When it comes to leadership, the world is always in need of leaders who can make a difference. With so much change happening around us, it’s critical for emerging leaders to be grounded in their values and ready to navigate whatever comes next. While there are many ways to develop leadership skills, it is essential to first understand what it means to be an authentic leader. And that is what our guest, Bill George, talks about. Bill is a Harvard Business School professor who has successfully blended his academic and business life and touched and impacted the lives of 10,000 students who have come through the Harvard Business School and the Harvard Kennedy School. He is a bestselling author of leadership classics, including Authentic Leadership and True North. Hot off the press, Bill has recently co-authored and just launched what is probably his most important book to date, The Emerging Leaders’ Edition of True North. Join Bill George as he shares how emerging leaders can find their True North and lead authentically in the workplace.
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Authentic Leadership For Emerging Leaders with Harvard Business School Professor Bill George
Find Your True North And Lead Authentically In Today’s Workplace
Our bold leader joins us from the beautiful mountainous State of Colorado in the United States. He is the former Chief Executive and Chairman of Medtronic, a global healthcare technology leader. He also served on the boards of corporate giants Goldman Sachs, ExxonMobil, Novartis, Target, and the Mayo Clinic. He is a Harvard Business School Professor who has successfully blended his academic and business life and touched and impacted the lives of possibly 10,000 students who have come through the Harvard Business School and the Harvard Kennedy School, myself included.
He is a bestselling author of leadership classics, including Authentic Leadership and True North. Hot of the press, he has co-authored and launched what is possibly and probably his most important book to date, the True North: Emerging Leader Edition. We warmly welcome Professor Bill George to the show.
Thank you. It’s so great to be back with you.
I had the great privilege of being in your Exec Ed Program at Harvard Business School on Authentic Leadership and Finding Your True North. I was curious about this new edition, True North: Emerging Leader Edition. Why this book and why now?
This is a clarion call to the new generation of leaders to step up. The Baby Boomers have had their day. We can become the wisdom leaders that provide guidance to people. However, I do feature many great Baby Boomer leaders like Ken Frazier of Merck, Indra Nooyi from PepsiCo, and Satya Nadella from Microsoft. Many of them are in there, but the important thing is that the world has changed so much, and we’re going from one crisis to the next.
We need new generation leaders who have lived through these crises the last several years, starting with 9/11/2001, seeing financial meltdown and COVID, and knowing how to lead people through these. It’s no longer a time of stability where leaders grow their businesses in stable times but where we have emerging leaders who understand how to unite and inspire people.
It is a different world for the Gen X-ers, the Millennials, and the Gen Zs that I include as emerging leaders. My hope is to inspire them to step up and take the lead in all organizations for profit, nonprofit, medical, military, healthcare, and academia. You name it. I hope this will happen, and I want to inspire them to do and lead authentically with their hearts.
In that process, Bill, how would you define authentic leadership?
Being an authentic leader is being who you are and being genuinely concerned with the people you’re leading. You’d be a servant leader of people. They’re not there to serve you. You’re serving them. As an authentic leader, your first job is to align people around the mission and values of your organization. It’s not to get the numbers right. You have to inspire people to a higher calling. What is that higher calling you’re working for?
At Medtronic, that higher calling was restoring people to full life and health. We were able to expand significantly the number of people we helped tremendously from 300,000 a year to now, several years later, It’s several million a year. It’s a big change in how we look at leadership. I hope the leaders will see themselves not as directing people but more as their coach who empowers them to reach their full potential. That’s been my goal for a long time to help leaders reach their full potential as leaders because they can help so many people.
You alluded to the fact that the Jack Welch Baby Boomer era is over. What do you think is radically new and the significant strategic challenges these emerging leaders will face worldwide?
What’s new is that leadership is not about meeting the shareholder’s needs as it was for Jack Welch. It’s meeting the needs of the customers, clients, and the people you serve and understanding the needs of all your employees. We’re amidst an employee revolution where employees have agencies they never had before.
If you do those two things well, you inspire your employees to meet your customers’ needs and build a highly successful community. Something businesses lost sight of. We will then meet the needs of our shareholders, who are indeed a stakeholder. That’s how you create excellent shareholder value, but it’s got to be sustainable. It doesn’t do any good to do it for a year or two or see a great company like General Electric go through a demise under Jeff Immelt for the last several years. There are businesses left, but GE, as we knew, is gone.
I want to see sustainable organizations that are there to help people and create great jobs and careers for leaders who want to make a difference in the world. That was my goal long before I left Medtronic, but it’s been particularly my goal for many years. I’ve tried to coach, educate, help, and mentor many leaders who came through Harvard Business School and Executive Education programs like you and people worldwide.
Bill, something that struck me, not only having done your program but also in your books, is that you talk about a crucible life-defining moment. Can you share with us how you would define a crucible and an example of a crucible in your young life? What difficult moments helped shape who you are and your work?
I define a crucible as the most challenging time in your life when you come face to face with yourself. All the pretense, the things external, and the validation you get are stripped away. You look in the mirror and say, “Who am I?” That often happens because things don’t go your way. I’ll give you an example of my own life. I’m an only child of older parents, and my father wanted me to become the leader he never became. When I was 9 or 10 years old, he told me, “Son, you could become the leader I never became. You could be the head of a major corporation.” He named the companies.
I didn’t know exactly what he was talking about, but I joined many organizations in high school and junior high. I was never selected to lead anything. I never liked the student council. I was a good enough tennis player to play college tennis, but not even co-captain of my high school tennis team. I decided to run for president in my senior class in my senior year. When the votes came in, I lost my margin at 2 to 1. It was pretty clear I wasn’t a leader.
I went off to Georgia Tech 800 miles away and did it all over again. I lost six more times. I’m 0 for 7, feeling like a real loser. The best thing that ever happened to me was some seniors pulled me aside and said, “Bill, we get to give you a message. No one will ever want to work with you, much less be led by you, because you’re moving so fast to get ahead. You don’t take time for other people.”
That was a blow to all my leadership because they were right and understood. I was trying to put together my own self-help development program and was able to lead many organizations. That was a crucible for me, then. I had more crucibles later, but that one struck me then because I had to face who I was for about a year and do a lot of reflection, introspection, and reading.
Bill, that is a moment of reckoning. In those steps, when you said you put together a self-help development program, can you take us through how you felt and what steps you took to navigate your way?
I read some books that helped me tremendously. Remember, I’m a person of faith, and reread Corinthians 1:13 about what it means to love. I realized how far I had to go. I returned and got feedback from several people on where I was missing the mark and where I’d defended them and learned how to be vulnerable.
Frankly, it came down to leadership, relationships, and spending a lot more time. I started mentoring and coaching a lot of people. It was getting feedback and being introspective. Seeing my role as trying to help other people rather than at the time when they confronted me when I was building a resume. “Here are all the organizations I’m in. Here’s what I’m doing. I’m running for office because I want that title,” and it is not about that.
We’re moving beyond the model of shareholder capitalism, and you talk about stakeholder capitalism. You’ve alluded to some of those stakeholders. How would you advise emerging leaders regarding competing interests between different stakeholders in this stakeholder capitalism model? Where is the balance, and what priority do you still give shareholders for putting up the capital and running the financial risks?
I believe the way lasting shareholder value is created is because you serve your customers, and that’s what inspires your employees. That’s what creates innovation. You can spend billions on R&D. Nothing will come out like Pfizer a few decades ago unless you have inspired employees and they’ve got to be inspired by a higher purpose and meeting customer needs. It could be something as simple as creating an airline where the flight attendants and everyone on board, the captain, and the pilots are there to serve the passengers.The way lasting shareholder value is created is when you serve your customers. That’s what inspires your employees and creates innovation. Click To Tweet
It could be happening at a restaurant. It could be at Medtronic, where everyone who works on a production line realizes there’s human life at the end of that heart valve. If it doesn’t work, someone could die. It’s that sense of higher calling. That’s the leader’s job to get them to understand there is a higher calling there. When you do that, then your revenues are going to increase. You’re going to get more share of the market and model a lot of new markets. You’re going to enter with innovative products. That’s what we did at Medtronic. That’s going to generate a lot of profitability.
The key to that is increasing your shareholder value with that but also continuing to reinvest in the model. The problem we had in the shareholder primacy model is people were focusing on maximizing shareholder value. That’ll work for 2 or 3 years, and then your enterprise will be gone. That’s what happened to GE. GE is gone because they didn’t reinvest in things that mattered, especially their people. That’s so critical that you invest in creating leaders.
It’s not about having a truly great leader like Satya Nadella at Microsoft, who realized his job is to run globalization and inspire everyone. It’s about having leaders at all levels, countries, businesses, and functions. What leaders need to do is to be a leader of leaders, not to be a dominant force over the enterprise.
In your excellent new book, True North: Emerging Leader Edition, you also allude to a new breed of an older generation, people like Ken Frazier, Indra Nooyi, and Ursula Burns. What do you think the new generation can learn from this new breed of an older generation?
Let’s take Ken Frazier. Here is a man whose grandson of a slave and his grandfather got his father out of South Carolina, where he’d been an indentured servant, to go to Philadelphia. They live in the poorest area of Philadelphia, where the most violence occurred, the gangs dominated, and Ken learned from his father, who never went beyond a janitor. He said, “The most valuable lesson in my life is you must do what you know is right. You don’t need to follow and please other people.” Ken carried that throughout his life.
There was a time in 2017 when there were riot problems in Charlottesville. Ken was deeply offended by the president, who said both sides had equal responsibility. Ken resigned publicly from President Trump’s council, but he didn’t have to do so publicly. He risked everything for Merck because the government controls their pricing and new product approvals. They can recall any product.
Ken put that all at risk with moral courage to say, “America stands for all people, who are created equal, and they have the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” He said, “We give people opportunities regardless of race, gender, religion, sexual identity, or national origins. We need to give everyone that opportunity to live a fulfilled life.” He restated what American democracy is all about. By the way, he’s still doing that.
At Merck, he found a drug buried in the labs called Keytruda that has now treated its one-millionth patient. It’s keeping former President Jimmy Carter alive, who had cancer all over his body, and the drug has taken it away. Ken was so dedicated to helping other people. He’s doing that and helping more Blacks get hired by companies. He’s done fantastic work in terms of democracy and capitalism. Here is a role model that I look up to. He’s a good friend of mine, younger than I am, but as a real leader, he has the moral courage to stand out and say, “This is the right thing to do.” That’s what great leaders do.
Out of interest, Bill, do you think there is something that this new generation can learn from the previous era, the Jack Welches of this world? Is there something that they should still learn and take away from that generation?
Jack was a great man for his time. He was a great leader in the ‘80s and ‘90s, but the times have changed. We’re leading through crises, and COVID has changed everyone’s attitudes. I didn’t live the World War II, but this has been our lifetime’s most significant event. There’s no one who wasn’t affected by COVID in some way or another. Whether you got it at a relative, you had to stay at home and not go to school, stay at home and not work, everyone has been affected.
Young leaders have led through these times. It’s not Jack Welch who is there.
You can’t dominate people. There are some things you can learn not to do as well. That’s to try to be a command-and-control leader and dominate other people. It’s not about that. Your job as a leader is to empower other people to reach their full potential. If you do that, you can take great satisfaction, and you’ll have a great organization.
The organization of empowered leaders will outperform the top-down organization over the long-term, where all the decisions are made in the C-Suite and are based on finances rather than humanity. Ours is an era of humanity. That’s been brought home by Coke, this terrible war that Russia has embarked on in Ukraine, the inflation that people can’t afford, the supply shortages, and not getting wheat and bread. What will happen in many countries in Africa and poorer countries that can’t get food because of supply shortages?
You raised some interesting points, but it also strikes me that, for many people, speaking up and taking a stand is often a difficult and risky decision. Knowing that often there are many losses and practical risks around, “Do I keep my job? I have a family to feed.” What advice would you give people to decide when to take a stand?
When you know your True North, you know what is important to you. You can’t take a stand on everything. You can only take a stand on things that are important to you. You don’t do it in an aggressive manner. You are clear about what you believe. That may mean that you may have to change jobs. I remember I was working for Litton Industries.When you know your True North, you know what is important to you. You can’t take a stand on everything, but only on things that are important to you. You are clear about what you believe. Click To Tweet
I had a great job, but I remember the CEO was talking to one of my colleagues who didn’t work for me in a different business and talked to him about paying bribes. He said, “I know you have to do what you have to do.” I don’t believe in that. I had to work for a company with great integrity. Honeywell had integrity, but I found my sweet spot when I found Medtronic.
You speak out on important things. I remember at Medtronic. I got a lot of pushback for speaking out on behalf of LGBTQ+ employees, feeling they had a right, and speaking on behalf of marriage equality. This offended some people in the company, but I said, “This is what this company stands for. It’s consistent with Medtronic’s values and our beliefs that everyone is equal and is treated equally in the company. I feel that strongly. It’s not about what you are. It’s about who you are.
Talking about Ukraine, what do you think? A lot of people ask the question, “What can I do?” What would you say to them?
We’re dealing with a lot of the fallout. I have enormous admiration for President Zelenskyy and his courage to stay there. You probably saw the Sri Lankan president abandon the country to save his neck. I didn’t think Zelenskyy would make it; they may not, but that’s courage. He is an inspiring person for his people. They’re fighting against overwhelming odds with Russia, which is much larger and has a more extensive military. They have the courage to defend their country. Doesn’t everyone want to do that?
That’s what happened in my parent’s generation in World War II. People had to defend their countries, get their back, and defend principles. A lot of companies are responding. I remember the CEO of AB InBev told the story about how he lives in New York. He went to Belgium to get an update on the situation. He flew to the Polish-Ukrainian border, and they had to close the factory of 300 people.
The men were not allowed to leave the country, but the CEO greeted all the family members and many female employees as they crossed the border. They provided housing for them and meals. He talked about going to a community center and parks where all these Ukrainian employees of his company could go. He was playing ping pong with the kids. The point is he was present. Our leaders are people that need to be present for their people. That’s what we can take away from this horrible war.
I don’t know how the war will come out. I hate war. There’s no excuse for it. The Polish people have entertained so many refugees from Ukraine in their homes. It’s stunning, 1.2 million. In America, immigrants made our country what it is. We must open the doors and allow more people to come in legally. I’m not saying illegally, but give out a lot more visas. You heard the United States. I believe you’re a citizen of South Africa, in the USA, we need to open it up because that’s where the energy comes from. People have seen and lived these experiences, they can share and inspire all the rest of us.
I’m turning to another courageous leader we admire and respect, Nelson Mandela. You’ve had a couple of connections with South Africa. I’d love to hear about your first visit to South Africa and what that meant to you. You went back with your family, but what was your first experience in South Africa?
I was then President of Honeywell Europe, the Middle East, and Africa. I went to South Africa. I remember we had a chance to spend three days extra up in Kruger National Park, going to Cape Town and going to St. Bosch. I remember standing up at Table Mountain and looking. Here’s the Atlantic Ocean and the Indian Ocean coming together. It was a beautiful site.
I remember leaving the country. I felt a deep sense of sadness that here, it’s all going to come apart and end in civil war. You should know that I am very opposed to anything that separates people, certainly apartheid. Every person deserves equal opportunities. They have to fulfill it for themselves. It’s not equal outcomes, but they deserve that, which was clearly denied to the people.
We visited a school of all Black children, which was very inspiring, but why don’t they have the opportunities? I then became a devotee of Nelson Mandela. I show this in the classroom all the time. When he came out of prison in 1990, he made his speech on the steps of Cape Town that night. Here’s a man that had been in prison for 27 years. In that inspiring speech, he said, “I am not here to serve Black South Africans or White South Africans. I’m here to serve all South Africans. I’m prepared to give my life to that end.”
He’s a very courageous man. He could have retired off into the hinterland. Of all the leaders I’ve known and studied, I would say that Nelson Mandela is THE greatest leader in my lifetime. I did have the privilege of spending fifteen minutes alone with him when he came to Minneapolis. My wife and I had a chance to talk to him. He was so inspiring.
How long ago was that?
He was still alive then. Now, in 2022, I would say it was about 15 years. It was in Minneapolis. I found him inspirational because here’s a man with a sense of calling. When Penny and I had our 50th wedding anniversary in 2019, we went to Tanzania and slept on the ground in tents, we then wanted to go to Cape Town and Robben Island. We took our whole family there to see where Nelson Mandela spent 27 years.
I remember standing with my grandson next to me. He was eleven at that time. His name is Freeman. I called him ‘Free man’ of God. I said, “Freeman, see that little cell and what they call a blanket. There’s nothing more. It looks like a welcome mat, not so welcome. Can you imagine spending 27 years of your life in jail for a crime you didn’t commit? This kept extending and extending.” He said, “I don’t understand. How can this be possible?” I said, “You’re going to learn some hard lessons. 1. Life is not always fair, and 2. good things don’t always happen to good people.”
Mandela came out of that. He wrote this fabulous book I’ve read twice called Long Walk to Freedom, but he rose above all that. Rather than punishing, he thanks his captors and his jailer. He went back and forgave the government and the judge who had put him in jail. How did he do that? He had that enormous crucible, which transformed him in jail between being a freedom fighter and now a uniter of the people. That’s why I admire him so much as a leader. That’s what leaders do. They follow a purpose and a passion and unite people around a common cause.
Bill, what was your big Mandela Moment? What did Mandela say to you, and what stood out about that meeting?
He inspired us to do more, reach out, and do things that mattered. He is a great spiritual leader. In the same way, His Holiness the Dalai Lama (we’ve been with) is inspiring, “What does the spiritual leader do?” He doesn’t necessarily bring you to his or her religion. They inspire you to be your best and to make a difference in your short time on Earth on behalf of other people. He certainly did that.
Things are not perfect in South Africa. They certainly aren’t perfect in the United States, but he brought people together. Leaders like that only come around once every 50 years. The next person coming around (there are not many of these like Ken Frazier in these areas), that leader inspires people. Other younger leaders are coming along and doing the same thing.
My hope is also to inspire many of the emerging leaders to step up and see their calling, whatever it is, whether it’s to deal with inequality as Mandela did, to deal with poverty, to deal with income inequality, to deal with peace as opposed to war and whether it’s climate change or health for everyone, so we can overcome disease. That’s what great leaders do.
They find a sense of calling, and they become what I call moral leaders. I write about this in my book. They become moral leaders like Mandela because they’re following a moral calling. Mandela went into prison, frankly, as an “I” leader or freedom fighter for ‘his’ people, he realized he had to be a leader of all the South African people, regardless of who they were.
In your book, you referenced some outstanding emerging leaders. You’ve written about a few of them, but could you share one example of an emerging leader who inspires you? Why? What is the difference they’re making that you think is an excellent example of what more emerging leaders could be doing?
One of the people we feature is Abby Falik. Abby went to Nicaragua when she was in college. She was way over her head and had a crucible then. She formed an organization, Global Citizen Year, and raised a lot of money for students to get prepared, go overseas and spend a gap year between high school and college to learn about the world and how it works.
You’ll learn about yourself when you’re in a setting different than your own culture, where you don’t have all the support structure around you. She had to do that as a young woman. She provides that to other people, but then COVID comes along, and you can’t fly people to Kenya, Columbia, or any of these countries where they were sending people. She had to recreate this whole experience in a leadership academy.
Now they’re back to sending people out, but I admire how she took that challenging time she had to help other people. She recently raised $25 million to do that. That may not sound a lot to the billionaires, but it’s a lot for those individuals who had that experience. She was looking out for younger leaders. I admire her tremendously.
Another one is Rye Barcott, who was my running partner. He’s a Marine, very dedicated to the Marines, but he came to Harvard Business School and felt he was in energy sustainability and solar energy. He gave up his business, a very successful business. He formed an organization called With Honor. He is trying to bring some civility to our elected representatives by having more military veterans, half Republican and half Democrat.
He asked them to make a pledge that they would work together to try to solve problems across the aisle and not have this split that you often have. Rye has raised a lot of money for that. He’s worked hard. For the last election cycle, he raised $22 million to support candidates who committed to getting more military veterans who had understood they put their life on the line and what it was like to support their country.
By contrast, you also write about the dangers of leaders who don’t follow their North Star and use their True North. You make reference to Facebook and also Uber, can you share with us what are those dangers? What are those risks? What do those examples teach us about the risk of not developing these kinds of leaders?
The risk is we get pulled off course. If we know our True North, we get pulled off course like I did later in my career. If you don’t know it, you get caught up with external validation from the three great seducers, money, fame, and power. You get caught up with that. You can get caught up in the adulation trap. You get people admiring you.If you don’t know your True North, you can get caught up with external validation from the three great seducers: money, fame, and power. Click To Tweet
Mark Zuckerberg at Facebook has gotten caught up in this. All he wants is more and more users. He doesn’t care if they’re doing evil things. Once he did care, but he doesn’t do anything to control it. He doesn’t cut back because he’s trying to create more shareholder value by having more users. There’s no discernment there. There’s no selection. It’s a very dangerous thing.
I’ve seen other people, some of our great entrepreneurs like Jeff Bezos, who created a great Amazon company and went off track. He built a $500 million yacht, and he built it in the Netherlands, where they’re great sea people, but the mast is so tall. The yacht can’t get under a bridge. Instead of adapting his boat, he wants the Dutch to take down their bridge that goes back to the 12th Century. What could he do for $500 million to help people, to educate more people, to help the poor people and people that are impoverished, and to help healthcare?
What could Bill Gates do for that money? Leaders can lose their way like the young Elizabeth Holmes did and Travis Kalanick from Uber. If they don’t know their True North, they don’t know what’s important. it’s all about them, and they get caught up in being admired by millions of people because they’re rich or have lots of toys. It worries me a lot. I’m trying to say to people, “Don’t do that. Think about your time. You have a calling here on earth to make it better for everyone.”
Bill, that’s an interesting question. What do you say to people caught up in this adulation trap? There are a lot of social pressures and influences that reinforce that behavior and those aspirations. How do we break that cycle?
Ken Frazier’s father said, “You must do what you know is right. You’re not trying to please other people.” We must realize that’s the whole process of understanding your calling on earth, who you are, and your purpose, and not having a purpose of trying because that adulation can come and go. I admire Jack Welch a lot, but people are picking on him now. You can lose it fast if you get caught up in who you’re trying to be more impressive and everyone admiring you. It is a real trap, and where you get in trouble. If you go too deep in life, you may not get out of that. That’s why I am encouraging merging leaders to go through and look at their roles.
What are they trying to accomplish early on and realize their purpose, their North Star, and to follow that deeper purpose? David Brooks wrote about this. Are you trying to build a resume, as I got trapped and trying to do in college? Are you going to talk about eulogy values? What are people going to say about you at your memorial service?
They’ll talk about the person you were, not how much money you’re worth, not what your title was, and how much power you had. They’re going to talk about your humanity. That’s what I look up to. All the people I feature in my book are people whose humanity (except for this one chapter of people that didn’t) have their humanity and what they have done to help the world. That’s what I admire.
I’m curious, you’ve served on multiple boards. You’ve also sat on the boards of companies like Goldman Sachs and ExxonMobil. Many corporates also battle a situation where perhaps they lose their way, and something goes wrong. There’s also about protecting reputation and reputational risks. Often, the temptation is to try and cover things up. Do you have an example of a corporation that has lost its way and then did the courageous thing? What did they do? How did that turn out for them?
You mentioned Goldman Sachs. I was talking to Lloyd Blankfein, the former Chair. I worked with him the entire time he was CO for 12.5 years. We got through that massive financial meltdown when all the banks were failing. Goldman Sachs came through that with shining colors in 2008 and 2009, but in 2010 and 2011, we got a lot of criticism or people perceived that we put the firm’s interest ahead of our clients.
Goldman Sachs’s number one mission, written by John Whitehead, one of my role models for leadership, was, “The clients’ interests always come first.” I don’t think Goldman perceived that they weren’t doing that, but many of their clients did. Lloyd created a Business Standards Committee of 150 partners to take the company apart from top to bottom. He asked me to chair a board committee overseeing this, and we had sixteen meetings, and they made it a better firm. They had to look at themselves in the mirror and say, “What can we do to do it better?” They had 39 recommendations that transformed the company and its relationship with its clients.
They’re thriving under David Solomon’s leadership because Lloyd had the valuable thing he should never waste a good crisis. He’d used that to transform the firm. In contrast, consumers never did that at Wells Fargo, which had 3.3 million fictitious accounts. Years later, here we are in 2022, and Well Fargo is still struggling mightily because they lost sight of their customers and never got that back. This goes back several years. That’s why I say, “Great leaders take a hard look and make their companies better.” Lloyd did that to his credit.Great leaders take a hard look and make their companies better. Click To Tweet
Shifting a little, a couple of fun facts.
What is one thing people don’t know about you, something that you’re proud of in your own life?
I’m proud of mentoring some great leaders that have come on to do great things. Many of the people I’ve worked with in my book, I like to think of it as pure relationships. Still, they would say I help mentor them and do better, and being there for people in tough times, I had a discussion with Indra Nooyi, the first non-American to ever head up PepsiCo. She was very concerned about nutrition, trying to bring that into PepsiCo, and did some fantastic things.
She was challenged by an activist who wanted to break up the company man named Nelson Peltz. I worked to support her, and she was saying how much she appreciated that because she was able to hit. She had the personal strength to rise above that and see the greater good that PepsiCo was doing and to keep it as one company.
I visited PepsiCo weeks ago and saw how 300,000 employees have jobs all over. There are challenges in Ukraine or Russia, where they have employees, but here’s a company doing great good around the world. I give Indra a lot of credit. Her successor, Ramone Laguarta, has done a fantastic job, but Indra had a lot of credit for standing tall when the company’s whole purpose was being challenged.
I admire leaders like that. It’s been a privilege to work with people like that when facing significant challenges. I can’t take any credit for anything, but I think of myself as someone who’s there for people when they need help, whether they’re the number of people I’ve reached out to who have lost their jobs or are helping them.
I talked to one mentee who lost his job through an internal coup and a board coup, and now he’s probably going to get a much bigger job. That’s great, but he had to look in the mirror and say, “What did I do wrong?” All of us do that. I’d like to be remembered for trying to help others along the way and help them reach their full potential.
Another fun fact, I’ve seen what an incredible connection you and your wife, Penny, have. What would you say is the secret part of the secret sauce?
You communicate every day about your relationship. We’ve talked to each other, “How are we doing?” It’s an important marriage. You go through, and you can go in different directions. You need to stay together. She has had a career of her own. I’ve had mine. We had a tough time when she was battling breast cancer. She’s many years out and doing well, but we have built that relationship for many years, coming up on our 53rd anniversary in 2022. That’s great. It’s vital that you work together. We’re working together on a family foundation.
I’m an Episcopalian. I believe you come into this world with nothing, and you go out of the world with nothing. In the meantime, what did you do with the gifts you were given? We’ve been privileged because Medtronic stock did well. We’re fortunate for that. We’ve put about 40% of our network into a foundation trying to help others. Penny’s field is transforming healthcare, mine of transforming leadership, trying to build healthy communities. Those things have been very important to us, but we’re trying to use our resources to help other people.
The third and final fun fact is, what is the best part of being a grandfather for you?
It’s helping the next generation. We’re trying to help our grandchildren realize their dreams, not my ones for them, but their dreams. What do they want out of life as they mature, and most importantly, to have good values to be? As grandparents, we don’t set rules. We don’t tell them what to do, but we can be role models. We spend a lot of time with our grandchildren trying to be role models of how we treat others. Kids don’t learn by what you tell them. They learn by what they see and observe. Are you true to what you believe? That’s an excellent opportunity for us, and it’s a great joy as well. It’s the next generation that’s going to make the difference.
Talking about that, can you share with us what made you decide to partner with your co-author, Zach, in this outstanding new book” True North – Emerging Leader Edition?
One of the great ways to stay young is to work with younger generations. You mentioned my grandchildren, but it’s also Zach. I had known Zach from Harvard Business School. When he graduated in 2009, he agreed to take on my social media. I didn’t know anything about how you get an active following on LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook, or any of these sites, but also, we’ve written a lot together.
When he came around to write a book for emerging leaders, it would make sense to be a Millennial author and a more senior author. I asked Zach to partner with me and be the co-author with me on this. He’s made tremendous contributions. On the side, he’s created a wildly successful online business for home services and products that people need online. It has flourished during COVID. His business has taken off, but at the same time, he’s found time to do this. We share a lot.
That’s what I call reverse mentoring. Every one of us who is more senior needs to have mentors who are younger than they are that teach you how Millennials think. Having worked with Zach and thousands of students from mine at Harvard, I have a much keener understanding of how Millennials and Gen X-ers think about these emerging leaders. I could write a book that was tailored to them and not write from the perspective of a senior leader but what are the needs and what are the opportunities. Frankly, to make this a clarion call for them to step up and reach their full potential?
In our final few moments, any final thoughts, what is the first step that you think emerging leaders should take? People say, “Where do I begin?” What do you think the first step is for them?
First, you have to understand who you are, go back, and process your story. I always ask every class I ever teach. Even in a one-hour speech, I ask people, “What are the influences views that you had in the first several years of your life with your parents, teachers, coaches, and mentors? Maybe you had negative experiences. What were the difficult times and the crucibles you had? Go back and process and see how that helped you become who you are.
That is the first step towards discovering your True North. When you do that, go back, take that deeper look, and dive into the most incredible crucible of your life. You had to figure out, “Who am I in this world?” From that, you gain self-awareness, and then you can move to get feedback from other people. We all need truth-tellers. They give us honest feedback. Everyone needs a process of introspection.
It is a go-go world 24/7. Everyone has a task list. Set the electronics aside, set the task list aside, and take twenty minutes daily to reflect on, “How did I show up? Was I doing things that I wanted to do? Was I a good leader for the people I worked with? Was I a good human being?” I meditate to do it. Some people do mindfulness, others take a jog or a walk, but they do those things. That’s the way I would get started. Don’t forget the feedback. Ask other people to give you honest feedback.
Mandela was voted as the leader of leaders of the 20th Century by the BBC. Do you think his leadership is still relevant? If so, why?
Mandela, for sure, is. I said Jack Welch was a man of his time. Mandela is a spiritual leader. He was placed here on earth to bring people together in South Africa, but to bring people together around the world. That’s why he’s such a great leader. His spirit is still inspiring to me, even though he’s deceased. I was glad he lived a long life. I remember seeing the movie Invictus and that inspiring time with the Rugby team, which with exception of one player, was all White. I believe he was there and wore the African Jersey in green.
It was a way of saying to people, “Leaders had their moment to bring people together around what matters in the world.” He did that and was very inspiring. I wish we had a Nelson Mandela here in the United States to unite us because we’re so separated. People are looking for business leaders to be the ones that bring us together. I think they are. The business leaders now, the new tribe, are not trying to feather their own nest. There are exceptions, but there are great ones that I feature in my book, like Paul Polman, a great business leader for Unilever who’s still working every day on the whole question of climate change and sustainability.
Are there any final closing thoughts, words of wisdom, or your call for action?
You only get one shot at life on this Earth. Use that time to help others and make a difference in the world. Figure out what you’re calling. My last chapter in the book is called The Moral Leader. This is not a religious concept. Moral leaders are people that know they’re calling, and then they carry it out, and they speak out on behalf of people that don’t have those opportunities. Chip Bergh at Levi’s talks about many of his customers, young women who are scared in school. He’s talking about gun safety and speaking out on behalf of women’s rights. He says, “Six percent of our employees are women. I have to speak out on women’s rights.” People do that.
Mark Benioff, the Head of Salesforce, has been so successful. He is talking about the community. He’s trying to rally people in San Francisco to help the homeless. He even wants to tax ideas companies, other companies, and other tech companies to raise money to help the homeless. These are people that are moving with a calling to their credit. I admire people that do so. Everyone must be that moral leader that Nelson Mandela was in your way and decide what you can do to make a difference around the people that you helped. At the end of the day, you’ll be able to look back and say, “It wasn’t perfect. We did the best we could, but we helped many people.”
I am truly inspired. Congratulations to you and Zach. I so look forward to doing more with you and working with you. Thank you for your incredible commitment to developing this next generation of leaders.
Thank you for the work you’re doing to bring this inspiration of Nelson Mandela to people and turn it into a book and things that continue to inspire people. I hope we can find a way to work together and inspire some more, maybe back at Harvard or anywhere else you want to go.
I look forward to that, Bill. Thank you so much.
Reflecting upon our conversation with Harvard Professor Bill George, there are so many positive things I could say and highlight. At the outset, I’m super excited. He has launched his latest book, which he co-authored with Zach Clayton called the True North: Emerging Leader Edition. Bill, true to his form and faithful to his calling, is all about paying it forward, giving back, inspiring, and empowering the next generation.
In reflecting upon his nuggets and wisdom, what stood out for me as a profound reminder is when we want to lead authentically and find our calling. It always begins with a good, hard look in the mirror. Many of us look in the mirror in a glib way, a glance, but this is a different way of looking. It’s a process I have learned in my own life and has genuinely helped me ground, center, and be honest with myself. It’s a quiet space where I can connect with myself, look into my own eyes and into my soul, and think about what I see, how it makes me feel, what Ima like, what I don’t like, and what is important to me.
It has enabled me to enhance my relationship with myself. I find that the better I know myself, the more at ease I am, the more confident I am, and the more at ease and confident I am with the world.
We all know that taking bold action is such a significant step.
People can tell us things that we may or may not remember. They can show us things, and we do tend to remember, but when we take action, we get to learn and embed a new way of being.
Action cements learning. Until next time, take care and take bold action. Thank you for joining us.
- Bill George
- Authentic Leadership
- True North
- True North: Emerging Leader Edition
- Global Citizen Year
- With Honor
- Chip Bergh
- Mark Benioff
- Long Walk to Freedom
About Bill George
He was chair and CEO of Medtronic, the world’s leading medical technology company. Under his leadership, Medtronic’s market capitalization grew from $1.1 billion to $60 billion, averaging 35 percent yearly. He joined Medtronic in 1989 as president and COO, was CEO from 1991 to 2001, and was chair of the board from 1996 to 2002. Earlier in his career, he was an executive with Honeywell and Litton Industries and served in the U.S. Department of Defense.
He has served as a director of Goldman Sachs, ExxonMobil, Novartis, Target, the Mayo Clinic, and World Economic Forum USA. He received the 2014 Bower Award for Business Leadership and was elected to the National Academy of Engineering in 2012. He has been named one of the Top 25 Business Leaders of the Past 25 Years by PBS, Executive of the Year by the Academy of Management, and Director of the Year by the National Association of Corporate Directors.
Bill received a BS in industrial engineering with high honors from Georgia Tech and his MBA with high distinction from Harvard University, where he was a Baker Scholar. He has received honorary PhDs from Georgia Tech, Mayo Medical School, University of St. Thomas, Augsburg College, and Bryant University. He and his wife, Penny, reside in Minneapolis, Minnesota.