The Self-Esteem of Leadership


Pamela Hawley is the founder and CEO of UniversalGiving. In her continuing series on “7 Minutes with a CEO,” she interviewed preeminent thought leader, Bill George. Below is her interview with the former CEO of Medtronics and current professor at Harvard Business School.  She spoke with Bill about leadership and why he thinks self-esteem (a rare word in leadership) is one of the most important qualities. 

Pamela Hawley:  Bill, I love the word leadership, and believe we are all leaders, right at this moment.  We can positively impact so many people in our day-to-day.  Can you please speak about your view of leadership?

Bill George:  Well, first we do need to take a look at the meaning behind life.  Thoughts that normally come from religion or values can give us the existential basis we need.  Leaders need to think: “Why are you here?  What’s your purpose?  How do I use my time here?”  We all want “a chance for a full life,” and thinking this way helps us.

Pamela: Bill, what would you say are the biggest concerns we face in the world?

Bill: Biggest concerns for the world—Americans are all about instant gratification.  We seek awards, money and material rewards.  Instead, we need to invest long-term, and sacrifice for each other.

Pamela: So the challenges the world faces, point to self.  What would you say are the greatest dangers for leaders?

Bill: We have to look at what is “essential” for each person.  What’s the bottom line? The answer, which most people don’t expect, is self-esteem.

Pamela: Bill, I don’t often hear the word self-esteem associated with leaders, because we assume they are confident. What does it mean to you?

Bill:  Well, sometimes we expect too much of leaders’ own self-sufficient strength.  You might need therapy or prayers to lead. Sometimes we might think of leadership as kind of a self-help packet.  And that means to have high self-esteem, we must be willing to continue working on leadership and ourselves.

Now, working on self-esteem might make us feel removed.  Or, the label makes us uncomfortable.  Who would want to admit that they don’t have a positive self-regard? Who would want to say “I need to work on my self-esteem in order to be a good or better leader?”

Pamela: So how do you see different variations of this self-esteem in people?

Bill:  Most leaders who fail really suffer from a lack of a strong identity, belief in themselves and, to be frank, respect for themselves.  When leaders are disrespecting others, it really starts with themselves.

Stay tuned for Part II of “The Self Esteem of Leadership: How Compassion Inside First, Leads to External Success.”

Bill George is a professor of management practice at Harvard Business School, where he has taught leadership since 2004. He is the author of four best-selling books: 7 Lessons for Leading in Crisis, True North, Finding Your True North, and Authentic Leadership.  With co-author Doug Baker he recently published True North Groups.

Mr. George is the former chairman and chief executive officer of Medtronic.  He joined Medtronic in 1989 as president and chief operating officer, was chief executive officer from 1991-2001, and board chair from 1996-2002.  He was inspired to join Medtronic in part by the deaths of his mother and his fiancée from illnesses, 18 months apart; he was drawn to Medtronic’s mission of saving the lives of the sick.  Earlier in his career, Mr. George was a senior executive with Honeywell and Litton Industries and served in the U.S. Department of Defense.

Mr. George and his wife Penny live in Minneapolis, Minnesota.