The Spirituality of Authentic Leadership

Finding Your True North:
The Spirituality of Authentic Leaders
Address by Bill George
Professor, Harvard Business School
Francis Greenwood Peabody Lecture
At The Memorial Church, Harvard University

Friday, April 13, 2007

It is a privilege to have the opportunity to give the Francis Greenwood Peabody Lecture here at the Harvard Memorial Church. My sincere thanks to Reverend Peter Gomes for inviting me to do so and for offering that most warm introduction. The title of my lecture is “Finding Your True North: The Spirituality of Authentic Leaders.”

For the past month I have been traveling throughout the United States, talking about my new book, True North: Discover Your Authentic Leadership. I have titled these talks, “Leadership in the 21st Century,” because I feel so strongly that we are in a leadership crisis and need a new generation of leaders to bring us out of it. This evening I would like to go deeper into the source of our leadership – or our True North – and explore the spirituality of authentic leaders.

My lecture is based on the verses from the Gospel of Matthew in the fifth chapter:

Let your shine so shine before men,
That they may see your good works,
And give glory to your Father who is in Heaven.

The Leadership Crisis in America
America today faces a major crisis in leadership that spans the fields of politics, government, business, non-profits, education and religion. Confidence in our leaders, especially in business and politics, has fallen to an all-time low. Recent surveys by the Gallup poll show that only 22 percent of Americans trust our business leaders, and even fewer trust our political leaders. That’s not just a problem – it represents the potential for disaster.

In part, the problem comes from a wrongheaded notion of what constitutes a leader, driven by an obsession with leaders at the top. In far too many cases we have selected the wrong people to lead and given them far too much power, which they have frequently abused by violating the trust placed in them as leaders. President Abraham Lincoln once said, “If you want to find what a person is made of, give him unlimited power and see how he uses it.” Many of our leaders have abused their power to serve themselves, instead of the people they are called to serve.

Our democracy and our system of capitalism, in which I believe so fervently, are both based on trust – trust in the institutions that serve us and in their leaders. Democracy is a privilege that must be earned, not a right. When our elected and appointed leaders violate the trust that has been placed in them, they not only destroy the basis for their selection, they put at risk our freedoms and our entire system of governance.

Through our legal system, society has granted corporations enormous freedom and power to make money for its owners while serving its constituencies and benefiting society as a whole. The freedom that comes with capitalism is not a right, as so many business people seem to believe, but a responsibility that we as leaders are elected to uphold, just as elected political leaders are. If we in the business community violate that trust, we risk losing those privileges and destroying the very system that has made the American economy the most vibrant and enduring in the history of the world. Witness the 2003 Sarbanes-Oxley Act, hastily passed by the U. S. Congress in thirty-one days in response to the crisis of confidence created by the fall of Enron and other companies. Violating the public trust risks the loss of capitalism’s freedoms. In the 1980s I experienced directly how those freedoms can be lost when I was serving on the board of directors of the French computer company, Bull. When Francois Mitterand and his Socialist Party defeated Giscard d’Estaing for the presidency of France, he immediately nationalized France’s twelve leading companies, including Bull, and his government took over the leadership and the board.

In recent years we have seen many, many leaders violate that trust. Rather than serving others as they are called to do, they seem to be more interested in serving themselves. Their leadership is often characterized by greed, power, and privilege, more than it is by responsibility, empowerment and service.

The root cause is that we are choosing the wrong leaders for the wrong reasons. All too often business and political leaders are chosen for their charisma instead of their character, for their style rather than their substance, and for the image rather than their integrity. If we choose leaders for charisma, style and image, why should we be surprised when these same leaders turn out to lack character, substance and integrity?

Although it may seem oversimplified, I believe you can divide all leaders into two categories, takers and givers. The takers are out to take as much as they can from the system. They see the role of their followers as a means to gain greater power, money, fame and glory. Although takers may use “we” in their language, for them in reality it is all about “I.”

Givers, on the other hand, recognize that being given the privilege to lead is a deep responsibility, one that must never be abused or taken advantage of. As management scholar Peter Drucker once said, “Leadership is responsibility.” In my view, being selected to lead is a noble and sacred calling, one that must never be taken advantage of. If as leaders we wind up serving only ourselves, we have indeed failed in our responsibilities as leaders.

As a student at Harvard Business School in the mid-1960s, I was in charge of the Musser Seminars on “Business and Christian Ethics,” which included students from the divinity school, business school, and the Episcopal Theological School. One of our guest speakers was Robert Greenleaf of AT&T, who introduced the notion of “servant leadership”—that to be called to leadership is a calling to serve others.

New Leadership for the 21st Century
I believe we need a new kind of leader to lead our institutions in the 21st century: a leader who can empower and inspire others to lead. The 20th century vision of a leader who commands the troops to follow him over the hill to build his glory is dead – or it should be!

Coming out of two world wars in the 1950s, we idolized all-powerful leaders like General George Patton, in spite of their evident flaws and abusive tendencies. We dichotomized leaders and workers, with the latter being mere cogs in the wheels of production. In the last two decades of the 20th century we developed a national obsession with the all-powerful charismatic leader at the top.

It is high time that we cast off these images of the all-powerful leaders on top who dominate their subordinates with power, intimidation, and a directive style. We do not need leaders who treat the people as a cost of doing business rather than the basis for the business’ success. No longer can we tolerate leaders who increase earnings by eliminating what has made the organization successful, while they personally reap hundreds of millions in compensation. Employees, customers, investors, and the public at large have every reason not to trust these vestiges of failed 20th century leadership.

Leadership in this new century must change precisely because the nature of people in organizations has changed. People today are more knowledgeable about their jobs than their bosses are. They are demanding meaning and significance from their work, and are not willing to toil away just for someone else’s benefit. They want to lead now, not wait in line for ten to twenty years until they are tapped for a leadership role.

Why shouldn’t they expect and demand this level of respect and meaning? Why shouldn’t you?
You can discover your authentic leadership right now.
You do not have to be born with the characteristics or traits of a leader.
You do not have to wait for a tap on the shoulder.
You can step up to lead at any point in your life.
You are never too young – or too old.
As Stephen Covey has said, “Leadership is your choice, not your title.”

I would like to offer a new definition of successful 21st century leaders. They are authentic leaders who bring people together around a shared mission and values and empower them to lead, in order to serve their customers while creating value for all their stakeholders.

True North: Discovering Your Authentic Leadership
I wrote my new book, True North, to answer the question, “How do you become an authentic leader?” The answer is that it takes years of hard work and development. The key is knowing the True North of your internal compass, and then staying on course in spite of the challenges and seductions that cause so many leaders to go astray.

What is your True North? When you discover it, you also discover your calling to lead and to serve. Do you know what your life and your leadership are all about, and when you are being true to yourself?

Your True North represents who you are as a human being at your deepest level, your most cherished values, your passions and motivations, and the sources of satisfaction in your life. When you follow your True North, your leadership will be authentic, and people will naturally want to associate with you.

Discovering your True North takes a lifetime of commitment and learning. Each day, as you are tested in the real world, you yearn to look at yourself in the mirror and respect the person you see and the life you have chosen to lead. As long as you are true to who you are, you can cope with the most difficult circumstances that life presents.

In reality, the world may have very different expectations for your leadership than you have for yourself. You will be pressured by external forces to respond to their needs and seduced by rewards for fulfilling them. Regardless of whether you are leading a small team or are at the top of a very powerful organization, you will be pressured by external forces to respond to their needs and seduced by rewards for fulfilling those needs. These pressures and seductions may cause you to detour from your True North. When you get too far off course, your internal compass tells you something is wrong and you need to reorient yourself. It requires strength of character, courage, and resolve to resist these constant pressures and take corrective action when necessary.

Brenda Barnes, the CEO of Sara Lee Corporation, says, “The most important thing about your leadership is your character and the values that guide your life. If you are guided by an inner moral compass that represents your character and the values that guide your decisions, you’re going to be fine. Let your values guide your actions and don’t ever lose your internal compass, because everything is not black and white. There are a lot of gray areas in life.”

When you are aligned with who you are, you sense coherence between your life story and your leadership. As psychologist William James wrote a century ago, “The best way to define a person’s character is to seek out the time when he felt most deeply and intensely active and alive; when he could hear his inner voice saying, ‘This is the real me.’”

Can you recall a time when you felt most intensely alive and could say with confidence, “This is the real me”? When you can, you are aligned with your True North and prepared to lead others authentically. In my own case I had that precise feeling the first time I walked into Medtronic in 1989 and felt I could be myself and be appreciated for who I was and what I could contribute. I sensed immediately that the organization’s values were aligned with my own.

The Source of Your True North
Let’s probe deeper into what we mean by True North and its source. Your True North begins with the gifts you were given at birth by your Creator. Unless you are so arrogant to believe that you created yourself, you can recognize that they are indeed gifts—gifts that must be nurtured and developed in order to be fully utilized.

I believe we are all called to use our gifts to make the world a better place. This does not mean that our journey through life will be easy. In fact, our lives will most likely be filled with many highs and lows and many ups and downs. As I have discovered the hard way, life is not always fair. Good things do not always happen to good people. This is the reality of life. Going one step deeper into this paradox, I believe that it is only in confronting life’s challenges that we grow as real human beings – vulnerable, humble and open to stepping up to lead in order to use our gifts to serve others.

To illustrate these points, let me tell you about the story of the gifts I have been given, the challenges and tragedies I have had to overcome, and how I perceive my calling in life. All of this has been integral to discovering my True North.

As a young person, I was inspired by the words of Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew (Matt 5: 14-16):

You are the light of the world.
A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. . .
Let your shine so shine before men,
That they may see your good works,
And give glory to your Father who is in Heaven.

Nearly all of us experience a crucible at some point in our lives that tests our limits and enables us to discover who we really are. In my case it took a series of crucibles before I learned that my mission was not to become CEO of a global company, but to build an organization that could help other people through its life-saving products.

In my teenage years, I was trying so hard to be a leader that I lost seven elections in a row. Thanks to a caring group in my college fraternity, I learned that my ambitions and selfish ways were blocking my ability to use my leadership gifts. Understanding that was the easy part; much more difficult was developing into a leader that truly cared about serving other people. In my mid-twenties the back-to-back deaths of my mother and my fiancée brought me to the depth of loneliness that caused me to explore deeply what life is all about. But it was not until I “hit the wall” in my career at Honeywell in my mid-forties that I finally recognized the deeper purpose of my leadership. It was not just to be CEO, but to join a unique company like Medtronic whose mission was to restore people to full life and health. Had it not been for the counsel and advice of my wife Penny, and my men’s group, I might never have come to that realization.

Discovering Your True North
Discovering your True North to become an authentic leader is a long journey that takes hard work on your part, just as it does to become a virtuoso violin player or a champion athlete. As GE’s Jeff Immelt told us, “Leadership is one of those great journeys into your soul. It’s not like anyone can tell you how to do it.”

In studying leaders who have failed, I realized that their failure resulted from their inability to lead themselves. As we discerned from our interviews, the hardest person you will ever have to lead is yourself. When you can lead yourself through the challenges and difficulties, you will find that leading others becomes relatively straight-forward.

Leading yourself starts with understanding your life story, your unique gifts, the challenges and crucibles your have face, and the source of your passion to lead others and to contribute to the world. In interviewing 125 authentic leaders, we learned that their calling to lead emanated from their life stories.

One of these leaders was Wendy Kopp. Wendy grew up in a middle class family in Dallas and attended an excellent suburban high school. But when she got to Princeton, she realized that many of her classmates who came from inner city neighborhoods never had the opportunity for a decent education. She became passionate about correcting these inequities in education. In her senior year as she was attending an education conference, an idea struck her. Why not have a teachers’ corps, much like the Peace Corps, of recent college graduates who would teach for two years in inner city schools and transform education? Her idea let to the formation of Teach For America. Sixteen years later, after overcoming repeated obstacles and barriers, Teach For America has become the most successful education program in the U.S., all because of Wendy’s Kopp passion and her calling to make a difference in the world.

One of the most moving crucible stories came from Novartis chairman and CEO Dan Vasella, whose early life traumas of spending a year in a sanatorium at age eight and the subsequent deaths of his sister and his father motivated him to become a compassionate physician who could lead a global healthcare company that could help millions of people every year.

Oprah Winfrey talked openly about her experiences of being sexually abused, starting at nine years old. Reframing her experiences enabled her to become not just a television celebrity, but a caring leader whose mission is to help people take responsibility for their lives.

When you understand your life story and experience life’s challenges, you can find your passions to lead and, in turn, the purpose of your leadership. This is what I consider is your calling to lead.

What do you have to do to develop yourself? In our Harvard study of 125 authentic leaders, we learned that there are six principle areas required to lead yourself:
Gaining self-awareness
Practicing your values and principles under pressure
Balancing your extrinsic and intrinsic motivations
Building your support team
Staying grounded by integrating your life
Understanding your passions and purpose of your leadership

It may take a lifetime to gain complete awareness of yourself, but your self-knowledge can be accelerated by honest feedback from others. In his mid-thirties Doug Baker, Jr. was a rising star at Ecolab who had taken over the company’s newly acquired subsidiary in North Carolina. Through his early success, Baker had become arrogant and self-centered. Then he got some tough feedback from his subordinates that told him all of this and more. Baker calls getting the unexpected criticism “a cathartic experience.” He explained, “It was as if someone flashed a mirror in front of me at my absolute worst. What I saw was horrifying, but it was also a great lesson. After that, I did a lot of soul-searching about what kind of leader I was going to be, talked to everyone on my Ecolab team about what I had learned, and asked them for their help.” Baker’s self-awareness is a critical factor in the success he is realizing since becoming CEO of Ecolab nine years later.

Practicing Your Values
The key to your values is not what you say you believe in, or even how you behave when things are going well. You really find out what your values are when you are under pressure or things are not going your way.

Today Jon Huntsman is the successful founder of Huntsman Chemical, leader of a 73-person family, and a bishop in his Mormon church. In 1973 he was a young staffer working for President Nixon’s notoriously powerful chief of staff, Bob Haldeman. One day Haldeman directed Huntsman to carry out an undercover sting operation involving illegal immigrants designed to embarrass a Congressman opposing Nixon’s initiatives. At first, Huntsman went along with the game, calling the plant manager to give him instructions. He recalled, “There are times when we react too quickly and fail to realize immediately what is right and wrong. This was one of those times when I didn’t think it through. After fifteen minutes, my inner moral compass kicked in and I told the plant manager, ‘Forget that I called. I don’t want to play this game.’” Huntsman recognized that rejecting the orders of the second most powerful person in the country would be viewed as disloyal and his White House career would be over. “So be it,” he said, “I quit in the next six months.”

Balancing Your Motivations
It is not surprising that leaders like promotions, bonuses and pay increases, and recognition from their peers and the media. But if these motivations dominate their passions, they are at risk of derailing, sooner or later. Authentic leaders recognize their intrinsic motivations like helping others, making a difference in the world, and building organizations with purpose and meaning. The important thing is not to deny your extrinsic motivations, but to balance them with intrinsic motivations.

Kevin Sharer was a rising star at General Electric at age 41, general manager of its satellite business, and on Jack Welch’s “high potential list.” When the search firms proposed to Kevin that he join MCI with a faster route to the top, he jumped at the opportunity, leaving Welch unhappy with his sudden departure. Once at MCI, Kevin learned quickly that the COO was in line for the top slot and didn’t welcome the new hotshot from GE. His “know-it-all” attitude didn’t help either, especially when he proposed reorganizing the company. Sharer’s crucible at MCI proved invaluable to him: caught up in the glamour of being a rising star, he was brought down to reality and forced to recognize what really motivated him. When the opportunity to become COO of Amgen, Sharer recognized the importance of Amgen’s work in saving lives. He earnestly studied biology and the biotech business for seven years before becoming CEO. By then, he was able to balance his extrinsic motivations with the intrinsic satisfactions that Amgen’s mission provided him.

Building Your Support Team
An essential element of staying focused on your True North is to build a support team that can help you stay on track. Your team starts with having at least one person in your life with whom you can be completely open and honest. It could be your spouse, best friend, mentor, or therapist. In my case, that person is my wife Penny, who is largely responsible for whatever success I have enjoyed. She keeps me on track, especially when I get caught up in selfish desires. Your family and your best friends also help you stay grounded, especially when you most need their help. Having a mentor who can give you straight feedback can be invaluable.

I also believe in having a support group of your peers with whom you can share openly and who will be there for you when you most need them. I have been blessed with having a men’s prayer group with whom I have been meeting every Wednesday morning for the last thirty years, as well as a couples group that Penny and I helped form twenty years ago. These two groups of people have been there for me when I most needed their support. When Penny was diagnosed with breast cancer eleven years ago, they were there to support both of us through the difficult times that followed.

The reality is you cannot wait to build your support team until you are facing difficulty. The time to do it is now, because long-term, deep relationships and shared life histories take decades to build.

Staying Grounded by Integrating Your Life
Every leader I know is facing the challenges of meeting all their commitments in life – their jobs, their families and their communities as well as preserving time for their personal life. I can assure you, this isn’t getting any easier, as the work week seems to be increasing. How do you stay grounded with all the pressures coming at you? I think the key is maintaining your integrity by being the same person in all these environments, and not letting your leadership commitments at work pull you away from the fullness of life. This isn’t easy, but it can be done by making choices and setting boundaries, and not selling your soul to your job. If you don’t do these things, you may become a shooting star that burns out long before you have the opportunity to fulfill your leadership dreams.

Your Passions Reveal the Purpose of Your Leadership
Finally, when you understand the passions that emanate from your life story, you will discover the purpose of your leadership – in other words, your True North will become clear. I learned that when I made the decision to leave Honeywell and join Medtronic.

Andrea Jung, who is CEO of Avon Products, was a rising star at Neiman-Marcus as executive VP in her early thirties, when she decided she did not want to spend her life selling high-fashion designs to upper class women, so she resigned without another job. Joining Avon Products, she found her passions and her leadership purpose to help other women. Upon becoming CEO, after being passed over the first time around, she immediately changed Avon’s mission from selling cosmetics to the empowerment of women. Under her leadership Avon has gone from 1.5 million to 5.5 million people working for the company and achieving economic independence and success through their efforts. As she said, “If people cannot see my passion for this business, it is impossible to be their leader.”

Empowering People to Lead
Developing yourself as these leaders have done is not an easy task. It is a marathon, not a sprint, to gain self-awareness, solidify your values, balance your motivations, build your support team, integrate your life, and understand the purpose of your leadership. As you do so, you will find that leading others is relatively straight-forward. By being authentic and true to your beliefs, you can unite people around a common purpose and set of values and empower them to step up and lead. That’s what the best 21st century leaders are doing, and the reason why their organizations over the long-term far outperform organizations led by people still operating in the 20th century mold.

When Anne Mulcahy became CEO of Xerox, she took over a company close to bankruptcy with $18 billion in debt, yet she had no financial experience. What she brought to the job was an incredible commitment to Xerox and its people and 25 years of building relationships. She met individually with the top 100 people and asked for their commitment to do whatever was necessary to restore Xerox to its former greatness. Her empowering style enabled her to motivate her team not only to save the company but to rebuild it into a great organization.

Your Call to Experience the Fulfillment of True North Leadership
In his inaugural address, Nelson Mandela used a quote from Marianne Williamson that captures beautifully the challenge that many of us face in deciding whether to step up to leadership:

Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate.
Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure.
It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us.
We ask ourselves, who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous?
Actually, who are you not to be?
You are a child of God.
Your playing small does not serve the world.
There is nothing enlightened about shrinking,
So that other people won’t feel insecure around you.
We are born to manifest the glory of God that is within us.
It is not just in some of us; it is in everyone.
And as we let our own light shine,
We unconsciously give other people permission to do the same
As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.

When we examine organizations that are led by empowering leaders, we realize that we do not have a shortage of leaders after all. In every organization there are many, many leaders just waiting for the opportunity to lead.

My advice is, don’t wait to be asked. You can step up and lead right now. Your organization will be far better off because you did. In thinking about whether to take on the leadership challenges, ask yourself these two simple questions,

If not me, then who? If not now, then when?

As President Theodore Roosevelt said in his famous 1908 address,

The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who knows the great enthusiasm, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows the triumph of high achievement and who if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly; so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.

Are you prepared to enter that arena, to dare greatly, and to spend yourself in a worthy cause? If you are, in the end you will know the triumph of high achievement and the joy of working with a passionate group of people toward shared goals, of confronting challenges and overcoming barriers, and of leaving a legacy to the world through your leadership. There is no satisfaction in your professional life that can compare to this sense of fulfillment.

You will have the satisfaction of knowing that you followed your True North, you discovered your authentic leadership, and the world is a better place because of you. That is the fulfillment of being a True North leader.