First Friday: Bill George on Authentic Leadership

The First Friday Speaker Series kicked off its 2022-23 season Oct. 7 with a conversation on authentic leadership between business leader and bestselling author Bill George and Dr. MayKao Hang, vice president of strategic initiatives and founding dean of the Morrison Family College of Health. The college is the recent recipient of a $500,000 grant awarded by the George Family Foundation, where George is co-chair with his wife, Penny.

George is also a senior fellow at Harvard Business School, where he has taught leadership since 2004. A past chairman and chief executive officer of Medtronic, he is the author of numerous books on leadership, including this year's True North: Emerging Leader Edition. His first book, Authentic Leadership, was published in 2003, soon after he left his CEO role at the medical technology company.

Here are five observations from the First Friday Speaker Series conversation.

Authentic leadership means being who you are.

"I felt like the leadership I experienced in the '90s was all wrong; it was command and control," George said. "Everything was about maximizing short-term shareholder value."

So George wrote Authentic Leadership about the need for leaders who lead with purpose, values and integrity. At the time the book was published, George noted, executives in C-suite positions were a little uneasy about sharing their inner selves, including the challenges they faced, what motivated them and where they found fulfillment in life.

Leadership is about relationships.

Bill George is a senior fellow at Harvard Business School, where he has taught leadership since 2004. He is the former chairman and CEO of Medtronic.

Reflecting on his journey, George recalled how when he was nine years old his father told him that he wanted Bill to lead a major corporation, even naming companies like Coca-Cola Co. and Procter & Gamble Co. So George ran to be the president of his high school senior class; he lost that election by a 2-to-1 margin. "It was clear that the kids in my school didn't see me as a leader," George said.

In college at Georgia Tech, he joined a lot of organizations and lost six times in elections for various positions.

"Finally, some seniors took me aside and said, 'Bill, no one's ever going to work with you, much less be led by you, because you're moving so fast to get ahead. You don't take time for other people,'" George said. "They were absolutely right. It was like I was building a resume instead of building relationships. I hadn't really learned that leadership is all about relationships with people. How do you inspire people, how do you help them reach their full potential? I hadn't learned that yet."

After reflecting on the feedback, George changed his approach and ended up leading many organizations in college and graduate school. That shift in trajectory provided him leadership opportunities in his career, including starting the Litton Industries consumer microwave oven business at the age of 27.

Organizations should be inverted, with customers at the top.

George said that, as a result of the pandemic, many leaders at organizations have neglected the people actually doing the work because so many of the interactions are via Zoom. As a result, workers may not be as inspired.

"We should invert the whole organization and have customers on top, then front-line employees, then the rest of us," George said. "It's a very different mentality, and I hope that we can rethink what's changed about leadership, of realizing the importance of everyone's sense of personal agency and personal purpose."

In explaining how this structure would work at St. Thomas, George told Hang that students would be at the top, with faculty and staff next supporting the students' learning experience.

A massive change in generational leadership is underway.

True North: Emerging Leader Edition is an expanded version of George's bestselling 2007 book with Peter Sims, True North. George collaborated with tech entrepreneur Zach Clayton on the new edition, targeted toward emerging leaders from Generation X to millennials to Generation Z.

"We were raised in a different era, where things in the '70s, '80s and '90s were much more stable," George said. "Today, you're expected to have a position. Your employees want to know: What's the purpose of our organization? Do you have a climate change plan? Do you have a diversity, equity and inclusion plan?"

George said that leaders need to be able to answer these questions and be adaptable, or employees may work somewhere else that aligns with their values on these topics.

Whole-person health is vital.

Hang and George discussed a common vision of the Morrison Family College of Health and the George Family Foundation: whole-person care that keeps people well physically, mentally, spiritually and socially.

The college will establish the George Family Whole-Person Health Initiative at St. Thomas, funded by the $500,000 grant from the George Family Foundation.

For George, the passion around whole-person health is personal. His wife, Penny, was diagnosed with breast cancer approximately 25 years ago. "It totally changed her life," he said.

Regarding leaders and whole-person health, George said, "We can't be fully effective as a teacher, as a student, as a dean unless we take care of ourselves. It's hard to prioritize yourself to actually do those things, but you have to do it. If you sacrifice yourself, you're going to sacrifice all the people who depend on you because you won't have your health."