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The Essence of Real Leadership
Business Journal

The Essence of Real Leadership

Bill George's first book, Authentic Leadership: Rediscovering the Secrets to Creating Lasting Value, felt like the antidote to a poisonous business culture. It was published in 2003, a time when several great businesses were collapsing one by one, done in by corporate corruption and the avarice of their leaders. The public's already low opinion of integrity in the halls of power was falling fast -- a dangerous reaction in a capitalist society.

True North - Discover your Authentic Leadership

Authentic Leadership, however, was a call to clarity. It championed values over greed, long-term stewardship instead of short-term opportunism, and the significance of character rather than shrewdness. It quickly became a bestseller, and many successful businesses adapted it into their cultures.

Since then, George has retired from his position as CEO of Medtronic, where he'd increased market capitalization from $1.1 billion to $60 billion. In 2004, he became a professor at the Harvard Business School. But George, who serves on the boards of several prestigious companies, such as ExxonMobil, Goldman Sachs, and Novartis, realized there was more to be learned from and said about authentic leaders. So, with Peter Sims, he interviewed 125 of the world's best leaders. The things they said and the principles he discovered are the subject of George's new book, True North: Discover Your Authentic Leadership (Jossey-Bass, March 2007)

In the first part of this two-part interview, George delved into the characteristics of authentic leaders, the trouble that can befall them, and how they can find their way again. In this, the second part, he reveals the importance of self-awareness for leaders, the danger of equating power with leadership, how to deal with sharks, and a few things about coping with leadership that they don't teach you in business school -- but should.

GMJ: One of the themes in True North is the importance of self-awareness. Why is that so crucial for leaders? And how do you develop it?

Bill George: Self-awareness is absolutely fundamental. You can't have the qualities of emotional intelligence unless you have self-awareness. You can't be in touch with your motivations, and you'll lack empathy. You have to [do] a lot of introspective work to develop it, and you can't be authentic without it. But developing self-awareness is really tough.

GMJ: Why is self-awareness so hard?

George: We are afraid to tell people who we really are because we fear they're going to reject us. The feeling is, if you knew I was a klutz as an athlete or that I came from a poor family or that I was gay -- if you knew this, if you knew that -- you wouldn't care about me anymore; you might reject me. So I'm going to try to pretend to be something else, even to myself.

We build protection around our inner core to hide our vulnerabilities because we're so afraid that we'll be taken advantage of. But maintaining that façade is exhausting and unsustainable.

GMJ: But if you're in a leadership position, you could be taken advantage of. Exposed vulnerabilities attract sharks. So how do you develop self-awareness and protect yourself when you need to?

George: You do it through close relationships and through people who are willing to give you feedback. Getting honest feedback is the best way to gain self-awareness. I find that is true even with my students. We added feedback to the course because they desperately wanted honest feedback. That's why a lot of companies find 360s so important; they tell how you come across, how others see you, and the effect you're having that you may not know about. Once you own those characteristics -- once you see them and accept them -- then you can really be empowered and use your strengths.

That's why I am so opposed to the human resource philosophies of the 1970s, '80s, '90s -- that whole idea that you've got these weaknesses, and we've got to fix them. That's inauthentic.

You can't, for example, fix the fact that I have such high energy that I come across as impatient. If you try to fix me, you're going to take away my greatest strength -- the fact that I ask really challenging questions. Is it intimidating sometimes? Yes. But maybe I can modulate that strength so it doesn't come across in intimidating ways. If you tell me to just sit back and listen, you're not going to get the best out of me, and I'm not going to get the best out of the people I work with.

GMJ: But of course, getting feedback is inviting criticism, and criticism is hard to take. How do you elicit good feedback, and what should you do with the information you get?

George: Well, it helps to have at least one person in your life who will give you gut-level honest feedback, particularly when you're being inauthentic -- someone you can go to when you have real problems and say, "Am I off base here? Am I crazy?"

I have my wife, who's my greatest critic and greatest supporter. If it's not your spouse or your significant other, it might be a mentor or a best friend. Or you can hire a therapist. You need someone you can be really honest with.

I think you also need support groups. I'm a great believer in small groups, which is something we want to emphasize more coming out of this book. I've been in a men's group for 30 years. I have my students at Harvard form support groups with five other people they've never met before in their lives. They are very diverse -- geographically diverse, gender-wise, and racially -- and they're sharing deep secrets that they wouldn't share with their best friends.

If you don't listen to the people who work for you, you're doomed. I don't care what job you're in.

GMJ: But at work, you recommend 360 feedback, right?

George: Absolutely. You need feedback, and not just from your boss, as your boss may not see you as you really are -- but your subordinates do. I made a policy at Medtronic: I would never promote people unless I got feedback about them from their subordinates, because I got fooled and made mistakes in promotion. I promoted the wrong people sometimes because they made a good impression on me, but they were not good leaders for their people.

GMJ: There is a philosophy that the opinions of subordinates don't matter as much because they don't see or directly participate in the overall goal of the organization.

George: Anyone who believes that shouldn't be in a leadership role. If you don't listen to the people who work for you, you're doomed. I don't care what job you're in. And you won't get their respect. Respect is essential, and it comes from trust. Leaders gain respect by being authentic, being real, being interested in others, being concerned, and empowering those around them in bringing people together around a common purpose.

GMJ: As I read your book, I applied it to me, but . . .

George: Good, that's what I hope; that's the whole purpose of the book. If you just say, "Oh, that's interesting. I love learning about all those leaders, but of course it doesn't apply to me," then the book has failed.

If you try to fix me, you're going to take away my greatest strength -- the fact that I ask really challenging questions. Is it intimidating sometimes? Yes.

GMJ: Well it doesn't apply to me, because I don't lead anyone.

George: Don't be too sure. Leadership is defined in many, many ways.

GMJ: All right, define leadership for me.

George: It's the ability to empower other people around a common purpose. If you have a purpose and bring people together around that, you're leading.

Sometimes you're making heart valves that save people's lives, and you have no direct reports. But you're so empowered that you set an example for everyone else. You really care about those patients, and you form a relationship with them -- that's inspiring, and it's leadership. You can lead in a Starbucks store by making sure your customer is having a really good experience, even though you have no one reporting to you. We've got this obsession with leaders at the top, but anyone can lead by example. You influence people by the way you work every day.

GMJ: The importance of values is crucial to authentic leadership. But how do you apply them unless something has gone wrong? How can you practice courage or honesty or integrity when everything's going swimmingly?

George: Well, I would say just the opposite. If you don't practice courage and integrity, something's going to go horribly wrong. You see this in simple things -- if you don't tell the whole truth sometimes, it becomes harder to tell the whole truth anytime. It gets to be hard to say, "I screwed up, and I need some help." You have to apply your values every day. That's the hard thing. In little ways, not just big ways.

But it's true that you won't know what your values really are until they're tested under pressure. If you don't have integrity, I don't know how you're going to have trust in a relationship in the first place.

GMJ: Well, some people maintain positions of power for some time without having any noticeable sense of integrity.

George: You can maintain power. That's not hard. But that's not leadership. That's why a lot of wrong people are chosen for leadership roles. People wonder how Bob Nardelli could fall so far, so fast. What makes you think he went up? You're just looking at his power -- and he had a lot of power -- but was he a good leader? Don't equate power and leadership. I used to do that, and it's a big mistake.

GMJ: One of the pitfalls of power is believing your own press. How do you avoid that?

George: That's the whole chapter on intrinsic and extrinsic motivation. You need to have a balance. Everyone likes to be promoted, to get pay increases, to receive validation, or to have a nice article about them in the newspaper. It's naïve to say we don't like those things. But you need to balance that with what's really motivating you -- the real reason you care about your company and the people you lead. All this takes a lot of conscious thought.

GMJ: What if you do everything right, you follow your moral compass, you maintain your values -- and it backfires. You get reprimanded or fired. How should leaders cope with that?

George: Well, getting fired may be a blessing. It may indicate that you were in the wrong job. Maybe you had a really bad boss, maybe you were being measured by unfair criteria, maybe you're working with people you can't trust. Or maybe it was just the wrong job for you. A lot of times when I terminated people, I knew I was doing them a favor.

Getting fired may be a blessing. It may indicate that you were in the wrong job.

But remember, a lot of people start out in the wrong job. Jobs early in your career aren't always what you want anyway. Look at Ian Chan in the book. He started out in investment banking, and then he went to private equity, and he hated both of them. So he founded U.S. Genomics and was doing really well. Then he got fired unfairly. So now he has started a new company.

A lot of people start out in jobs they hate. One of the leaders I interviewed calls it "rubbing up against the world." It's good to do that. You may hate it, but you're going to learn from it.

Jaime Irick said he hated boot camp. He went to ranger school, and he hated it. He was counting the days until he got out. He hated every minute of it, but he learned from it. Now he's general manager of a $50 million business, a division of General Electric, at the age of 32! Life is not about sitting on the beach having a nice time.

GMJ: You wrote about the necessity of having somebody in your life who will tell you the truth, about the importance of a strong support team. Yet as careers advance, there's less and less time to develop and maintain close, genuine relationships. What do you recommend?

George: Well, if you don't develop those relationships, you'll wind up being a shooting star, and you'll destroy your leadership at work. Having said that, every young leader I know today is facing this issue.

The prevalence of two-career families puts enormous pressure on young people today. Also, the work hours have gone up enormously for people in high-performance jobs. It's no longer forty or fifty hours, it's seventy or eighty hours. And the travel requirements have gone up as we've become more global. Now add children to that, and you have three full-time jobs and two people to do them.

So you decide to hire a nanny to take care of the third job, which is managing the kids. But you know what? You realize you don't want your kids to be raised by the nanny. You want to be around to coach soccer games. You hire people to do the things that take time but don't add value to your life. You farm things out as much as you can. You have to continually look for those tradeoffs in life.

The important thing is, can you maintain integrity? Can you be the same person in all those environments? As CEO, as mom, as soccer coach? Because the tradeoffs are always going to be there. They don't go away.

GMJ: Last question: What is the fulfillment of leadership?

George: The fulfillment of leadership is the gratification of knowing that all of your efforts paid off in helping other people -- that your intrinsic motivations were fulfilled. You built a great organization and could turn it over to someone else to carry it on and see it continue to grow -- knowing you've helped people develop in their lives and seeing them go beyond you as leaders and as human beings . . . that you made products or provided environments that legitimately helped other people. You created economic value through jobs or investments. All those things are the real fulfillment of leadership.

At the end of the day, that's what you look back on. That's the legacy you leave behind. You have to think about what you want people to say about you at your funeral.

-- Interviewed by Jennifer Robison

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