February 02, 2018

HBSWK: Black Business Leaders Series: Oprah’s Path to Authentic Leadership

Oprah Winfrey believes in sharing the experiences that led her to become the wealthiest woman in the entertainment industry and the first African American woman billionaire. Professor Bill George traces her growth from childhood, focusing on how and when she discovered her true voice and how that authenticity spurred her career success.

Brian Kenny: See if you can name this person. North America’s first multibillionaire black person and the greatest black philanthropist in American history. Serial entrepreneur who combined business savvy with showmanship to revolutionize an entire industry. Recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom and honorary doctorates from Harvard and Duke. Author, publisher, Oscar nominee, but before all of that, rural Mississippian, born to an unmarried teenage mother, who endured poverty, abuse, and prejudice in the deep South. This is a true rags-to-riches tale about a person known and admired throughout the world by one name only: Oprah.

Today, we’ll hear from Professor Bill George about his case entitled, Oprah!I’m your host, Brian Kenny, and you’re listening to Cold Call. Bill George is an expert on leadership, a topic that he teaches and writes about extensively, including numerous books, articles, and business cases. Bill, thanks for joining us today.

Bill George: Thank you, Brian.

Kenny: I’m going to ask you to start by stating the obvious. Who’s the protagonist in this case and what’s on her mind?

George: Oprah Winfrey, and what’s on her mind is being responsible for your life and how you use your crucible for personal growth to achieve a great life.

Kenny: What prompted you to write this case?

George: Well, I was writing my book Discovering Your True North, and we had a section on crucibles and it seemed this captured it perfectly. And I had a chance to interview Oprah over dinner in 2005 at the Nobel Peace Prize ceremonies.

Kenny: Wow.

George: It was a rather unique opportunity to spend three hours alone with her. Photographers were coming by and snapping photographs. She didn’t even look up for them, and she wanted to tell me her whole story, going all the way back to her childhood, all the way to the fact that she had chartered an airplane filled with books to take to Africa, where she had started a home or a school for children and had spent 30 million of her own money.


Kenny: When you talk about a crucible, can you put a definition on that? What do you mean by a crucible?

George: Crucible is that really difficult time in your life, when you come face-to-face with who you are at your most basic form, the things that are really important in your life, but you only discover it when you’re faced with existential questions like, “Who am I? What’s the purpose of my life? Why am I here?”

Kenny: Let’s talk about Oprah’s past. I’m sure everybody would love to hear what she was like over dinner and I’m sure she was lovely, but probably also a little intense, given her stature in the world. So where does that come from? What were the formative things in her life as she was growing up?

George: She grew up an unwed mother, very poor family in Mississippi, and the thing that saved her was what she called BTU, Baptist Training Union. She would go to church and as young as three and four, she was citing biblical verses, and all the sisters sitting in the front row of an African American church, they were saying, “Oh, this girl is gifted,” and she got this idea that she was something special.

The thing that opened her life to the outside world was learning how to read because she had no exposure to the world outside of poverty in Mississippi and frankly, rank discrimination in those days. It was a very rough place to grow up, and this was her refuge.

Kenny: She was born in 1954. Is that right?

George: Yes.

Kenny: In the deep South. Post World War II. Racial prejudice was still very, very common in that part of the country in particular. She migrated back and forth. Talk a little bit about her experience moving between homes.

George: Well, when she was nine, she went to follow her mother to Milwaukee, and that turned out to not be a good experience. She was sexually abused by relatives … so much so that she got to thinking, “Well, this is just the way life is.” That’s her statement. A real tragedy and she wasn’t prepared for this. At 14 she had an unwanted child, unfortunately, that died in child birth.

It was just a real tragedy to be abused like that and in those days we didn’t recognize or make public sexual abuse the way we do today. It’s a very good thing for this to come out. I think the behaviors of many of our celebrities, political leaders, and others are abominable. The treatment of women. It’s held women back from leadership roles in many sectors of our society and something that deeply concerns me.

This case gives some visibility to how you can deal with the incredible trauma that she overcame and turn that from a crucible into what we call post-traumatic growth.

You’ve heard of post-traumatic stress syndrome. Many people come back from wars and never recover. This is always on their mind, and … suicide, but I think if you could turn that trauma into growth, post-traumatic growth, you can become a great person like Oprah. That door is open for all of us.

Kenny: The case mentions what sounded very much to me like a “Me too” moment. You describe in the case where Oprah’s reading the opening entry in a book–again, back to the importance of reading in her life–and the author shares her own account of sexual abuse. That was a real eye-opening thing for Oprah.

George: She was actually on the set of a show with a woman named Truddi Chase. Oprah was 36 at the time; it’s important to recognize she was not a young woman, she was well into her career. Truddi Chase is actually holding a mirror up to Oprah by reciting her own experiences, which were virtually identical to Oprah’s, and this got Oprah so upset. She left the set, said, “Stop the cameras. Stop the cameras.” They didn’t stop. They kept rolling and eventually, she came back.

This was the first time that she realized that she was not responsible for what had happened. She realized this and that changed her whole career. Up to that point in time, she had been, I’d say, muddling along, doing well, but trying to be something different than she was. Earlier in her career, she tried to emulate Barbara Walters and she said, “Looking nothing like her,” and almost the absurdity of that. And then at 36, she said, “I can be who I am,” and her message from that time forward on her show was, “You are solely responsible for your life, and you don’t have to live your life to please others.”

Oprah’s weakness, which influenced her, even decades later, was that she felt she had to be a pleaser rather than being her own person, and when she encountered this situation with Truddi Chase, she changed. She said, “You don’t have to please people.” And she delivered that message to women and to men through her show. That gave her a sense of real power and to the people who had heard her. From then on, her career escalated very rapidly.

Kenny: In all of your experience meeting with leaders from all walks of life, is it fairly common to find that they have overcome [large] odds?

George: Well, no one can say they all did, but certainly, many of the greatest leaders of our lifetime did. Look at Nelson Mandela. Look at Martin Luther King. Look at what they overcame. Going back in the history, look at what Abraham Lincoln overcame.

I think those that actually have a deeper experience become more real and no longer feel they have to put on a mask to please the world. They can be their own person and be accepted as an authentic person.

This way of looking at life is core to my whole thought of authentic leadership. How can you behave as an authentic leader, be who you are, and not try to emulate Jack Welch or Oprah Winfrey or anyone else? Just be yourself and that’s good enough. You don’t have to fake it to make it.

Kenny: Do a lot of people rise to the CEO level without having figured this out? Like, they get there and they say, “How did I get here? What do I do now?”

George: They sure do. A lot of them are scared. They try to put on a mask to be powerful when deep inside there’s maybe a scared little boy inside that’s fearing rejection, fearing being overpowered. So they overuse their power and oftentimes reside in having a lot of money as being a sign of success, rather than how people perceive them in their organizations, people they work with every day.

I’d say a much greater criteria is, “Do they touch the lives of people in their own organizations every day through their actions? Do they set a standard of values and morals and commitment to a mission?” That’s what great leaders do. They don’t try to tell you how great they are. In fact, they know that they have a lot of weaknesses and vulnerabilities.

Oprah recognized her vulnerabilities and I think that enabled her to become a great leader because in a sense, vulnerability is power. She was no longer afraid of hiding these things. She’s been very, very public about what happened to her, and I think that’s been one of her great sources of strength that appeals to so many people.

Kenny: What is she like as a business leader? We see the public face of Oprah all the time in front of the camera and she’s remarkable in that way, but she’s leading a huge enterprise.

George: I haven’t really engaged her much as a business leader. I’ve engaged her as a human being and as a human being she’s amazingly warm and personable and real, extremely authentic, and I suspect that gets translated in her business life.

Kenny: You can also learn a lot from a leader when they are involved in some kind of scandal or controversy, and Oprah’s had her share because she’s such a public-facing image. What would you say about the way that she’s reacted in times of controversy that involve her or her charitable activities or things like that?


George: She’s responded very well, and I think she has every right not to kowtow to the forces that are critical of her. But she makes mistakes and she admits her own mistakes on set. If she offends someone or says the wrong thing, she admits it. She’s very real and very authentic, so I have nothing but the highest admiration for her.

I think we need more leaders like her who are real and own their past, are open about it, share openly, and become role models for other people that [show] you can be authentic and become highly successful, and you don’t have to sell out to powerful bosses and the powerful forces of money.

Kenny: She’s also found interesting ways to bring her own personal passions and the things that she cares about into her line of work. She’s been able to be a champion for causes, both in her work and also in her private life. Is this something that other leaders should try to do?

George: Yes, and that’s what makes her so successful is she does champion it, and you know that she’s there when she’s promoting the idea of reading. That’s a very noble thing, and we should all do that. There’s nothing wrong with bringing our passions and things we believe in. If you’re not passionate about your work, you ought to quit and go sit on the beach. I really do. If it’s just a job, you’re giving your best years of your life away.

A lot of people think you can’t be successful [this way]. I find just the opposite. People that are highly successful carry those beliefs forward and they’re reflected every day in their interactions with their customers and their employees.

Kenny: What kind of response did you get [when you discussed this case in class?] I’m sure people are excited to talk about it.

George: We have to get away from Oprah the celebrity and get to Oprah the human being. There’s a danger in a class like this that you focus on the celebrity status, not the person. When you show videos, you really focus on the human being side, and then you get down to what’s real about her and how did she deal with it. What can you learn from it and how can it influence you? You’re not going to be Oprah. You have to be Sarah or Charlie, you know?

Kenny: Bill, thanks for joining us today.

George: Thank you, Brian. It’s a privilege to be here and thanks for the great questions.

Kenny: You can find the Oprah case, along with thousands of others, in the HBR case collection at hbr.org. I’m your host, Brian Kenny, and you’ve been listening to Cold Call.

Transcript edited for length and clarity. Interview recorded December 12, 2017

This content was originally posted on HBSWK.hbs.edu on 2/2/18.