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Published: November 28, 2007

 
 

The Thought Leader Interview: Bill George

Can you imagine the coldness of this voice mail from some stranger? “Have a nice day. You have breast cancer.” It was extremely traumatic for her to face this. That trauma was her crucible and led to her epiphany. She said, “Of course, they removed my breast, but I hope I’m more than just a one-breasted woman. I need to be whole in mind, body, heart, and spirit, not just physically whole.” Today she’s a true leader in the field of integrative medicine, combining the best of Western medicine with complementary therapies. She formed the Bravewell Collaborative, a group of 25 foundations that pool their funds to support the integrative transformation of medicine.

S+B: What do you say to someone who sees his life as his CV, as many future leaders do, and who has never really thought in terms of his crucible? How do you force the epiphany that helps you to write the narrative of your life?
GEORGE:
You can’t force it, and you can’t prevent it.

I was once my resume: Bill George, 23 years old and on my way, destined to be a CEO. My father had told me when I was 7, “Son, I failed. Don’t be like me. You can be CEO of a major company,” and even made specific suggestions: Coca-Cola, P&G, IBM.

That’s a pretty heavy trip for a little kid and one you don’t escape as you get older, because it gets implanted in your brain. From the time I graduated from Harvard Business School, I was convinced that I was on a straight line to the top and that nothing would get me offtrack. I was on the way, working for Honeywell here in Minneapolis, and believed I would eventually run that company.

But one day, driving home around the lake over there, I looked at myself in the rearview mirror and realized I was miserable. I wasn’t passionate about the business. The company was changing me. I was becoming more political. It was affecting how I dressed, how I acted around board members — a lot of stuff I am very uncomfortable with. I came home and talked to my wife, and she said, “I’ve been trying to tell you that for a year.” It was very painful for me to face that.

As I thought about it, I realized there was another option. Medtronic, which is a local company, had asked me three times to be its president and chief operating officer, and I had turned them down because it was too small. Having had my epiphany, I called Medtronic back, and asked if the job was still open. I’ll never forget the day I walked through Medtronic’s door. It was like I was coming home.

You can have these epiphanies in many ways. Sometimes it’s as simple as getting 360-degree feedback. Your subordinates tell you you’re not as great as you think you are. Doug Baker, who’s now CEO of Ecolab, the cleaning supply company in St. Paul, says that when he got really negative feedback, “It was horrifying to see myself that way.” He was humbled.

Humbling is a big part of the epiphany. It starts when you wonder, “If I am my resume, why aren’t others im­pressed with me?” The epiphany takes place when people distinguish between their real selves and their idealized selves.

The 21st-Century Leader

S+B: You write about balancing the “I” with the “we.” Why is that important?
GEORGE:
External measures — getting into Princeton or landing a plum job — are not indices of leadership. Rather, they reflect others’ view of you as a great individual contributor. Yet in those roles that confer great status, it’s easy to think, “I’ve proved I can make it. I can be a star.” As Joseph Conrad might put it, “I’m the hero of my own journey. I’m questing on.” In my case, it took the form of, “I’m Bill George, age 23, and I just have to decide which company’s good enough to have me as CEO.”

 
 
 
 
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