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"To thine own self be true...."
on 6 March 2007
It is preferable but not imperative to have read previously published Authentic Leadership before reading this book which Bill George also wrote, with Peter Sims. In the former, George observes that authentic leaders are first and foremost authentic human beings. For me, this is his key point and because it seems so obvious, it may also seem simplistic. On the contrary, he has cut through all the rhetoric and urges his reader to examine her or his own core values. For most of us, that is an immensely difficult, perhaps painful experience. In this context, I am reminded of the fact that in The Inferno, Dante reserves the last and worst ring in hell for those who, in a moral crisis, preserve their neutrality. Throughout all manner of organizations, there are women and men who are authentic leaders and should be commended. The reality is, their respective organizations need more of them. Indeed, all of us in our global community need more of them. In Authentic Leadership, a truly unique and compelling book, George challenges us to join their number.
What we have in True North is a further development of George's concept of authentic leadership but also a rigorous, revealing, and rewarding analysis of what George and Sims learned during their interviews of more than 100 leaders. Most of their names were previously unfamiliar to me, although all are eminently worthy of the attention they receive. (That's a key point: Many - too many - studies of "leadership" limit their attention to C-level executives - usually "celebrity CEOs" -- when, in fact, authentic leadership is needed at all levels and in all areas of an organization, whatever its size and nature may be.) At twenty-three, Jonathan Doochin was the youngest leader interviewed; while a senior in college, he created Harvard's Leadership Institute. Ninety-three-year old Zyg Nagorski was the "senior" leader" interviewed for this study; after running the Aspen Institute's Executive Programs for a decade, he stepped aside at seventy-five and then, with his wife, started the Center for International Leadership and continues to conduct values and ethics seminars eighteen years later.
George and Sims discuss an unusually diverse group of men and women in terms of what is characterized as a three-phase "journey to authentic leadership" which begins with character formation and culminates (not concludes) with full development of authentic leadership within five separate but related dimensions: pursuing purpose with passion, practicing purpose with passion, practicing solid values, leading with heart, establishing connected relationships, and demonstrating self-discipline.
Hundreds (thousands?) of self-help books on leadership also invoke the "journey" metaphor while suggesting all manner of "phases," "stages," "dimensions," etc. What sets this book apart from them is the authenticity of what interviewees share so candidly and so generously. More specifically, as in Geeks and Geezers co-authored by Warren Bennis and Robert Thomas, those interviewed recall especially difficult experiences such as the death of a spouse or a child, losing a high-profile job, an extended illness, a failed marriage, etc. In fact, what Bennis and Thomas refer to as a "crucible" is all about the only personal experience shared in common by those whom George and Sims interviewed.
I was tempted to cite some exemplary "crucibles" provided in the book but have decided not to because each should be presented within the context of the lively narrative. However, I will observe that, for me, some of the most interesting and valuable material in this book focuses on coping with severe hardships of one kind or another. Long ago, Jack Dempsey observed that "champions get up when they can't." Authentic leaders must first become authentic people and, more often than not, that process requires experiencing and then overcoming being "knocked down." To paraphrase Dempsey, authentic leaders get up.
It is worth noting that throughout the narrative, most of those interviewed emphasized the importance of establishing and then nourishing personal relationships. This is especially true of those who are entrusted with leadership responsibilities. More often than not, what George and Sims characterize as a process of "peeling back the onion" to locate the "authentic self" requires the assistance, indeed the direct involvement of others. David Pottruck (former CEO of Charles Schwab) offers a compelling example of someone who created all kinds of problems for himself in his professional career and personal life until, finally and probably desperate, he assembled his colleagues and said "I am Dave Pottruck, and I have some broken leadership skills. I'm going to try to be a different person. I need your help, and ask you to be open to the possibility that I can change." Pottruck credits others and especially his third wife, Emily, for helping him to become - finally - an authentic person.
What about the title? According to George and Sims, True North is "the internal compass that guides you as a human being at your deepest level. It is your orienting point - your fixed point in a spinning world - that helps you stay on track as a leader. Your True North is based on what is most important to you, your most cherished values, your passions and motivations, the sources of satisfaction in your life. Just as a compass points toward a magnetic field, your True North pulls you toward the purpose of your leadership." Many readers will appreciate the provision of several self-audit exercises in Appendix C, each of which is dedicated to issues addressed in a specific chapter. I presume to suggest reviewing all of the exercises first before beginning to read this book, then proceed chapter-by-chapter, pausing to complete the appropriate exercise per each.
I was especially interested in what George and Sims have to say about "Empowering People to Lead" (Chapter 10). Appropriately, they stress the importance of mutual respect which they view as the "basis for empowerment" (I agree). Peter Drucker despised the word "empowerment." (I don't. Only misapplication of it.) Just as authentic leaders must first be authentic people, empowered cultures must be comprised of empowered people. CEOs as diverse as Anne Mulcahy (Xerox), Howard Schultz (Starbucks), Roy Vagelos (Merck), and Marilyn Carlson Nelson (Carlson Companies) have much of value to say about how to empower people throughout any organization and precisely the same values should also guide and inform relations with those outside the given organization.
Although George and Sims eloquently advocate the importance of developing leadership at all levels and in all areas of a given organization, they correctly emphasize the necessity of having leadership provided by a wholly authentic CEO, one thinks of power only in terms of first-person plural pronouns. In this context, I am reminded of a passage in Lao-Tzu's Tao Te Ching:
Learn from the people
Plan with the people
Begin with what they have
Build on what they know
Of the best leaders
When the task is accomplished
The people will remark
We have done it ourselves.
Those who share my high regard are urged to read the aforementioned Authentic Leadership and Geeks and Geezers as well as Success Built to Last co-authored by Jerry Porras, Stewart Emery, and Mark Thompson, Michael Ray's The Highest Goal, James O'Toole's The Executive's Compass and Creating the Good Life, Jeffrey Sonnenfeld and Andrew Ward's Firing Back, and David Whyte's The Heart Aroused.