Forbes India 15th Anniversary Special

'Lead with your heart as well as your head': Bill George

Individual charisma, authority, and external validation are passé. Leadership 2.0 is all about authenticity, intrinsic contribution, and being purpose-driven, says Bill George, an executive fellow at Harvard Business School, the former chairman and CEO of Medtronic, and the author of 'True North: Emerging Leader Edition', 'Discover Your True North', 'True North', and '7 Lessons for Leading in Crisis'

Published: May 10, 2023 11:17:36 AM IST
Updated: May 10, 2023 05:43:14 PM IST

'Lead with your heart as well as your head': Bill George"Lead with your heart as well as your head as you develop your moral compass and emotional intelligence with the qualities of passion, compassion, empathy, and courage", says Bill George

Q. Socio-political events in the past two decades have led to a rethinking of ‘leadership’ as a concept. How do you view this shift in perspective?In the past two decades, authentic leaders have become the gold standard for leaders. Organisations have recognised the pitfalls of old style “command & control”—leaders who lead with ego, charisma, and power, often for their own financial gain. Today’s successful leaders like Microsoft’s Satya Nadella and General Motors’ Mary Barra lead with passion for their purpose, empathy and compassion for employees and customers, and courage to make bold decisions that benefit all their stakeholders. I have been an advocate for this approach to leadership for 20 years since I wrote my first book in 2003, Authentic Leadership, and I am extremely pleased to see it become the dominant form of leadership today.  

Q. 20th century Vs 21st century leaders…
Many 20th century leaders followed the role model of GE’s Jack Welch to dominate everyone with their power, charisma, and decision-making at the top. Leaders of the 21st century recognise the importance of frontline employees who serve their customers and create a servant leadership culture. In addition to Satya Nadella and Mary Barra, some of the leaders who represent Leadership 2.0 are PepsiCo’s Indra Nooyi, Best Buy’s Hubert Joly, Xerox’s Ursula Burns and Anne Mulcahy, Merck’s Ken Frazier, Nike’s John Donahoe, Tata’s Ratan Tata, Unilever’s Paul Polman, Levi’s Chip Bergh, Ford’s Alan Mulally, and Infosys’s Narayana Murthy. I feature all of them in my new book, True North: Emerging Leader Edition. They represent the “best of the best” of Leadership 2.0.

Q. What will it take to be truly authentic?
To be truly authentic, leaders need to have humility and recognise they are serving their employees and their customers – not the other way around. That is what Nelson Mandela did as president of South Africa after spending 27 years in prison for a crime he didn’t commit. Medtronic CEO Omar Ishrak, who is currently Chairman of Intel, transformed the company by refocusing his 95,000 employees around the Medtronic Mission, and was always humble in speaking about his enormous success.

Authentic leaders also need to admit their mistakes and take responsibility when things go awry, while giving credit to their teams when they are successful. They need to be transparent and always speak the truth, no matter how painful, in order to build the trust of their employees, their customers, and the society they serve.

Also read: Adaptive authenticity: A mighty tool for prosperity and sustainable growth

Most importantly, they need to make ethical decisions based on their True North and their moral compass, regardless of the price they pay for doing so. An example is pulling a product off the market that does not meet your quality standards as Mary Barra has done at GM in recalling 30 million vehicles her first year, Johnson & Johnson’s Jim Burke did with Tylenol, and I did at Medtronic with a new heart valve that did not meet our quality standards.

Q. Could you lead with authenticity always?
I tried hard to lead with authenticity as CEO of Medtronic. I am sure there were times when I fell short by being too critical of people, too impatient to get things done, and putting too much pressure on people to meet patients’ medical needs, but it was all done in the spirit of restoring more patients to full life and health.  

Q. Why do you think this is particularly crucial for emerging leaders?
Today’s employees demand authenticity in their leaders, reflected in leaders showing how much they care about them, how they are serving all their stakeholders, not just short-term shareholders, and challenging them to reach their full potential. Millennials in particular want to work for organisations with a deep sense of purpose to serve others that make a difference in the world, while addressing great issues like climate change and diversity and inclusion within their organisations. They will not tolerate ego-driven jerks who are only out for themselves. If emerging leaders lack authenticity, they will not be able to gain the support and trust of their teams.

Also read: The best person to lead your company doesn't work there—yet

Q. Can B-schools help in shaping leaders that value transparency and trust?
In the last two decades, business schools have placed too much emphasis on training managers with traditional management skills and equipping them with financial techniques, when they should be focusing on developing leaders. Harvard Business School has taken a different tack since 2004 with its focus on leadership and accountability, authentic leadership development, and developing global leaders prepared to cope with the great challenges the world faces.  

Now all business schools around the world need to focus less on managerial techniques and, instead, on developing authentic leaders who create trust among people and develop cultures of empowered people dedicated to serving customers.

Also read: Swept by intuition: Bad decisions of good leaders

Q. What’s the best way to drive purpose and performance simultaneously? 
I do not see purpose and performance at different ends of the spectrum. In today’s world, sustained performance only comes from authentic leaders at all levels and employees working together to serve a greater purpose. General Electric is a painful example of a company whose only mission was making money, and no longer exists as a company.

At Medtronic, our commitment to innovation to address unmet medical needs of patients for diseases like sudden cardiac arrest, diabetes, spinal disease, Parkinson’s disease, chronic pain, and heart failure enabled the company to achieve 18-percent-plus compound growth in revenues per annum over a 20-year period, while returning greater than 30 percent per annum to our shareholders.

Also read: Your team doesn't need you to be the hero

Q. Many India-born leaders have made it big on the global stage. What makes this possible?
The Indian leaders I know like Nadella, Nooyi, Ishrak, and the CEOs of Mastercard, Google, Novartis, and Barclays have been extremely successful in building organisations of authentic leaders committed to serving customers, while achieving great returns for their shareholders over the long-term. The common traits I see in Indian leaders are their clarity of strategic thinking, their humility, their calmness under pressure, and their ability to address challenging issues in a positive and thoughtful way. The Indian leaders I know are not only very intelligent, but possessed with high emotional intelligence, including empathy and compassion and tranquillity.

Q. As the pandemic has proven, leading in crisis is the most challenging of all. What are the three crucial skills that can help in sailing through?  
The most critical skills for leading in crisis are vision, understanding of the world, and adaptability to changes required by the crisis. They also need to have compassion for what others are experiencing and resilience to rebound from getting knocked down. As CEO of Medtronic, Omar Ishrak had a vision of how the company could expand in developing markets by unlocking patient access through partnering with customers. Satya Nadella used his deep understanding of the future of computing to reformulate Microsoft’s strategy. Merck’s Ken Frazier had the courage to resign from President Trump’s Council after the President refused to honour America’s fundamental values that “all men are created equal”. At PepsiCo, Indra Nooyi had the adaptability to modify the company’s tactics in the beverage business and the tenacity and resilience to fend out an activist investor who wanted to break up the company.

Also read: Passion at work is a good thing—but only if bosses know how to manage it

Q. Your advice for next-gen leaders… 
Lead with your heart as well as your head as you develop your moral compass and emotional intelligence with the qualities of passion, compassion, empathy, and courage. Then use your gifts to make a difference in the world.

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