Thursday, March 29, 2007

True North: Discover Your Authentic Leadership (By Bill George)

Authentic leadership is possible, but NOT easy by a long stretch. For some insights into authentic leadership in the corporate world, we turn to well-known CEO Bill George.
Bill George, probably best known in the business community for his former position as chairman and CEO of Medtronic, is also an author. In 2003 he published a book called, Authentic Leadership: Rediscovering the Secrets to Creating Lasting Value. This month he published his second book titled, True North: Discover Your Authentic Leadership, described by George and his co-author Peter Sims as a way to "locate the internal compass that guides you successfully through life."
George is also a professor of management practice at Harvard Business School. He has been recognized as Executive-of-the-Year by the Academy of Management, Director-of-the-Year by the National Association of Corporate Directors.
Here is a part of an interview with Bill George conducted by Michael Useem, director of Wharton's Center for Leadership and Change Management.


George: This is a book on leadership development that results from the largest study ever done on how leaders develop. We had about 3,000 pages of transcripts that came out of 125 interviews with people who we deemed to be successful and authentic leaders. We were very surprised by what they were telling us, because we thought that going in they were going to tell us the traits, characteristics and leadership styles that made them successful.
And, instead what they told us was that their passions came from their life stories. It took a little while for this to sink in. At first it seemed like mush. But the more we got into it, it was so consistent that people wanted to talk about how they captured their passions from a crucible life experience, a transforming experience or just a "growing up" experience.
An example of that is Dick Kovacevich, the chairman and CEO of Wells Fargo and arguably the most successful commercial banker in the last 20 years, in terms of his record. He didn't want to talk about that. He wanted to talk about what it was like growing up in a saw mill town, where people are losing their jobs and no one had ever gone to college. He played sports three hours a day and he said that he learned a lot more about leadership on the athletic field and working in a corner grocery store where he also worked three hours a day, than he ever did at Stanford Business School.
He has tried to take that model and translate it into Wells Fargo. In other words, he saw the idea of trying to make Wells Fargo the most consumer friendly bank in every small town; not just to "be big at global banking" but to be very friendly and to also create an executive team with people much stronger than he was. He has said, "If you had 11 quarterbacks on your football team, you would lose every game." And so he has tried to create a team of people who are really good in every other position, and I think he has been quite successful.
Useem: Bill, I like the phrase that you just used which is that leadership does emerge out of a life story. You referenced moments that are like crucibles of experience. As you listened to the 125 people tell their story and talk about those formative moments, is there a common pattern to what really seemed to stand out? Or are there a couple of themes that stand out when people begin to talk about those moments, when they really made in a sense that self-discovery and came to appreciate where they were heading in life?
George: I can't help but think it's a situation that causes you to go deep inside yourself and say, "Who am I? Who am I in this world? Where do I fit? Do I matter?" And then from that, you can find your passions to lead and that's where the passions to lead come from. At least that's what we learned.
Andrea Jung had this incredible passion for empowering women in her life, because of coming out of this very strict Chinese family. And, you know one time she was destined to be CEO of Neiman Marcus. At 31 she got the Executive V.P. job; she quit cold turkey, four years later, and went off without having another job. A year later she joined Avon because she said she didn't want to just provide luxury goods to the upper 1/10th of 1% of American women.

As soon as she went to Avon and made it to the top, she changed the mission from cosmetics to empowering women. This was her passion. So now, you listen to her talk [she came to my classroom] about having a million people who work for her in Brazil and how exciting it is to go down the Amazon and everyone waits for the retail store to come to them. You see her passion. She said, "If I don't have the passion for this business, I can't be an authentic leader."

Question for Economic Developers: As the steward of your area's economic assets, what are your prospects for authentic leadership, and what is your life story underlying your style of leadership?

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