Entelechy Speaks to Bill George about True North

I’ve had the pleasure and honor to meet some of the world’s greatest leaders and leadership gurus, from Sir Richard Branson, General Tommy Franks, and Captain Mike Abrashoff to Dr. Warren Bennis, Dr. Henry Mintzberg, Marshall Goldsmith, Jack Welch, and Tom Peters.

I recently had the opportunity to interview Bill George, former chairman and chief executive of Medtronic, Inc. turned Harvard Business School professor, and author of the best-selling book, Authentic Leadership: Rediscovering the Secrets to Creating Lasting Value. I met to talk about his newest book, True North: Discover Your Authentic Leadership, co-written with Peter Sims.

First, a brief overview of the book.

Unlike many leadership books (and I’ve read my fair share), True North is more than simply a good read. The activities and exercises at the end of each chapter are designed to actually help you discover your leadership style and your underlying beliefs and passions: what makes you YOU. Bill believes that for leaders to be effective, they must first know themselves. He believes that you can’t read a book about leadership to become a leader; you can’t simply emulate other great leaders; you can’t review a list of leadership traits or characteristics and simply select those you’ll adopt.

Bill George and Peter Sims interviewed 125 leaders to shape the chapters and lessons in this book. The authors asked leaders to define their True North – what is most important to them, their most cherished values, their passions, their trials and tribulations – and how they came to find their True North, their “fixed point in a spinning world that helps [them] stay on track as a leader.”

Sara Lee CEO Brenda Barnes agrees that leaders need to discover their True North:

If you are guided by an internal compass that represents your character and the values that guide your decisions, you’re going to be fine. Let your values guide your actions and don’t ever lose your internal compass, because everything isn’t black or white. There are lots of gray areas in business.

True North is not a “how-to” techniques book in helping prospective leaders learn how to create meaningful mission statements or passionate visions, or how to lead teams through troubled waters. True North is an inward-looking book, one that helps you discover the leader within. True North is a book that will make good leaders great.

Now the interview.

I met with Bill at his office on the beautiful Harvard Business School (HBS) campus. I was a bit early so I reviewed the two main questions that I wanted to ask:

1. How do you “discover your values and passions” when you’re young (knowing that many of Bill’s students are in their twenties)? I remember being fairly clueless about my passions when I was in my twenties.

2. Bill – and our mutual friend, Warren Bennis – refer to crucibles as key to shaping leaders. Crucibles are life-altering events – the death of a loved one, a big business deal that soured, or personal tragedy – that make us stronger (if, as the saying goes, they don’t kill us outright). I’ve led a pretty crucible-free life and wanted to know: Can I create my own crucibles (that doesn’t sound like a smart idea) so I can learn from them? Or can I learn vicariously through others’ crucibles?

As a trainer, I believe that many/most skills – including leadership – can be taught. Bill would argue that while many of the behaviors of effective leadership – effective communication, clarity of vision and purpose, soliciting and processing input, decision-making, etc. – can be taught, the essence of effective leadership – your True North – has to be discovered/developed. My quest was to see if there wasn’t some middle ground.

Bill is in his fourth year at HBS where he is currently teaching Leadership and Corporate Accountability, a course that integrates ethics, law, and economics, and is a direct response to the corporate scandals that have plagued the country in recent years.

This fall Bill is teaching Authentic Leadership Development, a course that parallels the structure and lessons in True North. Integral to the course are six-person support groups, which allow participants to explore more deeply the concepts of internal values, personal passion and motivation, and beliefs.

When I asked Bill how a young person – one who has relatively few experiences from which to draw – might identify values and personal beliefs, he pointed to the power of the support group where others can ask you questions that you wouldn’t think to ask yourself – answers to which reveal elements about you as a person and as a leader.

This support group concept was modeled off of the men’s support group that has shaped Bill’s life and, he believes, has played a significant role in his success. “I can go to the group for any issue from business to personal, from current issues to discussing what kind of legacy we want to leave. I’m a big advocate of having a support group and I think it can be very advantageous for people.”

This belief carries over to his married life; Bill and his wife, Penny, get together monthly with three other couples as they have for the last 23 years. “We talk about what really matters in life, what’s really important. It’s also good to have a group of people who really know you to give you feedback and help you talk through decisions.”

Authentic leaders are self-aware. It’s not that authentic leaders possess some innate ability to see themselves more fully than others, authentic leaders seek and listen to feedback from others. A support group provides feedback that is honest and sincere.

Most leadership gurus – including Warren Bennis and Marshall Goldsmith – agree that honest and open feedback becomes an increasingly scarce commodity as one advances in the ranks. Bill states:

Getting feedback anywhere in an organizational setting is useful, especially from people who worked for me – 360 degree feedback. When I was CEO of Medtronic, getting feedback from my board was far less important than the feedback I got from my subordinates.

Getting feedback from sycophants – from people who are trying to curry favor from you – is the worst kind of feedback and is extremely dangerous; it’s like you start to believe your own press.

Surround yourself with people who shoot straight with you. You need to encourage that communication. It’s easy to shoot the messenger, so I tried to surround myself with people who would challenge me and who cared about the organization.

Bill encourages all leaders to solicit feedback, and to encourage anonymous feedback. “The blind feedback that you get in a 360 is valuable because people who may not otherwise have the courage to come tell you what they really think can express themselves.”

Getting feedback and guidance from others is key to authentic leadership as is self-awareness. Authentic leaders take self-awareness one step further and examine not only WHAT they learned, but they reflect on HOW they learned. Bill calls this “framing”. How do you frame your experiences? Do you ignore them: “I’m glad THAT’S over.”? Do you tend to normalize them: “Oh, everyone has that experience.”? Or do you excuse them: “That was just a freak thing.”? Authentic leaders leverage the situation as a unique learning experience. They not only examine the experience and extract lessons from the experience, they also examine themselves in the experience and learn more about themselves in the process.

The experiences don’t have to be life-altering – answering my final question of Bill: How do you create the crucibles that build leaders? Bill explained:

It’s important to have those experiences. Don’t shy away from experiences. Don’t take the safe route. Otherwise, you’re likely to get a lot of responsibility and not be able to handle it. We all need to learn how to fail and how to come back. You have to learn that on the playing field. You can’t learn it as an observer at the scene; you can’t learn it strictly observing other leaders.

You also need to learn to frame the experience. Framing sometimes requires a different perspective, to see the experience from another angle or in another light. It is difficult to be objective when emerging from another less-than-successful project; important lessons will be overlooked. Who can help you frame situations? Bill says, “Almost anyone – your significant other, a mentor, a spouse, your best friend. That’s what I use my support group for.”

Almost any situation, therefore, becomes an opportunity for you to discover more about yourself, and to grow as an authentic leader.

Bill states about True North, “I want the book to change leadership.” If any book can accomplish such a lofty goal, True North can. The lessons from 125 business leaders help frame the activities that – if completed – will help YOU find your True North and discover your authentic leadership.

Terence R. Traut is the president of Entelechy, Inc., a company that helps organizations unlock the potential of their people through customized training programs in the areas of sales, management, customer service, and training. Terence can be reached at 603-424-1237 or ttraut@unlockit.com.