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True North: Discover Your Authentic Leadership

America today faces a major crisis in leadership that spans politics, government, business, nonprofits, education and religion. Confidence in our leaders has fallen to an all-time low. Recent surveys by the Gallup Poll show that only 22 percent of Americans trust our business leaders, and even fewer trust our political leaders. That’s not just a problem—it represents the potential for disaster.  In part, the problem comes from a misguided notion of what constitutes a leader. In far too many cases, we have selected the wrong people to lead and given them far too much power, which they have frequently abused.

Our system of capitalism is based on trust—trust in the corporations and institutions that serve us. Through our legal system, society has granted corporations enormous freedom and power to make money for their owners, while serving their constituencies and benefiting society as a whole. If we, in the business community violate that trust, we risk destroying the very system that has made the American economy the most vibrant and enduring in the history of the world.

For business leaders, trust is the vital fuel that makes our system function effectively. If our customers do not trust us, why would they buy our products? Physicians implanting life-saving Medtronic defibrillators in their patients have no idea whether these products will work perfectly, so they have to trust Medtronic to ensure quality. Employees trust corporate leaders to build successful businesses that will provide good jobs, health care and retirement plans. Investors trust corporate leaders to provide fair returns on investments. And, the public trusts corporations to act in their interest. When leaders violate that trust, they put our entire system of capitalism at risk, as well as the lives and livelihood, of their customers, employees and investors.

Learning From Authentic Leaders

Our study included 125 leaders whom we interviewed. They provided us with brilliant insights into what enabled them to be successful. They were remarkably open and candid in sharing their life stories, personal struggles, failures and triumphs. Our study represents the largest in-depth research ever undertaken about how business leaders develop.

These leaders are a diverse group of women and men from a wide array of racial, religious and socioeconomic backgrounds and nationalities They cover the full spectrum of leaders’ life spans, ranging in age from 23 to 93. Within the group, 28 percent are females, eight percent are racial minorities and 12 percent are international citizens. Half of them are CEOs and the other half includes an array of nonprofit leaders, mid-career leaders and young leaders just starting on their journeys.

In the past 50 years, leadership scholars have conducted more than 1,000 studies attempting to determine the definitive styles, characteristics or personality traits of successful leaders. None of these studies has produced a definitive profile of the ideal leader. Thank goodness. If scholars had produced a cookie-cutter leadership style, people would be forever trying to emulate it.

Kevin Sharer, chairman and CEO of Amgen, saw the downside of GE’s cult of personality in the 1980s while working as Jack Welch’s assistant. “Everyone wanted to be like Jack, but leadership has many voices,” he said. “You need to be who you are, not try to emulate somebody else.”

The reality is that no one can be authentic by trying to be like someone else. There is no doubt you can learn from the experiences of others, but there is no way you can be successful trying to be like them. People trust you when you are genuine and authentic, not an imitation.

We believe we understand why previous studies have not been successful: Leaders are highly complex human beings who have distinctive qualities that cannot be sufficiently described by lists of traits or characteristics.

Your Leadership Emerges From Your Life Story

In reading the 3,000 pages of interview transcripts, we were startled to see that these leaders believed their leadership emerged from their life stories. By constantly testing themselves through real world experiences and reframing their life stories, they unleashed their passions and discovered the purpose of their leadership.

In my interview with Dick Kovacevich, CEO of Wells Fargo, who has established the most successful track record of any commercial banker for the past 20 years, I asked what made him so successful. He surprised me. Instead of lauding the bank’s success, he told me what it was like growing up in a small sawmill town in western Washington, where no one had ever gone to college. He learned to lead not at Stanford Business School, where he graduated at the top of his class, but on his hometown athletic fields and at the corner grocery store. Every day, Kovacevich played sports for three hours, raced home to grab a sandwich and then worked three hours in the grocery store. Sports taught him that “a group of people can perform so much better as a team than as the sum of their individual talents.”

In Wells Fargo, he has attempted to recreate the local bank from his hometown, making it the most client-friendly bank wherever it operates. At the corporate level, he has surrounded himself with talented executives who build the bank’s individual businesses. He acts as quarterback of the team, much like he did as an all-state football player.

Kovacevich’s story is just one of hundreds we heard. One of the most powerful stories came from Starbucks’ founder Howard Schultz, whose father’s losing his job and healthcare benefits, after slipping on the ice, led Schultz to create a company like Starbucks. For Schultz, Starbucks is about a creating a community of empowered employees and satisfied customers.

Chinese-American Andrea Jung, now CEO of Avon Products, was a rising star at Neiman-Marcus as executive vice president in her early thirties. She did not want to spend her life selling high fashion designs to upper-class women. Joining Avon and later becoming CEO, she changed the mission of the company from selling cosmetics to the empowerment of women. Under her leadership, Avon went form 1.5 million to 5.5 million employees and achieved economic independence and success. Both Jung and Schultz remained true to their life stories to fulfill their personal missions and enhance the lives of tens of millions of people.

Most of the leaders we interviewed have been profoundly shaped by crucibles in their lives. These traumatic experiences enabled them to realize that leadership was not about their success or gratification, but rather about serving other people and empowering them to lead. In my experience—perhaps oversimplified—you can separate all leaders into two categories: those for whom leadership is about their own success and those who are leading to serve others. The latter group finds inspiration in their life stories and making the transformation from “I” to “we.” The former group never makes that transition. Although many disguise their intentions with “we” language, their actions under pressure often reveal they are out for themselves.

One of the most moving stories came from Novartis chairman and CEO Dan Vasella, whose early life traumas of spending a year in a sanatorium at age eight, and the subsequent deaths of his sister and father, motivated him to become a compassionate physician who could lead a global healthcare company. Oprah Winfrey talked openly about her experiences of being sexually abused, starting at age nine. Reframing her experiences enabled her to become not just a television celebrity, but a caring leader whose mission is to help people take responsibility for their lives.

In my case, it took a series of crucibles before I learned my mission was not to become CEO of a global company, but to build an organization that could help others through life-saving products. As a teenager, I was trying so hard to be a leader that I lost seven elections in a row. Thanks to a caring group in my college fraternity, I learned that my ambitions and selfish ways were blocking my ability to use my gifts. Understanding that was the easy part; much more difficult was developing into a leader that truly cared about serving others. In my mid twenties, the back-to-back deaths of my mother and fiancée brought me to the depth of loneliness. But it was not until I “hit the wall” in my career at Honeywell in my mid forties that I finally recognized the deeper purpose of my leadership. It was not just to be CEO, but to join a unique company like Medtronic, whose mission was to restore people to full life and health. Had it not been for the counsel and advice of my wife Penny, my close friend Doug Baker, my men’s group and my couple’s group, I might never have come to that realization.

New Leadership for the 21st Century

All of these very human stories lead to the unmistakable conclusion that we need a new kind of leader in the 21st century.

Coming out of two world wars in the 1950s, we idolized all-powerful leaders like General Patton, in spite of their flaws and abusive tendencies. We dichotomized leaders and workers, with the latter being mere cogs in the wheels of production. As a 19-year-old industrial engineering student in the 1960s, I used my stopwatch to study the motions of 55-year-old machine tool workers. Then I advised them on how to become more effi cient, without ever asking how to make their work more effective and meaningful.

In the last two decades of the 20th century, we developed a national obsession with the all-powerful charismatic leader. It is high time we cast off this image of the leader who dominates their subordinates with power and intimidation. We do not need leaders who treat people as a cost of doing business rather than the basis for the business’s success. No longer can we tolerate leaders who increase earnings by eliminating what has made the organization successful, while they themselves personally reap hundreds of millions in compensation.

Leadership in this new century must change precisely because the nature of people in organizations has changed. People today are more knowledgeable about their jobs than their bosses are. They are demanding meaning and significance from their work, not willing to toil away just for someone else’s benefit. They want to lead now, not wait in line for 10 to 20 years.

Why shouldn’t they expect and demand this level of respect and meaning? Why shouldn’t you?

• You can discover your authentic leadership right now.

• You do not have to be born with the characteristics or traits of a leader.

• You do not have to wait for a tap on the shoulder.

• You can step up to lead at any point in your life.

• You are never too young or too old.

• As Stephen Covey has said, “Leadership is your choice, not your title.” I would like to offer a new definition of successful 21st century leaders. They are authentic leaders who bring people together around a shared mission and values and empower them to lead in order to serve their customers while creating value for their stakeholders.

One gets the impression these days that most of our leaders are greedy people who are out to feather their own nests. For all the negative publicity they generate, I am pleased to say such leaders these days are the exception, not the rule. There is an entirely new generation stepping up to lead our organizations. These leaders recognize the value of bringing people together around a shared mission and values and empowering leaders at all levels. In particular, I am impressed with leaders that have stepped into top roles since the fall of Enron: Jeff Immelt of GE; Anne Mulcahy of Xerox; A.G. Lafley of Procter & Gamble; Sam Palmisano of IBM; Andrea Jung of Avon; Kevin Sharer of Amgen; and Ann Fudge of Young & Rubicam; as well as nonprofit leaders like Wendy Kopp of Teach for America and Nancy Barry of Women’s World Bank.

Successful organizations will be those that get the best out of people by motivating them with an inspiring mission and empower them at all levels of the organization. This is why for-profit organizations like Target, P&G, Best Buy, J&J, GE, Wells Fargo, Amgen, and PepsiCo are so successful and are able to sustain their success year after year.

True North: Discovering Your Authentic Leadership

I wrote my new book, True North, to answer the question, “How do you become an authentic leader?” The answer is that it takes years of hard work and development. The key is knowing the True North of your internal compass and then staying on course in spite of the challenges and seductions.

Your True North represents who you are as a human being at your deepest level. It is your orienting point—your fixed point in a spinning world—that helps you stay on track as a leader. Your True North is based on your most cherished values, your passions and motivations, and the sources of satisfaction in your life. When you follow your True North, your leadership will be authentic and people will naturally want to associate with you.

Discovering your True North takes a lifetime of commitment and learning. Each day, you yearn to look at yourself in the mirror and respect the person you see and the life you have chosen to lead. As long as you are true to who you are, you can cope with the most difficult circumstances.

In reality, other people will have very different expectations for your leadership than you have for yourself. You will be pressured by external forces to respond to their needs and seduced by rewards for fulfilling them. When you get too far off course, your internal compass tells you something is wrong and you need to reorient. It requires strength of character, courage and resolve to resist these constant pressures and take corrective action.

When you are aligned with who you are, you sense coherence between your life story and your leadership. As psychologist William James wrote a century ago: “The best way to define a person’s character is to seek out the time when he felt most deeply and intensively active and alive; when he could hear his inner voice saying, ‘This is the real me.’”

Can you recall a time when you felt most intensely alive and could say with confidence, “This is the real me?” When you can, you are aligned with your True North and prepared to lead others authentically. I had that precise feeling the first time I walked into Medtronic in 1989 and felt I could be myself and be appreciated for who I was and what I could contribute.

Developing as an Authentic Leader

Becoming an authentic leader is a long journey that takes hard work, just as it does to become a virtuoso violin player or a champion athlete. As GE’s Jeff Immelt told us, “Leadership is one of those great journeys into your soul. It’s not like anyone can tell you how to do it.”

In studying leaders who have failed, I realized their failure resulted from their inability to lead themselves. As we discerned from our interviews, the hardest person you will ever have to lead is yourself. When you can lead yourself through the challenges and difficulties, you will find that leading others becomes relatively straightforward.

We learned that there are six principle areas required to lead yourself:

1) Gaining self awareness

2) Practicing your values and principles under pressure

3) Balancing your extrinsic and intrinsic motivations

4) Building your support team

5) Staying grounded by integrating your life

6) Understanding your passions and purpose of your leadership.


It may take a lifetime to gain complete awareness of yourself, but your self knowledge can be accelerated by honest feedback. In his mid thirties, Doug Baker, Jr. was a rising star at Ecolab who had taken over the company’s newly acquired subsidiary in North Carolina. Through his early success, he became arrogant and self centered. Then he got some tough feedback from his subordinates. Baker calls getting the unexpected criticism “a cathartic experience.” He explained, “It was as if someone fl ashed a mirror in front of me at my absolute worst. What I saw was horrifying, but it was also a great lesson. After that, I did a lot of soul searching about what kind of leader I was going to be, talked to everyone on my Ecolab team about what I had learned and asked them for help.” Baker’s self awareness is a critical factor in the success he is realizing since becoming CEO of Ecolab.

Practicing Your Values

The key to your values is not what you say you believe in or even how you behave when things are going well. You really find out what your values are when you are under pressure or things are not going your way.

Today, Jon Huntsman is the successful founder of Huntsman Chemical, leader of a 73-person family and a bishop in his Mormon church. In 1973, he was a young staffer working for President Nixon’s notoriously powerful chief of staff, Bob Haldeman. Haldeman directed Huntsman to carry out an undercover sting operation involving illegal immigrants designed to embarrass a congressman opposing Nixon’s initiatives. At first, Huntsman went along with the game, calling the plant manager to give him instructions. He recalled, “There are times when we react too quickly and fail to realize what is right and wrong. After 15 minutes, my inner moral compass kicked in and I told the plant manager, ‘Forget that I called.’”

Huntsman recognized that rejecting the orders of the second most powerful person in the country would be viewed as disloyal and his White House career would be over. “So be it,” he said. “I quit in the next six months.”

Balancing Your Motivations

It is not surprising that leaders like promotions, bonuses and pay increases, and recognition from their peers and the media. But if these motivations dominate their passions, they are at risk of derailing. Authentic leaders recognize their intrinsic motivations such as helping others, making a difference and building organizations with purpose and meaning. The important thing is not to deny your extrinsic motivations, but to balance them.

Kevin Sharer was a rising star at General Electric at age 41, general manager of its satellite business, and on Jack Welch’s “high-potential list.” When the search firms proposed he join MCI with a faster route to the top, he jumped at the opportunity, leaving Welch unhappy. Once at MCI, Kevin learned quickly that the COO was in line for the top slot and didn’t welcome the new hotshot from GE. His “know-it-all” attitude didn’t help either, especially when he proposed reorganizing the company. Sharer’s crucible at MCI proved invaluable. Caught up in the glamour of being a rising star, he was brought down to reality and forced to recognize what really motivated him. With the opportunity to become COO of Amgen, a chastened Sharer recognized the importance of Amgen’s work in saving lives. He earnestly studied biology and the biotech business for seven years before becoming CEO. By then, he was able to balance his extrinsic motivations with the intrinsic satisfactions that Amgen’s mission provided.

Building Your Support Team

An essential element of staying focused on your True North is building a support team. Your team starts with at least one person in your life with whom you can be completely open and honest. In my case, that person is my wife Penny, who is largely responsible for whatever success I have enjoyed. She keeps me on track, especially when I get caught up in selfish desires. Having a mentor who can give you straight feedback can be invaluable.

I also believe in having a support group of your peers with whom you can share openly and who will be there for you when you most need them.

The reality is you cannot wait to build your support team until you are facing difficulty. The time to do it is now because long-term, deep relationships and shared life histories take decades to build.

Staying Grounded by Integrating Your Life

Every leader I know is facing the challenges of meeting all their commitments in life: jobs, families and communities as well as personal life. This isn’t getting any easier. The work week seems to be increasing, just as the demands of families, friends and communities are rising. I think the key to staying grounded is maintaining your integrity by being the same person in all these environments, and not letting your leadership commitments at work pull you away from the fullness of life. This isn’t easy, but it can be done by making choices and setting boundaries.

Your Passions Reveal the Purpose of Your Leadership

Finally, when you understand the passions that emanate from your life story, you will discover the purpose of your leadership. Your True North will become clear. I learned that when I made the decision to leave Honeywell and join Medtronic.

Empowering People to Lead

Developing yourself as these leaders have done is not an easy task. It is a marathon, not a sprint, to gain self awareness, solidify your values, balance your motivations, build your support team, integrate your life and understand the purpose of your leadership. By being authentic and true to your beliefs, you can unite people around a common purpose and set of values and empower them to step up and lead. That’s what the best 21st century leaders are doing and the reason why their organizations over the long term far outperform organizations led by people still operating in the 20th century mold.

Your Call to Experience the Fulfillment of True North Leadership

When we examine organizations led by empowering leaders, we realize we do not have a shortage of leaders after all. In every organization, there are many, many leaders just waiting for the opportunity.

Don’t wait to be asked. Step up and lead right now. Your organization will be far better off because you did. In thinking about whether to take on the leadership challenges, ask yourself these two simple questions:

If not me, then who?

If not now, then when?

Many people are hesitant to lead because they fear failure, criticism or think they are not capable. My plea to you is to overcome these fears, for there is nothing more fulfilling than leadership. You are capable of leading and the experience is well worth any risks you may take or criticism you may endure.

As President Theodore Roosevelt said in his famous 1908 address: “It is not the critic that counts. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who knows the great enthusiasm, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows the triumph of high achievement and who, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly; so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”

Are you prepared to enter that arena, to dare greatly, and to spend yourself in a worthy cause? If you are, you will know the triumph of high achievement and you will experience the fulfillment of leadership.

You will know the joy of working with a passionate group of people toward shared goals, of confronting challenges and overcoming barriers, and of leaving a legacy to the world.

You will have the satisfaction of knowing that you followed your True North, discovered your authentic leadership, and the world is a better place because of you. That is the fulfillment of being a True North leader.

Bill George is a professor of Management Practice at Harvard Business School, where he is teaching leadership and leadership development, and is the Henry B. Arthur Fellow of Ethics. He is the author of the best-selling books True North, Discover Your Authentic Leadership (Jossey-Bass, 2007) and Authentic Leadership: Rediscovering the Secrets of Creating Lasting Value (Jossey- Bass, 2003).


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