Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Bill George: A Lesson in Authentic Leadership

Bill George, former CEO of Medtronics, current Harvard professor and best-selling author of the game-changing leadership book True North: Discover Your Authentic Leadership, was the opening speaker at the World Business Forum. His style, while reserve, exudes experience and drips professorial. He shared a number of stories with the 4,000+-strong crowd here at the Forum, highlighting signs of authentic and lasting leadership – CEO accountability in the cases of Mattel and JetBlue, Bold decision-making at Goldman Sachs before the Great Recession. But what struck us most came at the end of his speech. It wasn’t about case studies of respected companies or the company boards on which he sits. He shared his personal story with an unusual, and much appreciated, amount of vulnerability.

Bill taught us a lesson about ego and how he overcame his to become a leading expert and thought-shaper on leadership. He told us about being “The Number Two” at Honeywell, in line to become CEO of one of the world’s largest and most respected companies. Bill had been at Honeywell for 10 years. He was trying to impress his colleagues and his board. He wanted them to choose him as the next CEO. But something didn’t feel right. He even wore cuff links (which he didn’t like). He would talk to his wife about it at home. A relatively small biotech company, Medtronics, approached him several times to run their company, but they were too small. He kept saying no. His ego wanted to run a large company.

Finally he met with Medtronics. He was surprised by his reaction. He felt at home and loved the mission of their work. He left Honeywell to lead Medtronics, taking the $1B company to $60B in market value in 10 years. Now, he’s on the board – or has been on the board – of several corporate stalwarts (Goldman Sachs, Exxon Mobil, Target, Novartis) and is an international powerhouse in the field of leadership.

It’s unclear whether Bill made the move to Medtronics because he wasn’t going to make CEO at Honeywell or because Medtronics just felt like a better fit for him. But we do know that he shared with us a piece of his personal story that not many CEOs would have shared. And more importantly, his story proves that when you leave that which doesn’t feel right for something that does, good things will happen. It all comes back to passion. Follow it... by definition, it’s right.

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