When top executives sit down to write a book, the result is often a celebratory memoir or an upbeat treatise on how you can emulate their success. Bill George has chosen to produce neither, and readers are the luckier for it. Instead, the former Medtronic CEO and current Harvard Business School professor has teamed up with co-author Peter Sims to offer a practical, inspiring examination of the executive experience, True North: Discover Your Authentic Leadership. While the volume is a sequel to George's 2003 best-seller, Authentic Leadership, it easily stands alone as a guide to locating what the authors call "the internal compass that guides you successfully through life."
At the heart of True North is a series of interviews with 125 managers, from Novartis CEO Daniel Vasella to Palm co-founder Donna Dubinsky. George and Sims indulge in a few anecdotes that flatter their subjects. But they also get interviewees to talk about failures, emotional challenges, personal tragedies, regrets—in short, life events that knocked them off typical career paths. Taken together, the stories illustrate True North's thesis: that there is no single way to become an ideal leader. The volume is both memorable and perceptive.
True North has three parts. The first is an anecdote-rich section that describes what it means to be an "authentic leader" and examines how various people arrived at this status or lost their way. There's Kevin Sharer, who abandoned General Electric for MCI, only to find that he was miserable and that Jack Welch wouldn't take him back. ("Hey, Kevin, forget you ever worked here," Welch told him.) Sharer learned patience and humility and went on to become chairman of Amgen. The key experience for Novartis' Vasella, in contrast, came from childhood: He endured years of illness and learned the value of compassion in health care.
The book's second section, which focuses on the five key facets of a leadership plan, is its most useful. First comes "knowing your authentic self," i.e., learning to be self-aware. This proved difficult for David Pottruck, a former CEO of Charles Schwab who found that his long workdays and aggressiveness made colleagues resent and distrust him. His answer, on the job and in his third marriage, was to force himself to seek feedback on a regular basis. Next, after you attain a measure of self-awareness, you should focus on the values and principles that matter to you. David Gergen and Jon Huntsman, both of whom served in the Nixon White House and experienced the Watergate scandal up close, had to learn to draw ethical lines. Huntsman recalls that "an amoral atmosphere permeated the White House." The growing realization, highlighted by a request to entrap a politician, prompted him to leave.
A third step in the construction of a leadership plan is discovering what motivates you. The most successful leaders, the authors learn, rarely start out wanting to get rich. They are inspired to make a difference, to test their limits, to follow a passion. In many cases, they abandon secure posts for the unknown. Fourth in the authors' scheme is building a support team. Here, we read that many in Silicon Valley, including Palm's Dubinsky, were aided by Intuit Chairman Bill Campbell, whom George calls the "dean of mentoring." Howard Shultz of Starbucks found inspiration in management guru Warren Bennis. Finally, you should try to forge what George and Sims call "an integrated life" that augments work with such things as family, friends, community service, exercise, church, and whatever else matters in your life.
True North's last section deals with empowering the people around you. The authors ask leaders—including many women (more than in any other part of the book)—to talk about the higher calling of their work. Avon Products' Andrea Jung explains that "what we do is elevate women in the community," while Anne Mulcahy of Xerox talks about trying to motivate personnel as the company struggled to stave off bankruptcy. As elsewhere in the book, this is no victory lap. At one point, Mulcahy recounts pulling over on a highway after a tough day, saying to herself: "I don't know where to go. I don't want to go home. There's just no place to go."
Most readers will relate to at least some of the subjects' struggles, whether they involve watching a sibling die or fighting to keep ego from getting in the way of results. These people come across as fallible, emotional, and, yes, authentic. A series of exercises at the end of each chapter may help readers evaluate their priorities and practices. While True North offers no simple answers, it provides plenty of fodder to help readers figure out for themselves how to become a leader. (Business Week, March 12, 2007)
"Now comes a truly worthwhile look at leadership...this is one of the most important books on leadership in years." (International Herald Tribune, April 2007)