from their work.

To lead in this new century, we need authentic leaders who align people around mission and values, empower leaders at all levels, focus on serving customers, and collaborate throughout the organization, in order to achieve superior performance.

Aligning: The leader’s most difficult task is to align people around the organization’s mission and shared values. Gaining alignment takes regular engagement with employees at all levels. It is especially difficult in far-flung global organizations where local employees may be more loyal to native cultures than their employers, especially regarding business practices and customer relationships.

Global organizations thought they could solve this problem with rulebooks, training programs and compliance systems, and were shocked when people deviated. Aligned employees committed to the mission and values, and want to be part of something greater than themselves, form an enduring organization that is resilient through crises.

Empowering: Hierarchical leaders exert power over others and delegate limited amounts. These days that isn’t leadership at all. Authentic leaders recognize they need leaders at all levels, especially on the front lines, where people must lead effectively without direct reports.

The leader’s job is to empower people at all levels to step up and lead. Empowered leaders need sophisticated accountability systems with closed-loop management to ensure commitments are met.

Serving: Leaders’ first obligation is not to their shareholders, but rather to their customers. Any organization that does not provide its customers with superior value relative to competitors will find itself going out of business. Employees are much more motivated to provide customers with superior products and services than to increase stock prices.

Collaborating: The challenging problems businesses face these days are too complex to be solved by individuals or single organizations. Collaboration—within the organization and with customers, suppliers, and even competitors—is required to achieve lasting solutions. Leaders must foster this collaborative spirit by eliminating internal politics and parochialism and focusing on cooperation internally to be competitive externally.

The ultimate measure of 21st century leaders is superior results. In today’s business world, organizations filled with aligned, empowered and collaborative employees focused on serving customers will outperform a hierarchical organization every time. Top-down leaders may achieve near-term results, but only authentic leaders can galvanize the entire organization to sustain long-term performance.

Examples abound of organizations – Procter & GambleIBMNovartis, Cisco, Genentech, IntelGeneral MillsPepsiCo and Avon Products, to name a few – demonstrating that 21st century leadership creates lasting shareholder value. Authentic leaders like IBM’s Sam Palmisano, Cisco’s John Chambers, PepsiCo’s Indra Nooyi, General Mills’ Ken Powell and Avon’s Andrea Jungare the new role models for modern corporations.

We need them to rebuild the trust that has been lost and to validate that capitalism is still the best economic system.

Filling the Shoes of Your Predecessor

Question: Are you prepared to step up to fill your predecessor´s big shoes? When you get that opportunity, how will you stay focused on your True North and not get pulled off course by the pressures and seductions?

Answer: Stay grounded and never lose sight of your roots.

Recently, we have seen an ongoing succession of leaders self-destruct because they lost control over their egos – the latest being New York Governor Eliot Spitzer. These leaders think they are the institution, and they are the sole reason for their organization´s success.

In contrast, authentic leaders know who they are and where they come from. They don´t get caught up in their egos, nor do they think leadership is having legions of followers. They recognize their job is to unite their troops around a common vision and values and empower them to step up and lead.

Goldman Sachs CEO Lloyd Blankfein stepped into enormous shoes when Henry Paulson became Treasury Secretary. Serving on the Goldman board, I watched as Blankfein deftly took over the reins without missing a beat. In two years he has put his distinctive stamp on the firm, expanding its footprint around the globe and developing quality relationships with everyone from government leaders around the world to inside Wall Street players.

Son of a postal worker, Blankfein stays grounded by constantly worrying that Goldman´s enormous success today could lead to big problems tomorrow. That´s how he sensed early signs of the sub-prime crisis and shifted his firm away from its perils just as his competitors were expanding their risks.

General Electric CEO Jeff Immelt faced a similar challenge in succeeding “CEO of the Century” Jack Welch. Immelt says, “I had one good day as CEO – September 10, 2001 – before the roof caved in.” The attacks of September 11 impacted a number of GE´s businesses, yet Immelt was undaunted. Recalling earlier challenges in his career, Immelt said, “At times like these, you´ve got to be able to draw from within. Leadership is one of these great journeys into your own soul.” Immelt focused on making GE more innovative and more customer-focused and launched Ecomagination to unite GE´s energy-related businesses.

IBM CEO Sam Palmisano replaced an iconic leader in Louis Gerstner, who saved IBM in the 1990s. The down-to-earth Palmisano didn´t try to emulate Gerstner, but decided just to be himself. He transformed IBM into an “integrated global network,” focusing the company´s best talents on solving difficult customer problems. To unify his employees around this new vision, Palmisano engaged all 350,000 employees in an on-line “values jam” to create core values – dedication to customer success, innovation and trust. Palmisano´s efforts are paying off as IBM´s revenues and earnings are growing and its stock price soaring.

Target´s new CEO, Greg Steinhafel, is also taking over from an enormously successful predecessor. Target became the first retailer to compete toe-to-toe with Wal-Mart, making discount “cool” and the Target bulls-eye ubiquitous. Asked how his leadership differs from his predecessor´s, Steinhafel replied modestly, “This isn´t about me. It´s all about the brand.”

Xerox CEO Anne Mulcahy stepped into very different circumstances when her predecessor was forced out as the company facing possible bankruptcy. With Xerox´ organization imploding, Mulcahy rallied her troops around “restoring Xerox to a great company.” As she endured incredible pressure from bankers, shareholders, and the SEC, former CEO David Kearns asked her, “Do you believe those lies about you in the media?” “No, David,” she replied calmly. “Good,” he said. “Then don´t believe it either when they call you the savior of Xerox.” In spite of Xerox´ remarkable recovery, Mulcahy has never lost her humility.

In our research for True North, authentic leaders described the things they do to stay grounded:

1. Stay humble, and don´t get caught up in the perquisites of your office. The best thing we did at Medtronic was to eliminate all officer perquisites back in 1993.

2. Don´t lose sight of your roots, and remember your life´s most difficult times. We learn a lot more from our failures than our successes. Starbucks´ founder Howard Schultz still visits Bayview Housing Projects to show his daughter where he grew up in Brooklyn.

3. Build your support team, starting with your spouse. Throughout my career my wife Penny has been invaluable as a counselor and supporter. So has my men´s group that has met weekly for more than thirty years.

4. Don´t lose sight of your intrinsic motivations. Money, fame, and power will never bring you the satisfaction that making a difference in the world does.

5. Lead an integrated life: be the same person at home, at work and in your community. As Jet Blue founder David Neeleman said when he stepped aside as CEO, “Never lose sight that your family is what´s most important.”

6. Remember: leadership isn´t about you. As GE´s Jaime Irick says, “You´ve got to understand leadership is about serving the folks on your team.”

Bill´s bottom line: staying grounded is the best way to keep focused on your True North.

March 15, Launch of True North

This is a day that I have been waiting for the last two years, as today marks the launch of my new book, True North. I am finally back in Minneapolis after a week with our family in the Galapagos and then teaching a dozen classes at HBS and Elon University this week.

This noon I will be giving an address on “Leadership in the 21st Century” at the Westminster Town Hall Forum in Minneapolis, which will be broadcast on public radio. (A copy of my talk is available here you would like to read it.) Wednesday night we will host a panel discussion at the Minneapolis Public Library with eight of our interviewees on how their life stories and their crucibles have shaped their leadership.

Yesterday I taped the NOW Show with David Brancaccio that will air on public television across the country on Friday evening, around 8pm EDT. David´s interview got into everything from executive compensation to changes in Sarbanes Oxley, the future of capitalism, and the challenge of choosing the right leaders to run companies.

You might also be interested in this week´s Fortune “Most Admired Companies” issue (March 19, 2007) that includes long excerpts from True North on the leaders of its featured companies: Howard Schultz of Starbucks, Kevin Sharer of Amgen, Anne Mulcahy of Xerox, and John Donahoe of E-Bay.

Now that the book is on the market, I would love to get your feedback on its themes and ideas, and especially the ways in which they apply to you and your life.

And please encourage your friends and colleagues to pick up a copy of True North.



(For copies of my other Bill George speeches, click here: True North and Authentic Leadership Speeches)

True North and Valentine’s Day

It is just four weeks and a day until the official launch of True North, and the excitement of our team as well as my own excitement about the launch is growing rapidly.

(For those of you who would like the first copies off the press, I suggest you pre-order True North at a handsome discount from or We guarantee that you will have your copy prior to the March 15 launch date.)

Why did I write True North (with wonderful help from Peter Sims)?

After I wrote Authentic Leadership, many leaders asked me, “How can I become an authentic leader?” Admittedly, I never answered that question, as one critical reviewer pointed out. Jim Collins, in his best-selling Harvard Business Review article on Good to Great rhetorically asks a similar question, “How can you become a Level 5 leader? The answer is, we do not know.”

Over one thousand studies done in the last fifty years have failed to produce verifiable answers to that question. My colleagues at Harvard Business School encouraged me to find out the key characteristics, skills, competencies, and styles of authentic leaders that made them so successful.

With the assistance of my colleagues Diana Mayer and Peter Sims, I set out to find out. In the space of just six months we interviewed 125 authentic leaders from business and non-profit organizations, ranging in age from 23 to 93, about how they developed as leaders. These in-person interviews lasted an average of seventy-five minutes, resulting in 3,000 pages of transcripts. All in all, it represents the largest, in-depth study ever conducted on how leaders develop.

The results were striking. These 125 leaders did not identify any characteristics or competencies that made them successful. Instead, they talked about their life stories and the people and the transformative events (which we call “crucibles”) that enabled them to find their passions and the purpose of their leadership and to lead authentically. They shared their motivations, the ways their values were tested, and the many things they did to sustain their leadership, in spite of the pressures and seductions they faced in their leadership roles.

Most importantly, they talked about their “True North,” which many described as their inner compasses that enabled them to stay true to who they are and to their deepest beliefs when faced with the enormous pressures and seductions they faced in their leadership roles. That´s why we decided to title the book, True North, and to use the metaphor as a compass to guide you on your leadership path.

In True North we share well over one hundred stories told to us by these authentic leaders – some short and some quite extensive – that capture the essence of how you can discover your authentic leadership. And we include a series of exercises that I have used in my course at HBS, “Authentic Leadership Development,” to give you the tools to guide you on your way.

A warning: there are no quick fixes here, no easy answers. (If you want easy answers, pick up a book of fables at the airport the next time you are taking a flight. By the time you arrive, you will feel a lot better, but you won´t know any more about how to become an authentic leader.)

Becoming an authentic leader takes a lot of work on your part because ultimately you are responsible for developing yourself as a leader. Mentors, courses, and books like True North can serve as a guide, but there is no way to get there other than taking responsibility for developing yourself. But doing so is a heck of a lot more rewarding.

I hope you will go on-line and pre-order True North, and then send me your reactions and your stories to this website. I will take the best of them and use them in the many speeches and media appearances coming up as a way of illustrating your True North – without violating your confidentiality.

Good reading!

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.”