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A Conversation with Bill George about Authentic Leadership

Layne McDonald. Ph.D.

Do not follow where the path may lead. Go instead where there is no path and leave a trail. — Muriel Strode

I recently had the opportunity to meet with Bill George, former chair and chief executive of Medtronic, Inc., the world’s leading medical technology company, and author of the best-selling book, Authentic Leadership: Rediscovering the Secrets to Creating Lasting Value.

Bill George speaks boldly against the shareholders are king philosophy that has created many problems facing businesses today. With corporate accounting scandals rampant and CEOs being handsomely rewarded even while their companies are rushing headlong to failure, George believes that leaders must reexamine their values and principles and refocus their companies on the things that create actual sustainable value: satisfied customers serviced through valued employees.

In pursuing shareholder, not customer value, CEOs have been driven to pursue quick riches almost continuously at the expense of long-term growth and customer service. Worse, this misguided pursuit of shareholder profits has led some, as evident in Enron, WorldCom, Adelphia, and others, to create the illusion of profitability and growth.

Whereas the leadership? In many cases, the administration is as vaporous as the long-term profits.

Bill George calls on all of us to prove authentic leadership and return to the core values of sound business. He argues that taking diligent care of employees and customers will result in a higher stock price than focusing on shareholder value. And his arguments are persuasive. During his tenure as CEO at Medtronic, revenues grew from $750 million in 1989 to $5 billion in 2001. The company’s market capitalization rose from around $1 billion to more than $60 billion, a 37.5% growth rate compounded annually.

Bill George has faced many of the same pressures all leaders face: the CEO cult of personality, the 24/7 workday, the enthusiastic pursuit of earnings, the excesses of ego, and the breach of trust by far too many corporate leaders in the 1990s. In his book, Mr. George draws from his rich experiences as well as from those of leaders he admires and disdains to illustrate his five dimensions of authentic leaders:

Here are some critical thoughts from Bill George to you:
- Understanding why you want to lead
- Practicing solid values
- Leading with a heart
- Setting up connected relationships
- Showing self-discipline

Seek out Mentors that can help you reach your next level. They do not necessarily have to be in the same field as you. They can be in a different area, doing something unique, and that process could find its way over to your talents and elevate your career and operations.

Think about other companies that can cross over talents, technology, and information. For example, the rechargeable battery that became extremely popular in the 1990s has gained a lot of technological advances and the ability to create electric vehicles, rechargeable yard tools, and so much more. If someone in the automotive sphere never looked at rechargeable batteries in the process in which they could hold more capacity, we would have never had Tesla and all the other great electric cars we see today. 

What I am trying to lead to is that the same issue or solution might apply in your field and could cross populate with polite conversation, the right questions, and the ability to listen to understand that mentor. Seek out different leaders, look for unique skills and traits, and find those analytical people that might generate solutions for your own.

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