Harvard Working Knowledge: The Power of Leadership Groups for Staying on Track

Author’s Note: Why Leaders Lose Their Way, my article in the June 6, 2011, edition of Harvard Business School Working Knowledge, generated a large number of very thoughtful and profound comments. The following article proposes an antidote to these problems: True North Groups, a bold idea for developing leaders effective in collaborative, global organizations. True North Groups is also the title of the new book I have written with coauthor Doug Baker, a pioneer in the small-group movement.

Having participated in two True North Groups for more than 25 years, led groups with my colleagues at Harvard Business School for 1,500 participants, and reviewed interviews of 50 group members, I have learned just how powerful these groups can be. They can make a meaningful contribution to developing a new generation of values-centered, authentic leaders who are effective in global organizations using collaboration rather than command and control as their basis for interaction..

The leadership failures of the past decade are triggering a fundamental reassessment of leadership and leadership development. The command-and-control model so prevalent in the twentieth century has ceased to be effective because it fails to motivate people, particularly younger generations that don’t respond well to hierarchical leadership. Command-and-control leaders are finding it difficult to motivate frontline employees and take advantage of their knowledge and wisdom. This is especially true in global organizations that require collaboration between people of many different cultures.

Developing leaders for twenty-first-century organizations

Today’s most successful leaders are focusing on sustaining superior performance by aligning people around mission and values and empowering leaders at all levels, while serving customers andcollaborating throughout the organization. Over the long term, organizations filled with empowered employees who collaborate to serve customers will consistently outperform hierarchical organizations. Top-down leaders may achieve near-term results, but only authentic leaders can galvanize the entire organization to sustain long-term performance.

IBM’s CEO Sam Palmisano pioneered these approaches in 2003 by transforming the company’s long-standing bureaucracy into an integrated global network, starting with a “values jam” involving 300,000 employees over a 96-hour period. His article in the May/June 2006 edition of Foreign AffairsThe Globally Integrated Enterprise, called for breaking down silos through collaboration.

At the same time that leadership is being redefined, leadership development is also being reconsidered. In recent decades companies have focused on succession processes that ensure the emergence of a select group of leaders that can assume the organization’s top roles, investing substantial sums on a few, while relegating others to learning traditional management skills.

With the shift to collaborative organizations with flat structures, companies are recognizing the need to develop a much broader array of leaders. Today’s global organizations need many talented leaders—hundreds, even thousands—operating throughout the organization, rather than just a few stars.

The importance of EQ in leadership development

Leadership is no longer based primarily on characteristics, styles, knowledge, skills, and competencies—all of which are related to IQ. It must come from a place of authenticity, which is the essential quality of leaders with high levels of emotional intelligence, or EQ. In my experience I have not seen leaders fail for lack of IQ, but I have observed many leaders fail who lacked EQ.

Daniel Goleman, the psychologist who originated the concept of emotional intelligence, believes that “EQ competencies are not innate talents, but rather learned capabilities that can be developed to achieve outstanding performance.” He continues, “High levels of cognitive ability (i.e., measured IQ of 120 or greater) are a threshold qualification for leadership roles. Once you are at or above that level, IQ loses power as a predictor of success. EQ then plays a larger role.”

In interviews with 125 authentic leaders for True North, we learned that EQ starts with self-awareness of your life story and the crucibles you have experienced. Gaining self-awareness is more difficult than it seems, since it requires three things:

The emergence of True North Groups

The missing link in leadership development is having a safe place where people can share their experiences, challenges, and frustrations, and receive honest feedback. This link can be provided by True North Groups—small, intimate peer groups where people talk openly about their issues in confidential settings.

True North Groups provide the feedback that enables leaders to understand their blind spots, open up hidden areas, and gain a deeper understanding of who they are. These groups offer a unique environment for people to develop self-awareness, self-compassion, authenticity, and, ultimately, self-actualization.

How do True North Groups help people develop as leaders? An important part of self-awareness is accepting yourself—your weaknesses as well as your strengths—and having confidence that others will accept you for who you are. The support and confidence the group provides enables you to face difficult situations in your life and work and navigate them successfully.

In a True North Group where people share their deepest feelings and greatest difficulties, group members feel comfortable in challenging you when they think you are losing your bearings or deviating from your beliefs and values. Because they know your life story, they are able to perceive how prior events in your life or your motivations may be influencing your decisions today.

In addition, in your group you learn to accept others rather than judge them, and gain the ability to celebrate their differences and learn from people whose life experiences differ from yours. This dynamic gives you the capacity for sharing yourself in intimate ways and for being more open with others. Your True North Group also serves as a support team when you are facing challenging times.

How True North Groups work

In a True North Group you gain experience in giving and receiving feedback in nonjudgmental ways without taking it personally. This approach is more likely to enable individuals to absorb the feedback and use it for personal development rather than feedback coming from someone who may not have your best interests at heart. Giving and receiving effective feedback is essential to constructive interactions and a necessity for leaders who want to empower other leaders to sustain high levels of performance.

Often peers who work together in the same organization or on task teams will want to meet on a more personal basis after the task is complete. They may be looking for people with whom they can share their leadership challenges and get confidential advice. In other cases, colleagues in the same organization are looking for a group of people that helps them grow.

Many people discuss life experiences with their True North Group that they have shared only with a few others. Other group members report seeing their crucibles in entirely new ways. This can lead to a healthy reframing of one’s most difficult experiences. Revisiting painful and difficult times and exploring their dark sides can be a healing experience. In learning about crucibles others have faced, you realize you are not alone in facing great challenges. Intimate sharing builds trust among group members and leads to higher levels of self-awareness and sensitivity to the challenges others face.

More than 1,500 MBA students at Harvard Business School have experienced these groups since 2005, as well as participants in executive education courses and World Economic Forum’s Young Global Leaders. Evaluations about their True North Groups from participants—MBAs and midcareer executives alike—have been uniformly positive. Many describe their experience as transformative. True North Groups have also been adopted by several other academic institutions.

One MBA participant describes her True North Group as “one of my best experiences of my education. It provided support, encouraged introspection, and consisted of the best discussions I’ve had. It gave me an opportunity to reflect on my life and share my feelings in an open and supportive environment. As a result, I faced things about myself I always knew were there but had tried to hide.”

Thanks to the pioneering example of Unilever CEO Paul Polman, we can see the effect these groups have had on more senior executives. Polman has asked his top 500 executives worldwide to experience these groups. He notes, “Forming True North Groups is an integral part of the Unilever Leadership Development Programme to prepare our future leaders for an increasingly volatile and uncertain world where the only true differentiation is the quality of leadership of all.”

Polman is paving the way for other corporations to use True North Groups to develop leaders throughout their organizations. There is limited cost to these groups, no professional leaders are required (although some organizations use facilitators to get them started), and minimal staff is needed to support them. In this sense they are scalable for organizations that want to use True North Groups to develop large numbers of leaders.


Just as True North Groups are an effective force in changing people’s lives, I believe they can become instrumental in changing the way organizations work. Widespread use of these groups could lead to the development of values-centered, collaborative leaders at all levels for large global organizations and transform leadership in the process.

Through True North Groups, leadership development can be transformed, enabling companies to develop many inner-directed leaders who will bring authenticity to their leadership and thus help transform their companies into authentic organizations. 

Bill George is a professor of management practice at Harvard Business School and former chairman and CEO of Medtronic. He has written four best-selling books, including True North. His latest book,True North Groups, is written with Doug Baker and released on September 6, 2011.

Copyright © 2011 President and Fellows of Harvard College