Book Club: True North

Originally posted in The Leadership Hub on March 15, 2008.

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Longer Summary

Bill George was an inspirational, high-achieving leader at the medical instrument company Medtronic, which he grew to become the world’s leading medical technology supplier. Elected CEO in 1991, he became one of the most admired CEOs of his generation as he grew Medtronic’s market capitalization from $1.1 billion to $60 billion, averaging 35% a year from 1996 to 2002. He then became one of the world’s foremost teachers of leadership, as a Harvard Professor and best-selling author.

Most leaders, says George in True North (the follow-up to his book Authentic Leadership) , act the way they think a leader should act, based on leader archetypes (think Churchill, Jack Welch), or the traits, styles and characteristics that have been identified in more than 1,000 studies of leadership over the past fifty years. But, those who see leadership as emulating great leaders or acting out a set of competencies don’t truly lead, says George. You can only effectively lead by finding your authentic voice.

“In the 21st century, without authenticity in leadership,
organizations can’t develop sustained growth.”

For George, leadership isn’t a job title, or a mantle that you put on when you walk into a leadership position, or a set of behaviours defined in your HR Department’s leadership competencies framework. It is the sum total of who you are.

Leadership Is About What Makes You Different

Finding your authentic leadership is the leader’s equivalent of what the business guru Tom Peters calls ‘defining Brand You’. While most leadership theory is spent on codifying what is the same about leadership, George reminds us what the marketplace itself teaches us – sameness creates commodities, difference is what stands out.

No-one can be authentic by trying to be like someone else. One of the 125 leaders George interviewed to define authentic leadership used to be Jack Welch’s assistant at GE in the 1980s. Everyone was running around trying to be like Jack, he explained. Nobody could take that seriously. You need to be who you are, not try to emulate someone else.

Reminds me of my favourite quote about all leadership being autobiography: “Abraham Lincoln was once asked how long it took him to write The Gettysburg Address, the speech that defined a nation. He replied, ‘All my life’.”

There Is No Perfect Profile Of A Leader

All the academic studies have failed to find the profile of a perfect leader, says George, because leaders are highly complex human beings, people who have distinctive qualities that cannot be sufficiently described by lists or traits or characteristics. Once we realise this, says George, and also realise that leadership is not a position, we can stop being bent out of shape by trying to fit into the straitjacket of leadership definitions and instead accept four liberating new laws of leadership:

1. You do not have to be born with the characteristics of a leader
2. You do not have to wait for a tap on the shoulder
3. You do not have to be at the top of your organization
4. You can step up and lead at any point in your life

The Five Dimensions Of Authentic Leadership

Traditional leaders focus on their own success and on getting loyal subordinates to follow them to achieve that success. Authentic leaders, by contrast, inspire others to lead around a shared purpose, rather than around the leader.

This doesn’t mean authentic leaders are perfect. In fact, it is a defining feature of authenticity that you admit to your flaws rather than hide behind the mystique of the leader who can never make a mistake.

George’s research shows there are five dimensions to an authentic leader

1. Purpose: Without knowing your purpose (why you lead) you are at the mercy of ego
2. Practising solid values: Integrity is the core value. If your practice slips and slides under pressure, people quickly lose confidence in your leadership
3. Heart: This means having passion for your work and the courage to make difficult decisions
4. Relationships: Authentic leaders develop enduring relationships
5. Self-discipline: Setting high standards, taking responsibility for outcomes, and holding others accountable for their performance, takes strong self-discipline

Critique of True North and its interpretation of ‘authentic’

According to George, an authentic leader has found his or her inner voice and remains true to it. This is Warren Bennis stuff, for anyone who’s read Bennis. And it’s no surprise True North is part of the ‘Warren Bennis Signature Series’ imprint. George echoes the Dean of Leadership (as the FT calls Bennis), when he says that true authentic leaders have commonly been through an extremely tough experience that reveals their true nature to themselves – the death of a loved one, bankruptcy, overcoming serious illness.

Bennis observed that authentic leaders are often forged in the crucible of overcoming adversity, whether as a child or later in their career. This echoes Hemingway’s “The world breaks all of us. But some are strong at the broken places.” And it plays to the heroic, romantic leadership model, even if unintentionally.

We tend to have an archetype in our head of leaders as infallible, certain of where they are going, moving from success to success. Even George’s phrase ‘True North’ reinforces that image. But, great leaders – authentic leaders – often don’t feel that way when they are in the middle of achieving great things.

Anne Mulcahy, the CEO credited with rescuing Xerox from its downward spiral, is a case in point. The emotional roller coaster of trying to keep people at Xerox motivated and pull the company back from the brink was so draining that, at one point, Mulcahy described to George, she was on the way home, drained, and had to pull over to the side of the road. She sat there, temporarily unable to move, and said to herself, “I don’t know where to go. I don’t want to go home. There’s just no place to go.”

The boxer Jack Dempsey once supposedly said champions get up when they can’t. Dempsey would have said, Mulcahey ‘got up when she couldn’t’. And she is now widely praised as the woman who saved Xerox (a claim she would herself deny, as she credits a lot of people at Xerox with saving the company). That’s the test of an authentic leader, says George.

And, of course it applies to people at all levels, not just the top of an organisation. You lead your own life by refusing to be knocked out of shape and by getting up when you are knocked down.

The over-riding impression of an ‘authentic leader’ from True North is of a leader in George’s own image: he was a brilliant, empathetic leader at Medtronic (inventor of the pacemaker), which he grew by encouraging leadership at all levels, driven by the higher purpose of saving lives. The 125 leaders he profiled for his research into authentic leaders tend to be like that, too, kind of tough but fair benevolent teacher/leader figures.

Which raises the question: is an apparently autocratic, empathy-lite leader such as the UK’s Alan Sugar or Rupert Murdoch an authentic leader? Of course they are, in the sense that they are honest and true to themselves. What you see is what you get. But, I’m not sure either of them have been through the deep inner journey of enlightenment and understanding self and others that Bill George says is necessary to be an authentic leader.

Nor does being authentic mean being nice, though George tends towards analyzing leaders in this book who exhibit his own traits: nice, empathetic, challenging, values-driven. So, just as all leadership is autobiography, True North and Authentic Leadership can be seen as tinged with George’s own autobiography.

I once heard Tom Peters, in the middle of a rant about how wrong Jim Collins (author of Good To Great) is to champion quiet, ‘ego lite’ leaders, suddenly break off and say, as an aside, “The older I get the more convinced I become that whatever we think we are writing about, we are writing about ourselves.” That is searingly honest and insightful.

The famously charismatic and shout-y Peters champions loud and proud and colourful leaders with big personalities (like, er, himself). The quietly-spoken, introspective, Collins champions quietly-spoken, introspective, non ego driven leaders. Therefore their research, and the people they hold up as objectively-discovered great leaders that just happen to emerge from the research (Collins at least) clearly aren’t as objectively discovered as they would like to think. There appears to be a good deal of projection going on.

Similarly, George tends to equate ‘authentic’ leadership with his own type of caring (but demanding: that’s how he achieved results at Medtronic) leadership. I think it would be interesting to study equally authentic ‘not nice’ leaders, often those who appear to be driven by ego and the need to win. Is Rupert Murdoch an authentic leader? Of course he is, as he is true to himself. Is he nice to work for? That’s a different question. Does he shape News International in his own image, rather than aligning people behind a shared set of universal values they all buy into? Of course he does. Ego-driven and Authentic aren’t mutually exclusive, whereas George fudges the logic a bit and seems to conclude they are. I wish they were. But, I’m not convinced of it.

Background: How Bill George led Medtronic : “From ‘I’ to ‘We’”

This isn’t in the book: I researched it separately as it makes useful background before you read the book.

George received his BSc in industrial engineering from Georgia Tech, and MBA from Harvard. His early career was spent as an executive with Honeywell and Litton Industries, and he served in the US Department of Defense.

His definition of leadership involves developing the organization so that passion and inspiration are built into the system, not merely dependent on the CEO, an objective he put to the test by setting himself a ten-year term limit as CEO of Medtronic. His strategy for embedding leadership proved to be right, as Medtronic’s growth path is just as strong today, when it stands at 222nd largest company in the US by market capitalisation, up from 349th in the year George stepped down.

George says the key to effective leadership today is in the transformation from ‘I’ to ‘We’, which he put into practice at Medtronic, inventor of the pacemaker. This involves focussing on the leadership of others, to embed leadership in the system. At Medtronic, people at all levels – 30,000 employees – were shown how to link what they do every day with the company’s core purpose, so they could take the lead in their own jobs. The first thing George himself did on joining the company was to don a surgical gown and spend 120 days watching procedures like open heart surgery, to learn how the company’s products could be improved.

George spotted early on that the company lacked a closed-loop performance management system and the ability to execute plans on schedule. For instance, it took Medtronic four years to bring a new pacemaker to market where competitors were doing it in two. Under George’s stewardship, that time was cut to 16 months.

George also discovered that Medtronic had individuals who were incredibly knowledgeable about the business but who lacked critical leadership skills. The company had grown up faster than the leadership teams. So he gave some people who were great functional managers the opportunity to hold leadership roles. He created the ‘Medtronic Fellows’ programme, for high-potential leaders to go to business school.

Leadership Demands Accountability And High Performance

To ensure strategy execution, George was ruthless on performance. At first this confused employees – he talked about empowering them as leaders, but came down hard when they didn’t hit deadlines. With ‘empowered’ local leadership comes the responsibility to perform, and George was relentless in driving this home. He met bi-monthly or monthly with business groups, travelling across the US and around the world to meet them rather than bringing them to head office, to review performance. George also led a worldwide reorganization away from multilayered management to structure around business units, bringing the organization closer to customers.

Known for his integrity and authenticity, George has translated his experience into a practical values-based leadership that delivers results. His research at Harvard Business School into 125 successful leaders helped him codify Authentic Leadership, as he calls it, leading to the creation of Harvard’s MBA in Authentic Leadership, which he teaches.

Bill George now serves as a Director of Goldman Sachs, Novartis, ExxonMobil and the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. In 2002, George was selected as one of “The 25 Most Influential Business People of the Last 25 Years”.