The past few years have dramatically underscored the virtues of leadership anchored in authenticity, emotional intelligence, empathy, transparency, and purpose.
The pandemic, the empowerment of labor, and the expectations of the youngest generations of workers have contributed to this shift from business leaders in the image of GE’s “Neutron” Jack Welch to those with the mindfulness practices of Microsoft’s Satya Nadella.
Over the past two decades, Bill George, the former CEO of Medtronic and professor at Harvard Business School, has been preaching his own version of this newer “authentic leadership,” founded in “truth-telling, transparency, and trust,” societal impact, and individual wellbeing. With co-author Zach Clayton, the CEO of a digital-marketplace company, he just published True North – Emerging Leader Edition, which builds on George’s 2007 classic True North with updated interviews and material.
“Authentic leaders are true to themselves and their beliefs,” George and Clayton write. “They engender trust and develop genuine connections, which enables them to motivate people to achieve high levels of performance. Rather than letting expectations of others guide them, they are their own person and go their own way. As servant leaders, they are more concerned about helping others succeed than about their own success or recognition.” (p. 5)
The authors’ premise is that many people lack self awareness and are blinded by the pursuit of extrinsic rewards such as wealth. The remedy to this is to find your “True North,” your unique moral compass “that represents who you are at the deepest level.” (p. 2) Finding this, George and Clayton contend, involves reflecting on your life story and any adversities you’ve overcome along the way, which they call “crucibles.” The authors are proponents of the concept of post-traumatic growth, the idea that significant challenges shape your character.
Beyond this, True North makes a string of obvious, sensible observations about leadership and life, such as “You will be most effective as a leader when you find opportunities that highly motivate you and use your greatest capabilities” (p. 125) and “Purpose without action is meaningless.” (p. 186) It intersperses short instructive examples featuring a celebrity roster including Warren Buffett, Oprah Winfrey, and Nelson Mandela, as well as other younger, lesser-known entrepreneurs.
At the core of True North is a simple, compelling formula for leadership, focused on four key challenges:
- Developing self-awareness. This, George and Clayton argue, is the biggest determinant of one’s success as a leader, allowing you to stay balanced and clear about your values. Honest feedback and mindfulness contribute to self awareness. They cite Nadella’s efforts to change Microsoft’s culture from “know-it-alls” to “learn-it-alls.” George himself meditates daily, and recommends taking at least 20 minutes “to pause and reflect on your day and your leadership.” (p. 95) They cite the practice of Levi Strauss CEO Chip Bergh to keep a daily journal and ask himself questions including “Did I make a difference in someone’s life today?” and “Am I thinking about where we’re going and looking around corners?” (p. 266)
- Living your values. These are your personal standards of behavior and ethical boundaries, and are tested under pressure. Many leaders fail such tests. The decision by Ken Frazier, former Merck CEO, to resign from a presidential advisory council after president Trump equivocated on racial attacks, is a model of living one’s values.
- Finding your sweet spot. “Your sweet spot is the intersection of your motivations and your strengths,” George and Clayton write. “When you are operating in your sweet spot, you feel inspired, energized, and confident that you can do great things.” (p. 121) They caution against being motivated by extrinsic concerns such as wealth, which can trap people in the wrong jobs or quickly disappear.
- Lead an integrated life. This involves having a great career and a great family life. “Integrated leaders find life more fulfilling and develop healthier organizations,” the authors write. “They radiate authenticity because they are the same person at home and work. They delegate well and empower others because they cannot cram it all in themselves. They make more thoughtful decisions because they have perspective and trusted support teams. They bring positive energy because they are recharged and rested.” (p. 145) Numerous top executives, including Nike CEO John Donahoe, have turned down intense roles and taken sabbaticals, as part of pursuing an integrated life.
George and Clayton highlight the transition that leaders need to make from focusing on their personal needs earlier in their careers to serving others, including by thinking of themselves as a coach. “An empowered team unleashes much greater energy than a directed team because people can do the work to fulfill a purpose, not to meet the boss’s objective,” they write. (p. 167)
They offer a useful checklist for assessing whether you’re building trust and understanding with colleagues, which includes:
- “I understand my teammate’s career objectives and how their current role helps them develop.”
- “I understand each person’s intrinsic and extrinsic motivations, as well as their challenges.”
- “I have deep one-on-one meetings that go beyond superficial discussions.”
- “We have natural and free-flowing interaction and are comfortable with each other, including moments of ‘common humanity.’”
- “I know my colleagues’ family members and understand their lives outside work.” (p. 205)
To be sure:
- The book is a relatively uncritical celebration of many well-known business executives, with a few exceptions called out for sharp critique such as Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg and former GE CEO Jeff Immelt.
- It makes a lot of obvious points and includes some corny lines, such as “While your title makes you a manager, your character makes you a leader.” (p. 4)
- The authors’ focus on the leader’s life journey, character-forming crucibles, and “shadow” character traits comes off as quasi-mystical in places, and ultimately dated. It sometimes involves speculating about the life experiences and motivations of specific leaders such as Rajat Gupta, an executive convicted of insider trading, when the reality could be otherwise.
Memorable anecdotes and facts:
- When Angela Ahrendts was a candidate to be the CEO of Liz Claiborne, company executives had her work with consultants on her style, voice, and mannerisms. She grew upset and left, saying “I want to be the best version of me. I don’t like the person you’re trying to make me become.” (p. 88) A week later she was asked to become Burberry’s CEO.
- US Bank vice-chair Tim Welsh launched an outreach program in early 2020 where employees called all of their clients just to offer help amid the strains of the pandemic. They made 1.4 million calls between April and June that year. They proactively reached out to clients again in 2021 and scheduled 2 million meetings, compared to just 50,000 in 2019.
- When he arrived at Medtronic, George adopted a “30-30-30-10” model, whereby he spent 30% of his time with customers, 30% with employees, 30% with executives, and 10% with the board and external stakeholders.
- “Many people do not know who they are. They are so focused on trying to impress others that they let the world shape them rather than shaping themselves into the kind of leaders they want to be.” (p. 2)
- “The most dissatisfied people I have known and those who experienced ethical or legal failures all had a clear career plan.” —former Vanguard CEO Jack Brennan (p. 26)
- “We spend far too much time at work for it to not have deep meaning.” —Satya Nadella (p. 83)
- “Vulnerability is power.” —John Hope Bryant, CEO of Operation HOPE (p. 93)
- “There is a paradox that leaders who focus on their intrinsic motivations wind up achieving the greatest extrinsic success.” (p. 135)
- “The only way you can develop courage is by testing yourself in the most difficult circumstances. My advice is: seek these opportunities; don’t hold back from them.” (p. 260)
The bottom line is that True North – Emerging Leader Edition is a thoughtful re-working of a business classic, including sections on the importance of inclusive leadership and how to lead through crisis. Its case for authentic leadership is sensible, though perhaps even more obvious with the passing of time.