The Passions of Bill George

The best-selling author, Harvard Business School professor and revered former CEO on how connecting the dots, learning from adversity and a willingness to be vulnerable are the keys to becoming an authentic—and effective—leader.

A willingness to be open and to share deeply must start with a leader

Bill George’s leadership journey has taken him from the US Department of Defense to Honeywell to medical devices company Medtronic—which he transformed from a $750 million company to a $6.4 billion one. He went on to share his leadership philosophy in a series of best-selling books, and now, he advises the next generation of leaders as a senior fellow at Harvard Business School.

Named one of the “Top 25 Business Leaders of the Past 25 Years” by PBS, George’s emergence as one of the most sought-after thinkers in business leadership follows a seismic transition in corporate culture over the past 25 years—from charismatic, top-down management to what he calls “servant leadership.”

In anticipation of his appearance at the Leadership Conference, George sat down with Steve Swavely, PhD, who leads corporate leadership development consulting services at The BB&T Leadership Institute, to discuss the hard work of getting an organization’s culture right.

Steve Swavely: Let me start by asking you about your concept of authentic leadership. Your books, “Authentic Leadership” and “True North,” say authentic leaders “find their motivation through understanding their own stories.” This concept aligns so well with our approach at The Leadership Institute. We have a saying here: “Who you are is how you lead.” Could you elaborate a little bit?

Bill George: When I was a CEO in the ’90s, there was a strong push about leaders’ style, and the business world was venerating charismatic leaders. What I found was that, often, what the so-called charisma people were trying to express was an outward thing. Maybe they weren’t quite faking it to make it, but they were certainly trying to come across in a way that appeared impressive and powerful. We had much more of a power-based leadership in those days, much more top-down leadership. And I found it off-putting.

People often get pulled by extrinsic motivations—money, fame and power—and are trying to impress the outside world, but they aren’t being who they are, not being true to their authentic selves. And that’s where they get in trouble. That’s where they separate from their true north.

I define authenticity as being genuine, being who you are, being real. I’d even define authentic leaders as individuals who have a deep sense of purpose and are able to make long-term connected relationships with people. They’re leading a fully integrated life and practicing their values every day. But there are people who believe if you say whatever comes to your mind, that’s being authentic. I think that’s a sign of a lack of emotional intelligence. Shooting off at the mouth or saying hurtful things to other people is the opposite of authenticity. Those actions, to me, are signs of inauthenticity and you’re not comfortable with who you are.

Steve Swavely: Do you think anyone intrinsically knows themselves?

Bill George: No. I don’t think people automatically know who they are because they spend so much of their life trying to be something they’re not. And some people altogether lose sight of who they are. When we did the research for “True North,” what we found from the leaders we interviewed was they wanted to talk about their life stories—where they came from, who they were, their inner person—because they stay true to them. That’s the idea of the true north. And the difficult times, they wanted to own those, whereas in the old days you wouldn’t want to talk about that. You might appear to be weak if you were to describe times when you had lost your way or the times you got in trouble or the times you violated your own values.

Steve Swavely: You mentioned people need to be aware of who they really are. That’s something very important to us. Helping leaders become the very best they can be is all about increasing their sense of self-awareness. Talk a little bit more about what self-awareness as a leader means to you.

Bill George: Self-awareness starts with the processing of your life story, your crucibles and the times you lost your way. You don’t really understand your life story until you hear yourself telling it to someone else. And it’s not a superficial telling of your life story, it’s not the one that makes everyone feel good. It’s the really tough stuff—and that’s where the concept of crucibles come in. Like, “I don’t really trust anyone because”—and then this story comes tumbling out—“I was abused as a child or I was discriminated against or I was bullied, and I learned to not trust people, to put up my defenses.”

We’ve learned a lot in the last 10 years about the hard work involved in self-awareness. Hard work means going deep and understanding yourself and how you’re going to respond to situations. I think there are two ways to continue that process, and I think you need regular habits in your life to accomplish that.

The first way is some form of reflective or introspective process you do every day. I meditate 20 minutes a day. It could be prayer, a long walk, going for a jog or sitting in a beautiful place. You clear out all of the trivia of the day and ask yourself, “How did I show up today as a leader? How am I feeling about myself?” The tendency, however, is we let the immediate take precedence over the important.

Steve Swavely: And what’s the second way?

Bill George: The second way is getting honest feedback. It’s not feedback from your boss, it’s a 360° review like you do at The Leadership Institute. It’s honest feedback from a diverse group of five or six peers and subordinates. That’s the most honest feedback because they see you every day: the good, the bad and the ugly.

We don’t get much honest feedback in life—even from our best friends—and honest feedback is what keeps you on track. I think the key to all business, to all organizational life, is being able to have honest conversations. If you have an organization and you’re not having honest conversations, things are not going to fare well.

Steve Swavely: You alluded to the fact that crucibles are really important for a leader to reflect on and share with other people. How have you seen crucibles derail leaders?

Bill George: You can be derailed because you had a dominant father who wouldn’t let you be who you were and, instead, wanted you to be like him. If you don’t deal with that then if you’re working for a powerful boss, instead of interacting with your boss as a peer, you may be in fear of your boss. In turn, you may try to impress your boss, but you’re never really comfortable or being yourself. That is just one example.

Steve Swavely: I think it’s very difficult for people to connect what happened when they were 5 or 7 years old with who they are as a leader. That’s one of the areas we try to focus on: to help people make those connections that are sometimes blurred by the immature mind that was experiencing those events and also blurred by time.

Bill George: I teach it as connecting the dots in your life. In other words, you look at your life story, are you connecting the dots from who you were and what you experienced as a young person to who and where you are now? For example, when I was in the ninth grade, I got run over during football practice. I was 110 pounds, so I thought I was wimpy. I don’t think people who know me today would say I’m wimpy—but I had that self-image back then. To deal with those feelings, when I was around very powerful people, I would try to impress them—and that was not a natural thing. My wife used to call me on it, “Why are you trying so hard to impress these people?”

I would go into a meeting with a Jack Welch [former CEO of General Electric] not as a peer, but in an “I have to somehow impress Jack Welch” mindset. Of course you’re not going to impress anyone doing that, so I think connecting the dots is essential. Steve Jobs, in a Stanford speech I like to quote, said, “You can’t connect the dots looking forward” because you don’t know what’s going to happen in your life, but you must connect them looking backward.

Steve Swavely: That’s a great example that really does support connecting the dots.

Bill George: I’ll give you another personal example. From the time I was 9 years old, my father wanted me to become a CEO because he thought it would make up for his failures. He thought he should have been a CEO, but he’d lost jobs along the way because he had an abrasive style. He’d tell me, “Son, I’d like you to be the leader I never became.” He even named great companies he wanted me to lead, like Coca-Cola and Procter & Gamble. He once said, “There’s a little emerging computer company on the East Coast called IBM…”

I actually pushed my father away but, subliminally, I adopted his message. In high school and college, I ran for student council seven times—and I lost seven times in a row. It’s because all I wanted was the title of high school senior class president or being in an important role at Georgia Tech. There was a total lack of self-awareness.

If we fast forward to my mid-40s, I’m working for the great global company Honeywell and I’m on track to be the next CEO—or certainly one of two candidates to be the CEO—and the CEO decision is 3 years away. Honeywell is a company where you have to have passions, but you have to check them at the door. You didn’t show them. Meanwhile, I’m always showing my passion and I get excited in meetings. I’m passionate about a new defibrillator that saves someone’s life or a new opportunity we have to change the world. But because you have to check those passions at Honeywell, I start changing the way I dress—wearing cufflinks, for example, which I don’t wear—and the way I act, saying just the right thing at the right time. Here I am at age 44 or 45, and I’m repeating what I did in high school and college.

Steve Swavely: We talk about there being two basic fears that drive people and sabotage their effectiveness as leaders: the fear of failure and the fear of rejection. I’m struck by the level of insight you have around how your life story played out in your leadership. How did you develop that awareness?

Bill George: I often developed insight and awareness through difficult times. I can tell you about the tragedies in my life. I can tell you about my mother dying and my fiancée dying 18 months later—3 weeks to the day before our wedding. Most people who hear these stories think: That must be your crucible. But the real crucible for me was the sense of being rejected.

Once, a group of seniors took me aside at Georgia Tech and said, “Bill, no one’s ever going to work with you, much less be led by you, because you’re moving so fast to get ahead that you don’t take time for other people. ”To me, that was like a blow to the heart, because I could see my dreams of being the leader that my father wanted me to be going away. I would go on to be vice president of the student body at Georgia Tech and receive honors. I had lots of leadership situations by my junior and senior years, but I also remember and reflect on the difficult times so I can learn from them. When it came to solving the problems at Honeywell, I was the only one who was willing to take them on. I was the only one willing to make the hard decisions, the really tough calls, like laying off a thousand people. But I wasn’t being true to myself. There’s a great line in Dante’s “Divine Comedy”: “In the middle of the road of my life, I awoke in a dark wood where the true way was wholly lost.” Even though I was Mr. Problem-Solver at Honeywell, I wasn’t being authentic and thought, “Find it again.”

Steve Swavely: Let’s talk about the importance of relationships. How does a leader balance getting ahead and achieving results with getting along and developing relationships?

Bill George: Authentic, enduring relationships are built over a period of time when we develop mutual trust. We learn to trust each other because we’ve been through tough times and we share, at a very personal level, the challenges we’ve faced. We’re deeply honest. These are the people we would seek out for help when we’re in trouble, when things aren’t going our way and when we’re scared. It’s so important to develop those true authentic relationships.

Steve Swavely: When you think about a leader in an organization today, what are the behaviors he or she needs to engage in to develop authentic and trusting relationships?

Bill George: First, you have to share your own story. How can I ask you to share things with me—particularly if I’m in a leadership role and you’re one of my subordinates—or even be honest about your feelings or problems unless I’m willing to share mine with you? A willingness to be open and share at a deep level has to start with a leader.

Steve Swavely: That involves showing vulnerability, right?

Bill George: Definitely. And only in the last 5 years have I really come to understand the role of vulnerability. The whole notion of “vulnerability is power” is scary to a lot of people, but I think it’s a very important idea. My willingness to be vulnerable to you is a way you can then feel secure in opening up to me. So if I’m really scared I’m going to lose my job and I come to you, I have to be very trusting of you that you won’t take advantage of me.

Steve Swavely: One of the things we talk about is the idea that leadership is not about telling people what to do, it’s more about building authentic relationships with people. That seems to be core to your approach to leadership as well.

Bill George: Again, the authenticity starts with the leader. It allows other people to open up, and it’s up to the leader to share and open up to other people. If you want to set yourself above people, you’ll never build those kinds of authentic relationships. You want to empower people, and you become empowering by being authentic and open, by sharing from your heart and being vulnerable so they can be vulnerable with you. How can you know what’s going on in your organization if your employees aren’t willing to be forthcoming and are afraid they’ll get fired or pushed aside or thought of as weak?

Steve Swavely: We call that “the CEO disease”—when you’re the last person in the company to learn the bad news because people are afraid to approach you with bad news.

Bill George: I once said to one of my key subordinates at Medtronic, “You know, integrity is not the absence of lying, it’s telling us the whole story.” For a subordinate to tell you the whole story, the person has to feel pretty secure they’re not going to lose their job over it.

Steve Swavely: Speaking globally for a moment, what is your assessment of thought leadership in this current world climate?

Bill George: I have never known a time in which CEOs of major companies all around the world are more authentic than they are today. Certainly not in my lifetime, which spans many decades. This is the most thoughtful, introspective, honest, authentic group of CEOs we have ever had, and that includes the nonprofits and the for-profits. There are role models like Anne Mulcahy [formerly at Xerox], Indra Nooyi [PepsiCo], Alan Mulally [formerly at Ford Motor Company] and Howard Schultz [formerly at Starbucks], who really are authentic people. There’s been a huge change in leaders in the last 10 years, just enormous. It’s everything you guys have always wanted to have happen, and it’s staggering how much it’s changed.

Steve Swavely: What impresses me is global leaders today are also required to lead a diverse group of people, and they have to be at the top of their leadership game to be effective in doing that.

Bill George: Absolutely. Having a diverse organization around you makes you a lot stronger. It’s much harder, but it’s much more rewarding in the long term. You can’t make good decisions unless you have diverse people around you. You simply cannot. For instance, I find that when we have more women in very senior roles—and not just human resources—that organizations tend to do much better.

Steve Swavely: Lastly, let’s go back to “True North.” In writing “True North” and “Discover Your True North,” you interviewed a lot of leaders. What were some of the things that took you by surprise when you interviewed them?

Bill George: Number one was how important their life story was to them.

Steve Swavely: How did you get leaders to talk about their crucibles with you?

Bill George: I just listened. But also, they have to feel they’re not being judged for what they’re saying. If you create an atmosphere of trust, people will tell you their stories and the real truth. We had a case with Howard Schultz that we featured in Chapter 1 of the book. He was trying to get Starbucks funded so he could own the company, and the most powerful person in Seattle went up to him and said, “Well, Schultz, I’m going to own the company. You’re going to be my CEO.” And Schultz was so shaken, he just said he really wanted to own the company. The guy said, “Look, Schultz, if you don’t do this, I’ll destroy your reputation in this town. You’ll be dog meat.” Schultz goes from the top floor of this big tower in Seattle down to the first floor, and he breaks into tears. Okay, we put that out there, and his communications people went nuts. They said, “You can’t say that. You can’t say our CEO broke into tears. Men don’t cry.” I said, “You go back and ask him what he thinks about that. Ask him if he’s willing to have this information out there.” And he told them, “Of course. I said it. It happened. What do I have to fear?”

Steve Swavely: What was the most surprising thing you learned about leadership while researching and writing “True North” and “Discover Your True North”?

Bill George: How important the crucibles and your life story are. Everything is built on that. And no one was talking about those things at that time. The easy side of leadership is getting the numbers right. We all know how to do that. Getting an organization’s culture right and getting the leaders right is very hard. And it’s never-ending. The work The Leadership Institute is doing is really hard—don’t ever let anyone tell you it’s the soft side. How do you get everyone aligned around a common purpose and a set of values? You think that’s easy? No, it’s not. That’s really hard.

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Seven take-aways from Bill George

  1. A willingness to be open and to share deeply must start with a leader. The leader can initiate trust and be the first to show vulnerability.
  2. Candid 360° feedback from your team and colleagues is essential. It is more valuable than feedback from your boss.
  3. An authentic leader possesses a deep sense of purpose, is open and honest, establishes long-term relationships with people and practices his or her values every day.
  4. Extrinsic motivations such as money, fame and power will prevent you from finding your true north. To succeed, you must know and be true to your authentic self.
  5. Being self-aware requires a deep processing of your life story. You’ve got to “connect the dots” from your early years to the present to actually understand yourself.
  6. Crucibles, which are the difficult situations you encounter in your life, can be the source of true growth.
  7. Every leader wants to tell his or her life story. And if you win people’s trust, they’ll tell you their life stories. The act of truly listening to and connecting with employees helps create an open and honest working relationship.

By Steve Swavely, PhD
Photography by Eliesa Johnson

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