The Future Organization Podcast: Bill George, Former CEO of Medtronic on How to Lead Authentically In Today’s Workplace & Why Values Are Important


Bill George was born in Michigan and raised in Grand Rapids. As an only child, his parents greatly influenced his future career. His father poised him to be a company leader, and his mother was adamant that he should always stick to his values. His father’s wishes and aspirations for him derailed him in his formative years in High School and Georgia Tech.

His single-mindedness for presidency roles during these years made him overlook the importance of personal relationships in honing his leadership skills. The feedback from a Georgia Tech Senior was a wake-up call, as he told him that no one would work with him due to his rigidness and an unquenchable thirst for leadership roles.

These harsh words made him comprehend the absurdity of his actions and realize his mistakes. Flash forward to the present day, he has established a Self-Help Leadership Program, is a former CEO of Medtronic and is a senior fellow at the Harvard Business School. Moreover, he has recently released his book ‘True North: Leading Authentically in Today’s Workplace’.

Early Mistakes Lead to Clarity

Mr. George recalls his early mistakes and his misconception of the meaning of Leadership. His approach lacked connection with other humans and formed superficial relationships. Today, he insists that Leadership is all about relationships, and he is grateful for the feedback he received from the people who rejected him.

Many CEOs and presidents of companies lack the enthusiasm and will to connect on a humane level with their subordinates. Mr. George claims that these people lack the grit to be genuine Leaders. These people told him that his focus on his quest superseded the yearning for human connection, and the cost was his dismissal in their minds.

He wrote the book ‘True North: Leading Authentically in Today’s Workplace’ to address the egocentric nature of the boomer generation. Everything was about their self-interest, and only a tiny percentage of this generation grasped the importance of building healthy relationships in attaining Leadership skills.

Medtronic: The True North in Mr. George’s Career Course

The acquisition of Leadership skills derives from being a role model for your subordinates. A predominant example is Mr. George’s tenure as a CEO of Medtronic, where the company soared in a time span of a few years. Mr. George attributes this unprecedented growth to the company’s innovative ideas and the acknowledgement of the contribution of frontline people to the company’s success.

Generally, Mr. George believes that a company’s people are its greatest assets and treasures. Without them, a company fails to keep the motor running and becomes stale. Furthermore, one of the breakthroughs of Medtronic was to release the inner Leader of each of its employees.

The CEOs of Medtronic assigned different projects to the employees and gave them the freedom to devise their cunning solutions. This freedom of expression for the employees was informal training on how to be effective and innovative leaders. Therefore, harboring prospective Leaders was another pivotal moment for Mr. George in Medtronic.

The 3 Stanford Questions

Mr. George has always been passionate about leading people, but he could not find a thriving and fruitful environment for many years. In the recent past, Mr George attended Stanford University for a conference and asked three questions to the students. The first one was to identify the source of their passion for leading.

Furthermore, Mr. George states that leading without purpose is a doomed cause and brings forth his tenure at Honeywell as an example. The definition of success for Honeywell was securing lucrative deals and soaring the company’s revenue. The latter is a rather myopic vision, from Mr. George’s perspective, and it fails to deliver the genuine core of Leadership.

On the contrary, Mr. George, as the CEO of Medtronic, had a noble purpose and demonstrated an elevated sense of social responsibility. The company’s goal was to minimize the time needed for healing a person treated with a Medtronic product. When Mr. George arrived at Medtronic, the time mentioned above was 100 seconds, and until his departure, the time diminished to 7 seconds.

The Stanford conference attendees’ second question was how they should develop as leaders. Mr. George acknowledged his initial difficulties in comprehending his self-awareness problems, and after a period of healing, he realized the following:

1) Helping other people is highly inspiring

2) Receiving feedback from your subordinates makes you grow into a more effective Leader.

His last question to the Stanford conference attendees was what impact they would like to have in the world. Mr. George’s dream has always been facilitating other Leaders to fulfill their potential and, generally, orienting people to find their route in life. He describes the last activity as his North Star or, as his book has it, his True North.

In Wrapping Up-Finding your True North

The True North of a person comprises the following attributes:

1) Who is he/she?

2) What are his/her beliefs?

3) What is he/she passionate about, and what motivates him/her?

4) Where does he/she find satisfaction and fulfillment in his/her life?

Finding your True North requires extensive digging into your past and reflecting on your behavior in times of scarcity and adversity. These harsh times are where we grow as personalities and reach our full potential. Mr. George likens this period of struggle to being naked in the sun and states that you figure out your genuine self in these times.

Another crucial part is never losing sight of your True North and purpose because it can derail you to something entirely different from your personality. In these times, you realize the importance of having a significant other, friends and mentors, as their words of encouragement put you back on your road.

Mr. George recalls that when he was in the company Honeywell, he had to decide: Either compromising his purpose for a lucrative salary or handing in his resignation and resuming his quest for his True North.

Mr. George also signifies the importance of values. His characteristic phrase for this is the following: “When your net worth is your self-worth, you are in trouble”. Therefore, if a person compromises his values for lucrative contracts, he is about to have more significant compromises in the future.

Conclusively, demonstrating excellent Leadership skills requires all of the above plus the following attributes:

1) Empathy

2) Compassion for other people

3) Courage

All these attributes combined equally with vulnerability. Vulnerability is a fundamental trait of an effective, compassionate and authentic Leader.

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