Monday, November 16, 2009

Bill George: Play Your Game, Not Theirs

We recently spoke with Bill George, widely known for his classic book on leadership, True North: Discover your Authentic Leadership. He's also a Harvard Business School Professor and the former, storied CEO of Medtronics, the world’s largest medical technology company (think pacemaker). You can see him at the World Economic Forum in late January as a panelist on leadership.

Bill is not your typical CEO or Business School Professor. He doesn’t shy away from ideas of vulnerability, self-reflection, or even counseling. In fact, he sees them as sources of power, not weakness.

Bill preaches about the importance of knowing who we are (awareness), being open about it (vulnerability), and sticking to it (commitment) in the choices we make in life and as a leader. It’s when we do these things that we’re strong enough to resist temptations of “short-termism” – that is, the temptation of immediate gratification over the more sustainable long view.

Take the recent economic meltdown. Bill believes it was caused, not by sub-prime mortgages, but by “sub-prime leadership.” Too many people got caught up in the short term, more concerned about keeping up with the corporate Joneses and meeting Wall Street expectations than with the long-term health of their own companies. Bill is convinced that “if you play Wall Street’s game, you will destroy your company.” Look at Citibank, AIG, and countless others.

That said, it’s difficult to not play the game. Does a leader really even have a choice? What can one leader do in the face of such powerful forces as competitive pressure, fiduciary responsibility, and Wall Street expectations?

Bill’s response is simple: “Just don’t play [the game]. Just say no.” Simply say “we are in the business of building long-term shareholder value” and go about doing it. That’s what he did at Medtronic. And the long-term health and strength of the company has benefited greatly. Not right away, but in the end, when it matters.

There’s a personal parable in all of this. In our career choices and lives in general, we’ve got to be strong enough to take the long view over the short one. We’ve got to know who we are, be honest about it, and make decisions from there, decisions that lead to sustainable personal growth, not dramatic falls.

Taken together, Bill’s philosophy is a virtuous assault on conventional wisdom, a wisdom – propagated by mainstream media and corporate culture – that tells us to “[try] to make a good impression and not show them who you really are.”

He is not na├»ve, however, about the difficulty of defying conventional wisdom. In fact, he says, “If you share your vulnerabilities and weaknesses, you figure you won’t get hired. And maybe you won’t. I think that’s the problem."

So how do we overcome this problem, the powerful forces against being who we are? Unfortunately, the answer isn’t clear. It’s a matter of personal choices and values. Bill admits that we can reach success if we play the short-term game or hide who we are. But the chances of it being sustainable are slim. It will likely lead to a fall, more precipitous and more probable than if we played it right.

Bill’s view on failure is similar to that of luminaries we’ve already spoken to – it’s more a blessing than a curse. The key is whether we learn from it or not. Bill believes, “early failures are one of the greatest learning tools you can have.” We try hard not to fail early in our lives and careers. But the earlier we fail, the earlier we learn and the more we avoid self-destructive behavior later on. Bill reminds us that “the greatest failure of all [is] the failure to take risks to be who you are.”

When we do fail, Bill implores us to not simply blame others and move on, but rather, look internally. Own it. Make the necessary changes. And then move on. Stronger.

Listen to our full interview with Bill to find out more about him, including:
- His personal epiphany
- His relationship to luck
- His view of social media
- His take on Bill Clinton and Sandy Weill

1 comment:

  1. As always, great comments and insights from Bill. I had the chance to chat with him a while back at the Aspen Institute - and amazing leader. This morning I posted a blog to my site that really speaks exactly to this post -- I strongly encourage folks to take a quick look – it has some wonderful information and research on the skills that will be required to be a successful leader in the future. I truly believe that you will find it of value: here is the link: -- it is entitled: What Are The Most Important Leadership Skills? I hope you find it helpful - John Spence