September 04, 2012

Harvard’s Bill George: A Model of 21st Century Leadership

Posted by Warren Bennis on September 4, 2012 for Bloomberg Businessweek

Last Saturday morning, Aug. 26, I called my old friend Bill George for two reasons, mainly to wish him a happy birthday on his 70th—I was two weeks early—and to discuss an unlikely article in that morning’s Financial Times, “The Mind Business.” It reported that some of the “west’s biggest companies are embracing eastern spirituality as a path to bigger profits.” Among them, General Mills (GIS), Google (GOOG), First Direct, Target (TGT), Aetna (AET), plus many Silicon Valley firms such as Facebook (FB), Twitter, and LinkedIn (LNKD) that share ideas on yoga, meditation, and mindfulness, a popular form of Buddhist practice, which advocates feel helps them stay “grounded,” even calm, in our hyper-manic digital age.

In the FT piece, Bill makes the business case for meditation, which he’s been practicing, along with his longtime spouse and partner, Penny, since 1974: “William George, a Goldman Sachs (GS) board member [also, I have to add, ExxonMobil (XOM)] and a former chief executive of healthcare giant Medtronic (MDT) … is one of the main advocates for bringing meditation into corporate life. … ‘If you’re fully present on the job, you will be more effective as a leader; you will make better decisions and you will work better with other people. … I tend to live a busy life. This keeps me focused on what’s important.’”

(Have you met anyone recently who isn’t rushed? I bought a ticket last month to hear a speaker discuss his book, Rushed, and, yeah, I was too rushed to make it.)

But meditation is only a skip and a hop in the arc of Bill’s career trajectory, which isn’t close to peaking. After his undergraduate degree at Georgia Tech, he did go for an MBA and went on to work for prominent global companies on three continents, resigning from Medtronic when he was 58, which nowadays I would call “early adulthood.” I decided to ask him a question the other morning I always wanted to but shied away from, why he “retired so young.” He responded with a Minnesota-nice but defiant, “I didn’t retire, Warren,” softening his voice when he came to my name. “I vowed never to remain more than 10 years as a CEO or top gun in any organization. Ten years is plenty, more than enough time to make your mark in any organization.”

Bill went on to say some extremely wise things about a topic rarely discussed openly (or, at best, at six degrees of elusiveness) about the stages of a management career, especially about the retirement phase. Bill has never given much thought to retirement, “the very last thing execs should think about. Anyway, I’m going to live to a hundred! I’ve talked to too many retirees who go to Florida to play golf and despite their parched and faux words, such as ‘I’ve been a success at retirement,’ or ‘saved a lot in state taxes,’ they just look tired more than retired.”

I don’t want to make light of the issue. None of us is immortal. And who’s going to tell you that you’ve lost your marbles or “your touch.” A young friend of mine, meaning to be respectful and gentle, told me a few months ago, lowering his head to avoid eye contact, “Well, I’ll say this about you: You may not be at the top of your game but you’re still at the top of your field.” I retorted acidly, absent respect or kindness, ‘Thank you, DoctorJones, for damning me with faint praise.” Emphasis mine. He’s a psychiatrist, of course.

Retirement is a difficult issue and doesn’t have a positive connotation, perhaps especially so in our culture. My American Heritage Dictionary heartily confirms this. It states, “Despite the upbeat books written about retiring and the fact that it is a well-earned time of relaxation from the daily business of work, many people do not find it a particularly pleasant prospect.”

I’ll have more to say about this in some future blog but want to end on a positive note, using young Bill George as an example, one that today’s MBA students would do well to consider as they ponder the long arc of their own careers. He responded to my question about why he retired so young this way: “I had to go out in the wilderness again to renew, reinvent myself. Had to engage in spiritual projects in a way, which for me, meant learning how to impart whatever I’ve learned to others. So I’ve been teaching for the last dozen or so years. At Harvard, I’ve introduced a course pretty much based on two books I wrote since my Medtronic days, Authentic Leadership and True North. Chances are that I’ll be looking for a new shore one of these days.”

I think of Bill George as a protean leader, based on the Greek myth of the early sea god Proteus, “an old man of the sea,” as he was called, “with flexibility, versatility and adaptability.” Bill George in no way is “old,” whatever that means today. He’s still swimming upstream, probably at this minute, in Vail, Colo., in water that, sitting here in sunny Santa Monica, chills me to the bone.