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Published: November 28, 2007

 
 

The Thought Leader Interview: Bill George

There’s no single path to authentic leadership, says the former Medtronic chief executive. We must all discover our own.

Photograph by Steven Edson

Back in 2003 — in the wake of the Enron, WorldCom, Arthur Andersen, and Tyco scandals, when the corporate world was swept up in protracted anxiety about its ethics and potential punishment for transgressions — Bill George put forth a message of optimism. In his bestseller Authentic Leadership: Rediscovering the Secrets to Creating Lasting Value (Jossey-Bass, 2003), the former CEO and chairman of Medtronic Inc., the Minneapolis medical technol­ogy giant, laid out five essential characteristics of effective leaders: They pursue purpose with passion; they practice solid values; they lead with their hearts; they establish enduring relationships; and, finally, they demonstrate self-discipline. Possessed of those traits, he argued, individuals can foster healthy organizations for the long haul.

In his latest bestseller, True North: Discover Your Authentic Leadership (Jossey-Bass, 2007), George, who is currently professor of management practice at Harvard Business School, expands upon this theme by drawing out examples of effective senior executives in contemporary corporations. “An enormous vacuum in leadership exists today,” he writes in the introduction. “Yet there is no shortage of people with the capacity for leadership. The problem is that we have a wrongheaded notion of what constitutes a leader.”

This view emerged from interviews that George, with coauthor Peter Sims and colleague Diana Mayer, conducted with 125 executives of corporations, nonprofit institutes, and foundations. The in­terviewees form a diverse and exceptionally accomplished group that includes Andrea Jung, chairman and CEO of Avon Products; Richard Kovacevich, chairman of Wells Fargo & Company; Kevin Sharer, CEO and chairman of Amgen, the biotech leader; Donna Dubinsky, cofounder of Palm Inc.; Jeffrey Immelt, chairman and CEO of General Electric; and television talk show host and producer Oprah Winfrey. George concluded that great leaders don’t gain their capabilities by accident, but by coming to terms with the often painful facts of their own lives. They are “defined by their unique life stories and the way they frame their stories to discover their passions and the purpose of their leadership,” the authors write.

Each of the leaders in this book came to embrace a set of values that served as a kind of lifelong personal compass. This, in turn, helped keep them from being blown off course by the extraordinary pressures that come to bear on the person in charge of any organization. In the corporate sphere those pressures come from investors, board members, and other stakeholders, whose priorities often contradict one an­other or undermine the long-term good of the enterprise. Many of the leaders interviewed had at one point found themselves in situations that left them feeling dissatisfied and frustrated. It was this discomfort that led them to take the time to look inward to figure out what mattered most to them.

Knowing what matters — your “true north” — doesn’t guarantee that you’ll stay on course, says George. “I don’t want to suggest that all authentic leaders have achieved some level of perfection that’s beyond the reach of most human beings,” he told strategy+business in a conversation last May at his lakeside home office in Minneapolis. “On the contrary, everyone is capable of deviating from what they believe. You get pulled off course and you need a compass to help guide you back.”

S+B: You’re adamant that there’s no single definition of the archetypal “great leader.”
GEORGE:
That’s actually very good news. Think about it: If there were a definitive role model for a leader, we’d all be trying to emulate it. You and I are totally different people. We can’t emulate something we’re not. In fact, if we do, we’re being inauthentic. If you try to emulate a great leader like Jack Welch, you’ll be phony, because you’re not Jack Welch. You’ve got to be who you are.

 
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