Bill George: An interview by Bob Morris

Bill George

George is a Professor of Management Practice at Harvard Business School where he teaches leadership and leadership development. He is the author of two best-selling books, True North: Discover Your Authentic Leadership and Authentic Leadership: Rediscovering the Secrets to Creating Lasting Value. George is the former chairman and CEO of Medtronic and also serves as a director of Goldman Sachs, Novartis, ExxonMobil, the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, and the World Economic Forum USA.

Note: I conducted this interview in 2008. George has since published Seven Lessons for Leading in Crisis (2009) and is now in the process of completing a second interview.

Morris: First, please explain what you mean by “authentic” leadership.

George: Authentic leaders are genuine people who are true to what they believe in.  They have a clear sense of the purpose of their leadership, they practice their values consistently, lead with their hearts as well as their heads, build long-term connected relationships, and lead integrated lives. More specifically, they are people who demonstrate the highest integrity, are committed to building enduring organizations, who have a deep sense of purpose and are true to their core values.  They have the courage to build their companies to meet the needs of all stakeholders, and are dedicated to serving society through their leadership.

We need to increase the prevalence of authentic leaders in all areas of our society, not just in business but in government, religion, and the military. We need more leaders who genuinely desire to serve others through their leadership.  Authentic leaders are more interested in empowering people they lead to make a difference than they are in power, money, or prestige for themselves. They are as guided by qualities of the heart, by passion and compassion, as they are by qualities of the mind.

Morris: How can someone prepare to become an “authentic” leader?

George: To become an authentic leader, you must develop yourself, just as a great musician or athlete does.  People are born with the gifts of leadership but must develop those gifts by:

1. Developing their self-awareness and emotional intelligence.

2. Testing their values under pressure.

3. Balancing their intrinsic and extrinsic motivations.

4. Building a support team.

5. Leading an integrated life.

6. Developing a clear sense of the purpose of their leadership.

7. Empowering other people to step up and lead.

Morris: Here’s what seems to be a “chicken or egg” question. Which comes first: authentic leadership at all levels and in all areas of any organization, or, a culture that nourishes such leadership?

George: Individuals must fervently want to be authentic leaders first, but their development can be greatly enhanced in a culture that nurtures authentic leaders.  However, inauthentic leaders will not change or survive for long in an authentic culture. Far too many studies of “leadership” focus their attention on leaders on top – often “celebrity CEOs” — when, in fact, authentic leadership is needed at all levels and in all areas of organizations.

At twenty-three, Jonathan Doochin was the youngest leader interviewed; while a senior in college, he created Harvard’s Leadership Institute. Ninety-three-year old Zyg Nagorski was the “senior” leader” of those interviewed; after running the Aspen Institute’s Executive Programs for a decade, he stepped aside at seventy-five and then, with his wife, started the Center for International Leadership and continues to conduct values and ethics seminars eighteen years later. Obviously, authentic leaders come in “all shapes and sizes” (and ages!) but despite the differences between and among them, they are all committed to helping others to become authentic people, if not authentic leaders.

The importance of creating and then sustaining an authentic culture cannot be overestimated.

Morris: Insofar as authentic leadership is concerned, how important are role models?

George: There is an unfortunate tendency in our culture to try to emulate a role model, which takes individuals away from their authentic selves.  Much more important are mentors who can give honest feedback and guidance and help individuals to be their authentic selves. The most valuable mentors help us to understand who we are…and who we aren’t. They encourage us to sustain the difficult journey of self-discovery and sometimes seem to have more faith in us than we do in ourselves.

Morris: Given your response to the previous question, throughout your life thus far, which authentic leaders have had the greatest influence, indeed impact on you? How so?

George: My mother, who was the role model for my values and for leadership, and my wife Penny, who is my constant support person in all of my leadership situations. Over the years, there have been many other people who have also helped me to discover my authentic self and to become the best leader I could be. As I’ve already indicated, the more we try to emulate someone else, the less true we can be to ourselves.

Morris: Now please shift your attention to True North. To what does its title refer?

George: The title “True North” comes from several of the 125 leaders interviewed for the book who spoke about the important of knowing their beliefs, values, and principles at a deep level and staying true to them, even under the greatest adversity.  They termed this “following their True North,” or their inner moral compass.

Morris: Are leaders by nature those who attract followers?

George: I would not agree that the role of leaders is to attract followers.  This is a 20th century notion that is not valid today.  The leader’s role is to align people around a common purpose and set of values and then to empower them to step up and lead, in the service of all their constituencies.

There is a tremendous desire for people to work with more authentic leaders and not have to put up with inauthentic people – or what author Bob Sutton calls “the jerks.”  I believe that organizations led by authentic leaders will be more successful in the future in attracting the most highly principled as well as talented people, and thus be able to build authentic organizations.

Morris: You serve on a number of corporate boards. How have the responsibilities of board members changed in recent years, especially in terms of the leadership board members are expected to provide?

George: During the years I have served as a director of ExxonMobil, Goldman Sachs and Novartis (and before that, Target and Medtronic), I have personally observed how these boards have strengthened in both leadership and commitment.  No longer can boards afford to be there just to support their CEOs.  These days board members are recognizing their responsibilities to the corporation and its long-term success and focusing on issues of leadership succession.

Morris: In your opinion, why have so many corporate boards (e.g. those of Adelphia, Enron, WorldCom, and Tyco) failed to recognize serious problems at the CEO level?

George: None of the four companies you mention was a solid company in the first-place. But many, many other boards got caught up in the game of searching outside the company for new leaders who could impress Wall Street, rather than grooming future leaders internally.  Many of these leaders failed, not because they couldn’t lead others, but because they could not lead themselves.

Morris: In your PBS Commentary (on July 19, 2007), “Wall Street versus Main Street,” you explain why so many companies fail to create long-term value for their shareholders. What do you suggest?

George: The only way to create long-term value for shareholders or at least the best way, in my opinion, is to create superior value for your customers, not by hyping your stock price.  Sustainable customer value comes from motivating your employees to create great products and superior customer service.  That’s why companies like Target, Johnson & Johnson, and PepsiCo have been so successful in sustaining their growth.  All of their focus is on creating great value for their customers, and they train and motivate their employees to do just that.  They know that shareholder values come from customer value and motivated employees, not the reverse.

But companies whose primary focus is on Wall Street, and meeting its short-term goals, are never going to create long-term value. Wall Street may focus on quarterly earnings, but it still takes five years or more to discover a drug, design a semiconductor, or create a breakthrough like the i-Pod.

You simply can’t do it overnight. If you don’t stay focused on your True North, you’ll get buffeted by the winds of change, and wind up capitulating to playing the short-term game. At Medtronic, it took a decade to create breakthrough products that restore millions of people to health, but that’s how we created $60 billion in shareholder value– not by responding to Wall Street.

Unfortunately, many corporate leaders don’t have the patience or the vision to do that. They bow to Wall Street, keep shifting strategies, and wind up destroying their value. Authentic leaders stay focused on creating great value for Main Street customers. And that’s how they create long-term shareholder value. Authentic leaders who focus on Main Street will out-compete every time those who only worship Wall Street.

Morris: How important is “charisma” when selecting a CEO?

George: Charisma is greatly over-rated.  All too often boards get caught up with the charisma of a candidate they do not know well, and wind up choosing the wrong leader.  Instead, they should be looking at the character of the leader.  That’s what the employees see, and employees aren’t fooled by a leader’s charisma.

Morris: James O’Toole suggests that some of the most formidable barriers to change initiatives are the result of what he characterizes as “the ideology of comfort and the tyranny of custom.” Here’s a two-part question. First, do you agree?

George: Most change initiatives start off with a bang and end with a whimper.  That’s because these efforts are often more focused on a change task than they are in building an authentic culture, and led by leaders not committed to the organization’s long-term sustainability.  Often consultants are involved who focus more on process and the impressions of change than they do on the long-term health of the organization and its people.  I don’t think the problems rest with the people and their resistance to change nearly as much as they do with a lack of authentic leadership of these change initiatives.

Morris: Now the second part. Based on your own experience as well as what you have observed, how can authentic leadership overcome those barriers?

George: The people involved know an authentic leader when they see one, and they are empowered by that kind of leader to create lasting change to the betterment of the organization because they trust the leader and believe that he has their best interests at heart.

Morris: Warren Bennis has much of value to say about “crucibles” that, in his opinion, often determine which leaders succeed and others fail. Jack Dempsey once said that “champions get up when they can’t.” Your own thoughts?

George: Much of True North is devoted to the crucibles leaders have faced along their leadership journeys, because the 125 leaders we interviewed stressed just how important these crucibles were to their development – far more than any traits or characteristics they possessed.

Morris: People, not methodologies, transform organizations. When discussing that with your students at the Harvard Business School, what is your advice as to how they can do that effectively, both as individuals and when working with their colleagues?

George: I advise these emerging leaders to “get into the game,” rather than stand on the sidelines and critique other leaders.  They will learn far more from making their own mistakes and getting knocked down and picking themselves up than they ever will from observing other leaders and trying to emulate them.  And that is how they will transform their organizations, not by making power point presentations.

Morris: One final question. Are you now at work on your next book or are you at least thinking about writing one? If so, what will be the issues it addresses? And why do you consider those issues to be especially important?

George: I believe that the wisdom of True North, especially the stories of these 125 leaders, is so important to changing leadership for the better in the business world and elsewhere that I am devoting all my time to encouraging leaders at all stages to absorb that wisdom and to use the book as a guide to develop their authentic leadership.  In my opinion, this is far more important to the future of leadership than writing yet another book.

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