For any leader at any level in any organization, clarity of purpose is a critical ingredient of success. In other words, you must know where you’re headed and why you’re headed there.
A compass provides the ideal metaphor. Just as a compass points toward a magnetic field, your personal “true north” directs your path and pulls you forward.
That’s the thesis of Discover Your True North North by Bill George.
George is so much more than a mere theorist. He’s been in the trenches and understands the nuances of leadership practices. He started his career in the U.S. Department of Defense, then served in senior executive positions at Honeywell and Litton Industries. George was later president and chairman at Medtronic, one of the world’s largest medical equipment and development companies. He’s served on boards at ExxonMobile, Novartis, Target, and the Mayo Clinic. Today he teaches leadership at the Harvard Business School.
Rodger Dean Duncan: You write about “authentic” leadership. What is it in our society that seems to cause people to equate “celebrity” with authenticity?
Bill George: The media. The media play up celebrity in so many ways. Many of the media people themselves are turned into celebrities. Politicians attempt to be celebrities. The problem is that they’re more concerned about the external impressions they make than who they are inside. This is a very serious problem for leaders. In the 1990s the media got caught up with business celebrities and tried to turn a lot of business leaders into celebrities and—judging by all the financial crises we had—many of them did not do well. It’s more important to look at the person within and assess their leadership qualities based on who they are as individuals as they move into leadership roles.
Duncan: I suspect that phenomenon affects people’s investment decisions, and that can be dangerous.
George: Yes, particularly regarding mergers and acquisitions. Unfortunately, many people get drawn into doing acquisitions because of external pressures. They want to make a big hit or a big splash or a big impression.
Duncan: Doing what’s possibly a good thing but for the wrong reasons.
George: Exactly. And you do get a lot of media attention when you do a big acquisition. Unfortunately, when some leaders can’t grow their businesses organically they start to look for ways to make a big splash with acquisitions.
Duncan: And we’ve all seen the statistics that show most acquisitions fail to measure up to the performance promised in the initial hype.
George: Yes. They spent more time worrying about the price and projecting cost savings than they did in considering how the two cultures integrate and who will hold the leadership roles in the new organization.
Duncan: What are some of the more common things that influence people to lose their way—to lose sight of their True North?
George: It’s when they get caught up with extrinsic motivations. The three great seducers are money, fame, and power.
We saw this in the case of Rajat Gupta. He was an exceptional leader but made some big mistakes and went to jail for two years for insider trading. He got caught up in trying to go from being worth $120 million to a billion. He’s a good person. But this happens. And people get caught up in their status. Power-based leadership is almost like a drug and people can get addicted to it. Power is not the role of a leader. The leader’s true role is to empower others.
Duncan: You say the dimensions of an authentic leader include Purpose, Values, Relationships, Self-Discipline, and Heart. Relationships certainly evolve over time, and a person’s self-discipline is like to improve with maturity. What about Purpose, Values, and Heart? How do those dimensions evolve?
George: I think your purpose evolves from life experience. I think it’s very hard as a young person to go out and test yourself against the challenges of the real world and to know what your purpose is. I used to think that was first, but then I realized people really need to do a lot of inner work and understand their True North before they can ascertain their purpose. They must understand their life stories and the crucibles they’ve had. Clarity of purpose often emanates from those experiences.
Duncan: It seems to me that some pretty solid values must be in place before an individual can even try to clarify his True North.
George: That’s for sure. Your True North is based in the bedrock of your values. There’s no question about that. You must be grounded in the values that come out of your life story, your upbringing, what you believe, and how you relate to other people. Your values must be established early.
Duncan: In the world of business and public life, who are some of today’s leaders you regard as demonstrating authenticity? Specifically, what do you see in them that’s worth emulating?
George: I would cite someone like Paul Polman, CEO of Unilever. He’s been an exceptionally strong advocate for long-term value created through a multi-stakeholder model. He also advocates the role of sustainability in our products, in our environment, in our lives and in everything we do. He really stands out as a true authentic leader.
Another is Indra Nooyi at PepsiCo. When she took over as CEO in 2006 she immediately established the company’s goal as being performance with purpose. She’s working to shift the company’s portfolio to more healthful foods and beverages.
Duncan: You write about the transformation from “I” to “We” as being the most important process leaders go through in becoming authentic. What does that transformation look like in observable behaviors?
George: Almost everything we do as young people is based on individual performance—whether it’s grades in school, how we do on tests, etc. Then we go to work and we get judged on individual performance. It’s important that we learn to look beyond that.
Leadership is really about how we empower others, how we inspire them to perform at the top level. So we must make that journey from “I” to “We.” We must learn that people are not there to serve us. We are there to serve them. This shifts us from top-down leadership to collaborative leadership.
In the “I” model we try to get more power and position. In the “We” model we work to serve others. The “We” model is clearly more effective. With the “We” model, your leadership goes from directing other people to coaching and mentoring other people.
Duncan: What role does self-awareness play in all this?
George: Many leaders don’t have much self-awareness, and self-awareness is the core of authenticity—of knowing who you are and of knowing your True North. Clarity on your True North requires humility and learning from the crucibles you faced earlier in life. Self-awareness is the key to everything. It definitely can be developed, and leaders need to work on it through honest introspection and receiving honest feedback.
Duncan: As my grandfather said, “Never turn down a breath mint. Feedback is a gift.”
George: That’s certainly true, but some people don’t want feedback. And if you don’t want it you won’t get it. You can remain clueless and just do your own thing.
Duncan: What are some good ways for a person to identify and confront his or her blind spots?
George: Honest feedback, especially 360 feedback. Feedback from your boss can certainly be helpful, but feedback from your subordinates and peers can be especially valuable. They see you every day. They see the good, the bad, and the ugly. It’s important that you really listen to people trying to give you honest feedback. I’m a big believer in processes that provide written feedback on things that people may not wish to tell you in person.
Duncan: What kind of support team is most helpful to leaders who genuinely want to be authentic in their behavior?
George: Having a support team is supremely important. Having at least one person in your life with whom you can be totally open and honest and who will reciprocate is enormously helpful. For me, that’s my wife. It’s important to have someone who will pull you back down to earth if you’re getting too high on yourself and who can provide encouragement if you get too down on yourself.
In addition to that, having good mentors is very helpful—people who will give you honest feedback we talked about earlier.
And third, it’s important to have a small group of people with whom you honestly share back and forth. I have a men’s group that has met every Wednesday morning for the past 42 years. There are eights guys in there. We also have a couples group that meets monthly on Sunday night. That kind of interaction is very essential to me.
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