When I received an advance copy of Bill George’s latest book, Discover Your True North, I was interested to read it, since I know Bill George from attending many of the same business and social events over the years. Most recently, George and I were co-keynote speakers on the topic of best practices in corporate governance and ethics. But, to be perfectly candid, the idea of writing a book review about “another” business book written by a former CEO didn’t exactly flip my pancakes.
That was, however, until I opened to the preface, which starts: “Warren Bennis was one of the great pioneers in the field of leadership.” I had the great fortune to have studied under Professor Bennis when I attended the Graduate School of Business at the University of Minnesota (now the Carlson School of Business). Due to Bennis’ profound wisdom, kindness and generosity of spirit, I became one of his ardent disciples, and I am grateful to have known and learned from him. George writes about his admiration for Bennis as well, and about how he influenced George’s decision to become a writer and teacher.
And how great it is that we all can learn from George’s writing. His latest book follows up on many of the 125 CEOs he interviewed for past books and contains 47 new interviews. Using stories from these leaders to illustrate major leadership principles, George demonstrates that there are many ways to lead, but the best way is by honoring your own “true north.” He defines this as leading others by mastering and sharing our special, authentic and unique qualities.
I respect George’s advice because he has not been sitting on the leadership bench studying business, but served as the CEO of Medtronic from 1991 to 2001 (a period during which the company’s market capitalization grew at an average annual rate of 35 percent). And his book includes stories from many local business leaders of their leadership challenges and lessons. As he explained in a recent Star Tribune column, the business leaders of the Twin Cities are ethical, mission-driven, values-centered, committed to building both their companies and our community, and are consistently ranked as the finest group in the country. In short, Discover Your True North is a book written by an accomplished leader about how accomplished leaders got there and how you can become one.
George’s story is one that I relate to on a very personal level, as I also experienced a crucible before finding my true north. By the time I was in my early 40s, I was a president at First Bank (now US Bank) with responsibility for enterprise-wide consumer, business and electronic banking and financial services, with 7,800 employees in 156 regional locations. The board and executives above me recognized and rewarded my leadership potential, and most people from the outside thought I was on top of the world. I climbed the corporate ladder and was enjoying exceptional compensation and perks such as corporate suites at professional sporting events and flying around in our private jets.
But inside, I was miserable. Despite my success, I wasn’t fulfilled. Just as George explains his crucible, I lost my way while trying to fit in instead of standing out by being myself. I felt like I was going to a masquerade ball every day. After some significant soul-searching, I realized that my true north wasn’t in corporate life. Rather, my authentic calling was to serve underdog organizations in distress and to serve at-risk kids who live in poverty or are physically or cognitively disabled.
George explains a three-step process. The first is to review your past, and I’ve been doing that lately too. It’s only recently that I have learned to appreciate, instead of resent, how growing up in poverty shaped me into who I am today. It’s probably why I decided on a career to fight off business bullies and help distressed underdogs, and why I work to inspire at-risk kids to have a vision for a better life and a commitment to reach it through education.
Step two describes the core building blocks for becoming an authentic leader (being self-aware, sticking to one’s values, staying with a career sweet spot, utilizing a support team and living a balanced life). Once again, these are lessons I’ve learned myself, and that also remind me of Professor Bennis, who wrote, “More leaders have been made by accident, circumstance, sheer grit or will than have been made by all the leadership courses put together” (On Becoming a Leader, revised edition).
Finally, George teaches how to lead from a position of “we” instead of “me.” I’ve learned that as I progressed along the leadership path, I had to develop new skills, including how to motivate others to get work done to accomplish goals and objectives, and that I would be measured and rewarded on that ability versus what I accomplished on my own.
So if you are feeling like you are a masqueraded leader because you’re trying to find your true north, read this book. George aims at the leadership issues that plague our country today and has hit that target with a remarkable accuracy.
Mark W. Sheffert (firstname.lastname@example.org) is founder, chairman and CEO of Manchester Companies, Inc., a Minneapolis-based board and management advisory firm specializing in business recovery, transformation, performance improvement, board governance, and litigation support.