You Want to Lead Best? Follow Your True North
A wise man once advised living life by a compass, not a clock.
In today’s option-packed world, that counsel is more pertinent than ever.
Look around you. Many people—“busy” though they are—seem to amble through their days in a directionless cadence, leaving the footprints of their lives meandering down a road that’s meandering itself.
There’s a better way to live life and do work, and Bill George provides the ideal guidance.
Who’s Bill George? He’s former chair and CEO of Medtronic, the world’s leading medical technology company. Under his leadership, the company’s market capitalization grew from $1.1 billion to $60 billion. Earlier in his career he was an executive with Honeywell and Litton Industries and served in the U.S. Department of Defense. He’s been a director of Goldman Sachs, ExxonMobil, Novartis, Target, and the Mayo Clinic. Today he’s executive fellow at Harvard Business School.
In addition to that street cred, he’s written several bestselling books related to leadership.
His latest is True North: Leading Authentically in Today’s Workplace (Emerging Leader Edition).
In collaboration with Millennial tech entrepreneur Zach Clayton, George has produced a highly readable and marvelously practical guide for any leader at any level in any organization.
With a thoughtful foreword by David Gergen, who’s been advisor to four U.S. Presidents, this new book is rich with wisdom on how to navigate our increasingly complex world with moral clarity.
Rodger Dean Duncan: The stories in your book are gleaned from interviews with more than 220 leaders. What were your criteria for selecting those leaders?
Bill George: We chose a diverse set of leaders who are authentic, who have accomplished significant things in their lives, and who are willing to share their stories honestly.
For the Emerging Leader Edition we chose a number of emerging leaders in Gen X, Millennials, and Gen Z as well as many female, BIPOC, and LGBTQ+ leaders, as well as leaders of different national origins. The senior leaders we chose like Indra Nooyi and Paul Polman are role models for emerging leaders to lead with their True North.
Duncan: Authenticity, you say, is the gold standard for today’s leaders. And you emphasize that authentic leaders are characterized by truth-telling, transparency, and trust. What has occurred in the workplace (and in society at large) to make these things so attractive compared to leadership qualities emphasized in the past?
George: The command-and-control style of leadership practiced by many Baby Boomer leaders won’t work today, as people want to work only for and learn from leaders who are authentic and who are more interested in enabling their teammates to reach their full potential than they are in promoting themselves.
Authentic leaders lead with their hearts as well as their heads. They build trust by caring for people and organizing them into their Sweet Spot where they are highly motivated and can use their greatest strengths. Then they align them around the organization’s purpose, challenging them to perform their best, and helping them be successful.
Duncan: How do severe challenges shape a person’s leadership?
George: All our research has shown that challenging times—which we label as crucibles—shape leaders in profound ways as they learn who they are at their core and discover their True North.
In my case, my leadership was shaped by losing seven elections in a row in high school and college, followed by the deaths of my mother and my fiancée in my mid-20s. These events caused me to think deeply about my leadership and what is truly important in my life.
Duncan: What sort of vulnerabilities or blind spots influence some leaders to lose their way?
George: Leaders like Mark Zuckerberg (Facebook) and Elizabeth Holmes (Theranos) who have not discovered their True North are prone to swim in chaos because they are not grounded in their values and a deeper sense of purpose. They are so eager for money, fame, and power that they fall into the trap of measuring themselves by the world’s adulation. When that is your goal, you can never get enough (as Elon Musk is learning), and you learn that these metrics of success lead to a hollowness within.
Duncan: How can people know if their moral compass accurately points to the True North of what’s actually “right” in a world with so many counterfeit philosophies?
George: This is a profound question. Authentic leaders explore their life stories and their crucibles to gain an understanding of their True North, as they develop self-awareness through introspection and seeking feedback from others. Doing so keeps them grounded and enables them to avoid the trap of seeking the world’s approval.
Duncan: As you’ve frequently said, self-awareness is the core of authenticity. What are the best sources of honest feedback to enable people to do reality checks on their own self-awareness?
George: Leaders need to surround themselves with “truth tellers”—friends and colleagues who care enough about them to give honest feedback, often by telling them what they don’t want to hear. Honest feedback often comes from your spouse or significant other, your mentors, teachers, and coaches, and your support group of intimate friends and/or colleagues.
In my case, my spouse Penny has been invaluable in giving me honest feedback and support when I feel down. I have had wonderful mentors like Warren Bennis and, more recently, Nitin Nohria, dean of Harvard Business School. In addition, I have two amazing support groups: a men’s group that has met every Wednesday morning since 1975 and a couple’s group that has met monthly since 1983. Together we have journeyed through life’s ups and downs and always given honest feedback to each other.
Duncan: You say self-awareness “acts as an internal ballast between intensity and reflection.” Can you give us an example?
George: Most leaders, like myself, are very intense as they are committed to exceptional performance. This is natural, but they need to balance that intensity with regular reflection practices such as meditation or mindfulness. Introspection provides the opportunity to reflect on your leadership, how effective you are in working with other people, and whether you are fulfilling the purpose of your leadership. Huffington Post founder Arianna Huffington learned through a period of extreme stress that she had to transform her life through mindfulness practices. She became a role model for these practices.
Duncan: What are the ingredients of an organizational culture that provides a fertile growing place for “True North” leaders?
George: Authentic leaders create organization cultures that organize people around their Sweet Spot that enables them to utilize their greatest strengths while pursuing their intrinsic motivations. Then they align people’s individual purposes (their North Star) with the purpose of the organization and its common values. This enables people to be who they are, to lead authentically with their True North, and to reach their full potential while working together to achieve the organization’s goals. These are the signs of a healthy culture as Mary Barra is building at General Motors.
Duncan: The Covid-19 pandemic caused many people to ask hard questions about their overall wellbeing. What do you regard as the most critical questions people—including emerging leaders—should ask themselves?
George: One of the great benefits of the Covid-19 pandemic is that it caused people to reflect on what was most important in their lives and transform their lives to pursue their North Star—their personal purpose. This is causing many people to rethink their careers by asking themselves if they are feeling fulfilled in their work and their lives. This is especially important for emerging leaders so they don’t get trapped by external symbols of success while feeling unfulfilled internally.
Duncan: Poet Kahlil Gibran wrote that “Work is love made visible.” How can leaders imbue their behaviors with that sentiment?
George: Each of us is given gifts at birth by our creator, and our lives are focused on developing and using our gifts to make this world a better place for everyone. That is the “work” of our lives. Without working to use our gifts, our lives become hollow and meaningless. Work is the way we share our love with other people and give back to the world.
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