Huffington Post: True North Leaders: Antidote to the Leadership Crisis

From The Huffington Post, posted July 6, 2015

“True North is your orienting point that helps you stay on track as a leader. It is derived from your most deeply held beliefs, your values, and the principles you lead by.” — Introduction to Discover Your True North

Today, I am launching this new weekly column, “True North Leaders,” in conjunction with The Huffington Post. Each Monday, it will feature leadership insights and the stories of authentic leaders making important differences in the world. We will also take on current leadership challenges and analyze why leaders fail. Most important, the ideas in this column will help you discover your True North, so you can lead authentically throughout your life.

First, a little personal background about why I believe it’s so important to develop more True North Leaders. After 33 years in the business world, the last thirteen at Medtronic, I set out on a journey to discover my next steps. As part of my search, I spent 18 months in Switzerland teaching business and technical leaders at two leading Swiss institutions before joining the faculty of Harvard Business School.

It is no secret that there has been a crisis in the business world the past twelve years. While I was in Switzerland, the first corporate crisis — stimulated by the scandals at Enron, WorldCom and other companies — ripped the business world asunder. When Congress passed Sarbanes-Oxley to reform corporate governance in 2003, more than 200 companies announced “accounting adjustments,” some as much as $3 billion. Five years later, the financial crisis hit, triggered by the failure of Lehman Brothers, AIG, Citigroup, Fannie Mae and many leading banks.

These crises were not caused by the lack of governance procedures or subprime mortgages, but rather by failed leaders.

What caused leaders to fail?

In the 1990s many corporations chose the wrong people as CEO. Under pressure from Wall Street to maximize short-term earnings, boards of directors frequently selected leaders for their charisma rather than their character. These leaders put their companies at risk by focusing on the spoils of leadership instead of building organizations for the long-term.

These stock market pressures boomeranged in the fall of 2008 when many financial institutions became insolvent, forcing the U.S. government to intervene to save the system from complete collapse. The Great Recession that followed depleted the savings of millions of Americans and U.S. unemployment rose above 10 percent.

As a result, trust in business leaders fell to its lowest level in 50 years. In business, trust is the coin of the realm. The success of any organization depends upon customers’ trust in its products, employees’ trust in their leaders, and investors’ trust in those who steward their funds. Seven years later, public trust in business leaders is still low.

The positive side of these crises is the high quality of leaders who have emerged. From these debacles today’s leaders learned what not to do. They saw many of their predecessors get caught in the trap of chasing money, fame and power, and learned the perils of putting self-interest ahead of the institutions they served.

True North Leaders are the antidote to this crisis — people who can lead us through the myriad problems we face. While many of the leaders we feature have accomplished remarkable things, these columns aren’t about their successes, but rather the incredible challenges they overcame in becoming leaders. Through in-depth studies of 170 leaders, we learned their successes are the result of what they learned about themselves through their life stories, their crucibles and their journey to discover their True North.

These new leaders are bringing about a fundamental transformation in leadership. No longer is leadership about being charismatic, emulating others, or acting like a leader without going through rigorous self-reflection. These leaders learned that being authentic is the most effective and sustainable way to lead.

The hierarchical leadership style of the 20th century is fading fast in favor of today’s empowering and collaborative leaders. In today’s organizations people want to make meaningful contributions to the world through their work. They seek opportunities to lead now, not to wait their turn as so many did in my generation. They yearn to see their leaders not as figureheads, but as real people, authentically struggling with challenges just as they do.

This is not to say that these new leaders are perfect. Far from it. All leaders have weaknesses and are subject to human frailties and mistakes. Yet by acknowledging their shortcomings, their humanity comes through, and they are able to connect with people and inspire them.

As we examine these leaders, we hope to challenge you to learn more about yourself and your leadership, and to discover your True North. The bottom line is this: You can discover your True North right now.

There are no magic answers here — no seven easy steps. People recognize immediately who is authentic and who is not, so you cannot “fake it until you make it.” Instead, by being authentic and continuing to develop yourself, you can become a True North leader.

I look forward to going with you on this journey.

Bill George is senior fellow at Harvard Business School and former chair & CEO of Medtronic. He is the author of four best-selling books, including True North. His new book, Discover Your True North, will be available in late August, 2015.