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Bill George

Harvard Business School Professor, former Medtronic CEO

The BB&T Leadership Series: Bill George Discover Your True North Part 1

he BB&T Leadership Series, a video series with CEO Kelly King presented by The BB&T Leadership Institute, was created to support our commitment to leadership development. The series shares insights on leadership topics from some of today’s best and brightest thought leaders. We hope you find these interviews and the perspectives they share inspiring and motivating as we strive to personally be our best every day.

The well-known author, Harvard professor and former CEO discusses why we need courageous and “authentic” leaders at all levels of an organization.

KELLY KING: Welcome to the BB&T Leadership Series. Bill, welcome.

BILL GEORGE: Thank you, Kelly.

KELLY KING: We’re delighted that you would join us. And I think you already know from what you know about Bill and what Will just said in the shortened biography. But Bill is an outstanding leader, and is an outstanding teacher and writer of leadership principles and concepts. And so we’re really honored to have you join us today.

BILL GEORGE: Thank you.

KELLY KING: And thank you so much for sharing your knowledge and experience with us. So let’s start right out with this True North idea. You wrote the first book, I think, in 2007, which was immediately a bestseller, True North. And now you’ve updated it. For the audience that have not read the updated version, it’s awesome, Discover Your True North.

Along the way, you’ve interviewed some 101 or so outstanding leaders around the world. And so I’m sure our audience, live and viewing the video, will love to learn more about that as we go through our discussions. But let’s center everybody on in your mind when you say true north, what does that mean?

BILL GEORGE: Your true north, Kelly, is who you are. It’s your essence. What are the things that you hold most dear? Your beliefs, the principles you live your life by, and the values you hold, that’s your essence. And I think understanding what are your greatest source of satisfaction, where do you find real joy in your life and fulfillment– and I think a lot of people are not speaking their like doing that. But if you are, then you can not only be very successful as a leader and you can inspire other people, but you can have a great life.

KELLY KING: You know, a lot of times I’ve found for myself and for others, they learn about these things by reading and going to seminars. But sometimes they learn about these things in their own life experiences. Was this something along the way that called Bill George to focus in on the true north?

BILL GEORGE: Part of it was failure. As a boy, my father wanted me to make up for his shortcomings and become the leader he never became. And so I thought I was going to be some kind of leader. And in high school I was never chosen to lead anything.

I was a good enough tennis player to play college tennis, but I wasn’t even co-captain of my high school tennis team. And I remember running for president of senior class and losing by a margin of two to one. And so I went off to Georgia Tech, in part because I wanted to find a whole new environment a long way away from where I’d lived. And I did everything the wrong way all over again.

And some seniors pulled me aside said, look Bill, no one’s ever going to work with you much less be led by you because you’re moving so fast to get ahead that you don’t have time for other people. And that was like, a blow to the heart because they were right. And so I had to really rethink my whole life back as a 19-year-old, and think about what was really important to me.

And that’s what I said, you know, I really want to help people to better their lives, and I want to make a contribution. You only get one opportunity to walk on this earth, and I want to use it to help other people. And I think if I could have lucky enough to be in a leadership role, I can help more people.

KELLY KING: That’s very interesting. We’re here at the BB&T Leadership Institute. And our core executive leadership program is called Managing Leadership Dynamics. And so in the chorus part of the exercise was you would be there with your team, who was our executive team, and you’d stand up in front of the room, and you would have a little dial in front of you with lights that could either be red or green.

And the audience would have a little toggle that they could either flip red or green. So you ask questions. And, of course, they could just toggle red or green, so they told the complete truth. And so I–

BILL GEORGE: Are we doing that here?

[LAUGHTER]

KELLY KING: This is not exactly that high pressure. But anyway, so I was getting all green lights, and I was feeling pretty good. You know, I’d been in banking about 10 years and moving up, and things looked good. But they made you ask one question. And the question was, would you feel comfortable screwing up around me.

I got all red lights, all red lights. It knocked me to my knees. It was the first time in my career I had gotten negative feedback.

BILL GEORGE: Wow.

KELLY KING: And so, make a long story short, I talked to some of my colleagues and I told them the truth. I said, I got all red lights, which you didn’t have to disclose. But I didn’t like that it made me feel horrible, that I was intimidating people, just like you had hit me in the gut. And I started a journey of changing the way I presented. Because I was climbing the ladder as fast as I could and wasn’t caring about anybody else. And it made me very sad. And I think all of us getting to that reality deep down inside of what we really want to do with our lives is really important.

BILL GEORGE: I think that’s key, is we only go around once in life. So what is it we want to do with our life? And how can we be on this earth and help other people?

KELLY KING: That brings me to one of my five great books, which is Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl.

BILL GEORGE: Yes. Yeah.

KELLY KING: And I’m sure–

BILL GEORGE: Amazing.

KELLY KING: –most everybody knows. But one of the great quotes in there for me was, if you know your why you can endure any how. So how close is Viktor Frankl’s why and Bill George’s sense of true north?

BILL GEORGE: Very close. I think the why gets to why are we on earth, what are we doing here, and then what’s our purpose. What’s the purpose of our life? And what’s the purpose of our leadership? And a lot of people wait a long time in life– I think you do learn that the experience, though.

I mean Frankl learned it through very painful experiences. But I think we learned it through your sharing experience. I share experience. We learn through experience. We don’t learn out of a book. We don’t learn in the classroom. But an environment like this can kind of open us up to sharing those experiences.

And I can find out, oh, you went through some tough times, too. We all hit difficult times. And I think it’s that honesty– we connect at the heart, we don’t connect at the head.

KELLY KING: Right.

BILL GEORGE: And that’s why we really connect as human beings.

KELLY KING: Yeah. You said in your book something that’s pretty intriguing, and I think really true, that the hardest person you’ll ever have to lead is yourself. Tell us about that.

BILL GEORGE: Well, I’ve just experience that we get too high on ourselves and we get too sold on ourselves. And we don’t really understand how we’re impacting other people. And because we have these fears– fears of failure, fears of rejection– we tend to go off and lose sight of what we’re trying to do.

And we set ourselves above people. And leaders that do that are not going to be successful. Leadership is really changing from the kind of dominant, hierarchical leader to the person that really understands people at a deeper level.

And that’s how you inspire and empower people. Me, leadership is no longer about having power or people. It’s really about empowering them to step up and lead. And so I think that’s how we enable everyone to find out what their true north is, and what’s their why. Then we can figure out the how.

KELLY KING: And you talked a lot about this same concept in Authentic Leadership.

BILL GEORGE: Right.

KELLY KING: And so for our younger leaders out there that are listening in the audience and in the video, what would you say to a young leader that’s maybe struggling about how to get in touch with their authentic self?

BILL GEORGE: Yes. Well, I think it’s diving in and having the experience. I found in my classroom the best leaders are returning military veterans because they put their life on the line. It’s not just about money. They put their life on the line and they realize what it’s all about. And you realize you have to trust your colleagues.

Those who were second lieutenants in the army learned they had to trust their master sergeant that had their life in their hands. And so I would say young leaders, get the experience. And frankly I believe an experience on the ground.

Get somewhere you’re really in touch with people. Don’t just go and be a consultant or an advisor. Actually have the experience and get beaten up a little bit, get knocked down a little bit.

You can think of any sport. Have you ever thought of you never lost a match? Well, then you really don’t know what life’s about. And you learn much more through the tough times than you do for the good times.

KELLY KING: Here at the Leadership Institute in that same program I mentioned, we have a central part of it that’s about self-awareness.

BILL GEORGE: Right.

KELLY KING: And it’s about two days out of the five days where you are immersed with a group of people and really getting in touch, becoming self-aware. And I think you said in your book that you’ll never really become a true leader until you become self-aware.

BILL GEORGE: No one’s going to stand up there and tell you they’re not self-aware. I can tell you lots of times I didn’t have self-awareness, as my wife gently points out to me. But we created this compass for True North, and self-awareness is at the core.

Because until you gain that self-awareness– but I think you gain self awareness through interacting with other people and understanding how do you come across to people, do you know who you are, and getting honest feedback. Far too few people get really honest feedback, particularly the people they work with every day. That’s why that’s critical, is taking in that feedback to know who you are.

KELLY KING: Well, that’s what I had done in those early first 10 years. Because I came from kind of an impoverished background, and I was determined to succeed, to get away from that background. But in the course what I did, which a lot of people do, is I developed this shell of the Kelly King that I wanted to be like, but it wasn’t me.

BILL GEORGE: Wasn’t you. Yup.

KELLY KING: And that can create some real problems for us, can’t it?

BILL GEORGE: Well, you are fortunate to have that experience early. I had it early. And I think some people don’t have it until late because they’ve been the hero, if you will. And they start to get a hero’s complex. And they start thinking they’re better, and then they get knocked down maybe too late then.

And I think having that self-awareness and not having to feel like I’ve got to go into the office and wear the mask, and I’ve got to pretend I’m the man or I’m the person– and no, just say, hey– it’s got to be real.

KELLY KING: And this has changed over time. You talked about 21st century leaders versus 20th century leaders. What’s your observation? Now you’ve talked a lot of these leaders and got their views all around the world. What did you discern in terms of the change in the century about leadership?

BILL GEORGE: Well, it’s changed dramatically from the idea that leadership is about charisma, it’s about your style, it’s about your image. I don’t think it’s about any of those things. I think it should be about your character or your integrity or what do you bring to the job. Who’s the real you?

And so if you’re kind of faking it to make it and putting on this image, you’re not going to reach anyone. Today, particularly the millennials, they know who’s authentic and who’s not in about 30 seconds, maybe less. And if you try to maintain that distance from people, then you don’t really get to them as human beings. You’re just giving them orders.

And that’s where leadership has really changed away from this command and control environment to much more an empowering environment. You’ve got huge numbers of people here. How do you empower them to be excited about coming to work every day? Are they excited about their job? Are they excited about helping the client you’re serving? They’re trying to give them better secure futures.

And [INAUDIBLE] isn’t a lifesaving business, but here you’re trying to provide trust and security. But if that’s not what it’s all about– I used to say some bankers, particularly investment bankers, if you’re just trying to make money off of me, you know, I’m not going to do business with you. If you make money for me, then I’m happy to see that you do well, as well, at the same time.

KELLY KING: I still remember when I was an undergraduate school in the late ’60s. Back then we taught– everybody was taught the five steps to management. Plan, organize, staff, direct, and control.

BILL GEORGE: Right.

KELLY KING: Which made sense at that time, but it didn’t make any sense.

BILL GEORGE: No.

KELLY KING: Because you can’t really direct and control people, can you?

BILL GEORGE: Well, I think we need a lot more leaders and fewer controllers, if you will. A manager should control. Frankly, a lot of the stuff we teach in business schools is, I hate to say it, but it’s very old fashioned, very irrelevant. We’re teaching people to control for a fixed environment.

You can’t predict. I mean, who would have predicted 2008? Who’s going to predict what’s going to happen the next 10 years? I think only a fool would do that. So you’ve got to be prepared to adapt. As a leader, you have to be flexible and you have to have a vision of where you’re going.

You have to be running a bank, you have to know that’s where we’re going. There’s our end point. You don’t want to ever lose sight of that. But it’s like you’re a sailor and you’re going to get buffeted in the winds. You’ve got to tack back and forth. And if have the flexibility as a leader, and you’ve got to get your team with you to step up and lead. Not just a few of you at the top, but throughout the organization.

KELLY KING: And for sure, if you don’t know where you’re going when the strong winds start blowing, you can really get blown around. Can’t you?

BILL GEORGE: That’s right. And we’ve seen that happen.

KELLY KING: Yeah, a lot. A lot. One person that didn’t get blown around a lot in his life that you talked to and wrote about was Nelson Mandela.

BILL GEORGE: Yes.

KELLY KING: You talked about his transformation from I to we. I bet that must have been really interesting conversation.

BILL GEORGE: Well, he’s an amazing human being. I would say of all the leaders I’ve met in the last 50 years, he would be the greatest leader. Amazing. I mean, how could you be in jail for 27 years for a crime you didn’t commit? He was in jail for political crime.

But an amazing person, because you would’ve thought he would have come out of there literally to kill or go after all the people that put him in jail, and the apartheid system. Instead, obviously he wanted to get rid of apartheid. But he said, no, we have to have one South African. I’m not here to represent black South Africa, white South Africa.

He said this the night he came out of prison. He said, I want to represent all of South Africa and make it– to me he was a very soulful leader with a great vision. But he realized it was all about the we of South Africa, not me as the powerful new president of South Africa that’s taking over power.

And that’s the difference. Frankly, I wish we saw the kind of leadership you and I are talking about in the political world. Everyone asks me that, but we don’t see that today. But in the business world, we do. It’s moving this way.

KELLY KING: Now, you know, it’s interesting in our country. We’ve had some real experiences of being I versus we with segregation and different– over the course of our long, really good history. But we’ve hopefully learned some important lessons about how we all can do better for the world if we work together and respect each other. And I think that’s what Nelson Mandela saw early on. He could have a much greater South Africa if everybody wins.

BILL GEORGE: Sure. You love sports, I love sports. It’s all about the team.

KELLY KING: Right.

BILL GEORGE: And if I think I’m the one that’s got to score the goal, throw the winning pass or get the winning basket, it’s not going to work. We have to play together as a team. And whoever’s got the greatest opportunity– and I think that’s the big difference from the kind of dictatorial leader to the team-based leader that’s more of a coach today than is a dictator, and really is willing to coach people.

And I think the leadership essence is how do you get people inspired and empowered to. Give you their best. And sure, there are times you take people aside and said, look, you’re not bringing your best game here today. You can do a lot better.

But that’s actually an empowering message. It’s critical, but it’s empowering, that kind of feedback. So how do we have a whole organization of empowered people? I’ll guarantee if you have an organization of empowered people you’ll defeat the tops down hierarchical organization every time.

KELLY KING: Let’s talk about a different version of team that a lot of people don’t focus on that you spent some time in your book talking about. And that’s our team at home. You talked about how sometimes leaders are 100% focused on the company, on the business side of life and they’re not very integrated, they’re not very balanced. And as a result, they’re not as effective as they could be. Did most of the leaders you talked to really get they need to be integrated and balanced in life?

BILL GEORGE: I think they’re getting it. I think I’ve heard a lot of young people in my classrooms at Harvard talking about I work 100 hours a week. You can’t work 100 hours. First of all, you’re not going to be effective. Then they have something called face time.

I’ve got to be there just in case the partner or the senior person comes in at 10 o’clock at night. I mean, I think it’s a ridiculous notion. It should all be about– I think we need an integrated life. But an integrated life to me is there is no such thing as perfect balance. There are times you are going to work really long hours.

There are times like when my wife was going through breast cancer and I was taking her to chemotherapy, I had to cut back and ask other people to take over. But I think it’s having the integrity to be the same person in every setting. In your work life, in your home life, can you be that same person?

I remember someone said to me there’s no way I’d have the same kind of affect at home I have in the workplace. Well, why not? Can’t you be the same person when you’re in the community? Can you be real? And that’s what, to me, is being authentic.

But then it’s having a full life. And I think you’d be a better leader if you have a full life. If you have a home life, a good home life, you’re engaged in your community– one thing about the community is you get to see the lives of people that are not as benefited or socially advantaged, as economically advantaged as we are.

And I think it’s important to get out there and be with the real people. And whether you’re in a branch bank or whether you’re in a Starbucks store or whether you’re out in the factory or in a medical center, being with the people where the action is taking place.