Case Studies

The Right Direction

How Purpose, Passion, and Integrity Drive Leaders to the Top

By Kate Pavao

July 2007

In True North: Discover Your Authentic Leadership, Bill George states that leaders need an "internal compass" to guide them. Profit talked to George, the former CEO of Medtronic and a professor of management practice at Harvard Business School, about authentic leadership and the one value every leader needs.

PROFIT: What is an authentic leader?

GEORGE: Being a leader is very much like being an athlete or a musician. You may have gifts you're born with, but you have to develop those throughout your lifetime. Authentic leaders—who are genuine and have a sense of purpose and a clear sense of values—are much more effective over the long term. The only way you can stay true to who you are is to develop yourself as an authentic leader. Otherwise, you're very much at risk of being a glory seeker or a shooting star.

PROFIT: You interviewed more than 100 leaders for this book, including Starbucks' Howard Schultz and Avon's Andrea Jung, all who have different strengths and styles. You say integrity is the only consistent value required of authentic leaders. Why?

GEORGE: You can't build a relationship unless it's based on integrity and trust. If I think someone is not telling me the truth, then I have to go around and check on them. Leaders who maintain a level of integrity have more-effective organizations. Employees know what the ground rules are, so if they're doing business in a foreign country where bribes are regularly paid, they know how to handle that.

PROFIT: What's the No. 1 thing that leaders moving up the corporate ladder should focus on?

GEORGE: Consciously develop yourself as a leader. One of the most important steps is to develop self-awareness, and the only way to do that is through effective, consistent feedback. I'm a great believer in 360-degree feedback—not just feedback from your bosses but also feedback from your peers, the people who work for you, the people you're trying to motivate. It's also important in the middle of your career to test your values under pressure. I think a lot of people in organizations are afraid, "If I fail, that'll end my career." We all fail. At Medtronic I would not promote anyone to a high-level position who had not failed, who had not been tested. I had seen some people in other organizations float to the top and then make mega-mistakes because they didn't know how to deal with the pressure.

PROFIT: You include exercises in each chapter of the book. Should it be a lot of work to find your true north?

GEORGE: Yes, because life is a lot of work. A lot of people don't want to deal with pain they've experienced, and it gives them fears and anxieties they don't really need to have. So a lot of the exercises are really asking readers to frame their experiences, the people who have influenced them, the challenges they've had, to figure out who they are in the world.

Authentic Leadership

Bill George talks about his five dimensions of authentic leadership.

Pursue purpose with passion. "At the end of the day, there needs to be meaning for you, because people sense that. Great organizations can align around a purpose."

Practice solid values. "Get alignment around values, and test your own values under pressure. That way when you get pressure to do something unethical, you can say, 'We're not going to do that.'"

Lead with heart. "Qualities of the heart are empathy for the people you work with, compassion for the customers, passion for the business, and the courage to make hard decisions."

Establish enduring relationships. "When Anne Mulcahy became CEO of Xerox, she had no financial background and was facing bankruptcy. Yet she rallied people around getting Xerox restored to a great company. People trusted Anne, and they knew her word was good."

Demonstrate self-discipline. "Leaders who set higher standards for their subordinates than they do for themselves aren't going to be successful."

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