July 12, 2021

McKinsey: Lessons in Leadership and Well-Being from Bill George

“When I was 32, life was very stressful,” says Bill George. “I was traveling all the time, my wife was working, we had a young child at home, and another on the way. It was a very stressful time.” It’s perhaps a good thing that it was. To cope, Bill took a transcendental meditation course, which inspired a daily practice that the former Medtronic CEO and Harvard Business School professor continues to this day.

His example has now inspired a generation of business and organizational leaders everywhere to embrace humble, authentic, and inclusive styles of leadership. In his recent book True North: Discover Your Authentic Leadership, 125 of them share what they’ve learned through their successes, failures, and tragedies.

Across the challenges of the past 15 months, we’ve seen many of our colleagues and clients embrace the importance of well-being. Our global leader of industry practices, Liz Hilton Segel, recently invited Bill to join McKinsey senior partners Manish Chopra and Ryan Davies for an in-depth conversation on well-being: how to create it, protect it, and grow it on our teams and in our lives. In the edited excerpts that follow, we share some of Bill’s most memorable insight and advice from the session.

Authentic leadership and well-being

Leaders need to adapt to the era. If they don’t adapt to the era they’re in, they will not be effective. But they need to do so authentically, and I think it does require a sense of well-being. To me, that’s what’s required to be a great leader.

It’s not just something you do off the job, it’s something you do on the job. You can always tell when you’re engaging with someone whether they have that sense or whether they’re so stressed out they really aren’t focused on you.

As a leader, you want to give encouragement to the people you work with to bring their ideas forth, to be real people, to be authentic and to be mindful and to have their own practices and give them the opportunity to do that.

To do so, you have to take control of your schedule. I don’t care what your job is, you’ve got to take control of your schedule. And so you need to set aside things for mind, body, spirit—and encourage people who work for you or with you or around you or on your teams to have that schedule.

Clarity and resilience through meditation

I don’t think you can be really creative about big ideas if you’re working off a task list. You can’t think of original ideas until you clear away all that clutter and think about what’s really important and what the big picture is. A meditation practice can help you do that.

As leaders, we’re going to get knocked down. Things are not going to go our way. You’re going to lose a client or a client’s going to be unhappy or something’s going to go wrong. Meditation gives me a sense of resilience, so I can come bouncing back. We all need that. And I can tell you the higher up you are, the more stress you feel. You need that sense of well-being and resilience.

The power of community

Each office is a community. Each group, each team you work on; it could involve people in five different offices, but that should be a team that works as a community and checks in with each other, even if only for a couple of minutes. “How are you doing? What’s going on in your life?” So that there is a humanity there. That’s the authenticity people want.

There’s a direct correlation between one simple question, which is, “Do you have a best friend at work,” and employee engagement scores. We want everyone to be fully engaged. So how do you get that engagement? Make everyone at your organization feel like, “This is my home. This is where I want to be, and you respect me for who I am.”

When my wife had breast cancer, the support we got from the Medtronic community was incredible. And after she finished her chemo, seven months, eight months later I wrote a Thanksgiving Eve note to everyone. I used to write notes all the time about our business performance—no one responded. But to that note, I got 18,000 responses. People related to it. It was all about humanity.

Leading today

You lead from where you are. You don’t have to look for that next promotion. Wherever you are, you have that opportunity to step up and lead right now. Because we lead with teams today. It’s not about who you have control over. It’s really much more about how you inspire people to come together with a common purpose and to come forth with really great ideas.

If senior people are not authentic and don’t have a sense of purpose that can help early tenured people see, “Why am I working so hard?” those colleagues won’t bring their best to work and aren’t going to do what you’re asking them to do.

For CEOs today, look, somebody else can run the numbers. You have plenty of people to run numbers. I had a great CFO. But I had to inspire people around the Medtronic mission and values. That’s the job for CEOs today.

Fostering mind, body, and sense of purpose in individuals, teams, and organizations is a skill that can lead to a more resilient workforce and improve well-being in the workplace. For additional insights, visit our Well-being in the Workplace collections page here.

This content was originally published on McKinsey.com on 7/6/2021.