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46 Georgia Tech Alumni Magazine • Fall 2007
resist the constant pressures and expectations
confronting you and to take corrective
action when necessary.
The Leadership Crisis An enormous vacuum in leadership
exists today — in business,
politics, government, education,
religion and nonprofit organizations.
Yet there is no shortage of people with
the capacity for leadership. The problem
is that we have a wrongheaded
notion of what constitutes a leader,
driven by an obsession with leaders at
the top. That misguided standard often
results in the wrong people attaining
critical leadership roles.
“True North” is written for anyone
who wants to be an authentic leader. It
is for leaders at all stages of their lives,
from those at the top of organizations
to students preparing to become leaders
to lifelong leaders looking for new
opportunities. You are never too young,
or too old, to take on leadership challenges
and to lead authentically. It is
grounded in the hundreds of years of
experience of the 125 authentic >>>
Discovering your True
North takes a lifetime
of commitment and
learning. Each day, as
you are tested in the
world, you yearn to
look at yourself in the mirror and
respect the person you see and the life
you have chosen to lead. Some days
will be better than others, but as long as
you are true to who you are, you can
cope with the most difficult circumstances
that life presents.
The world may have very different
expectations for you and your leadership
than you have for yourself.
Regardless of whether you are leading
a small team or are at the top of a powerful
organization, you will be pressured
by external forces to respond to
their needs and seduced by rewards for
fulfilling those needs. These pressures
and seductions may cause you to
detour from your True North. When
you get too far off course, your internal
compass tells you that something is
wrong and you need to reorient yourself.
It requires courage and resolve to
True North is the internal compass that guides you successfully through life. It
represents who you are 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 pole, your True North pulls
you toward the purpose of your leadership. When you follow your internal compass,
your leadership will be authentic, and people will naturally want to associate
with you. Although others may guide or influence you, your truth is derived
from your life story and only you can determine what it should be.
True North By Bill George
47 Georgia Tech Alumni Magazine • Fall 2007
leaders we interviewed as well as my
own 40 years in leadership roles.
Authentic leaders not only inspire
those around them, they empower them
to step up and lead. Thus, we offer the
new definition of leadership: The
authentic leader brings people together
around a shared purpose and empowers
them to step up and lead authentically
in order to create value for all
In “Authentic Leadership,” I
described authentic leaders as genuine
people who are true to themselves and
to what they believe in. They engender
trust and develop genuine connections
with others. Because people trust them,
they are able to motivate others to high
levels of performance. Rather than letting
the expectations of other people
guide them, they are prepared to be
their own person and go their own way.
As they develop as authentic leaders,
they are more concerned about serving
others than they are about their own
success or recognition.
This is not to say that authentic
leaders are perfect. Far from it. Every
leader has weaknesses and all are subject
to human frailties and mistakes. Yet
by acknowledging their shortcomings
and admitting their errors, they connect
with people and empower them.
Leaders are defined by their values
and values are personal — they cannot
be determined by anyone else. Integrity,
however, is the one value required of
their fulfillment. There is nothing
wrong with desiring these outward
symbols as long as they are combined
with a deeper desire to serve something
greater than oneself.
Leaders whose goal is gaining
power over others, maximizing wealth
or becoming famous tend to look to
other people for satisfaction and
acknowledgement of their status. In
public and in private, they display a
high degree of narcissism. As leaders of
institutions, they ultimately believe that
the institution cannot survive without
them because in their mind they are the
institution. A tragic example of this was
Richard Grasso in his closing days as
CEO of the New York Stock Exchange.
Grasso got so caught up in his power
and celebrity that he lost touch with the
negative reaction to a public servant
receiving a $130 million compensation
package and was forced to resign by
his board.
In contrast, Xerox CEO Anne
Mulcahy deflects most media attention,
in spite of her success in turning the
company around. She told us about
receiving a telephone call from her
mentor, former CEO David Kearns,
when she was in the darkest hours of
trying to keep the company out of
bankruptcy and fending off an SEC
investigation. “Mulcahy, do you believe
all that bull they are writing about you
in the newspapers?” Kearns asked over
the phone. “No, David,” Mulcahy
replied calmly. “Good,” responded
Kearns. “Then don’t believe it when
they start writing about you as the savior
of Xerox.”
Transformation from ‘I’ to ‘We’ Iexperienced a series of crucibles that
ultimately transformed my
approach to leadership. From my
earliest days my father encouraged me
to become a leader. … When I wasn’t
chosen for high school leadership roles,
I ran for elected office and was disappointed
not to win. Discouraged, I went
off to Georgia Tech so I could have a
every authentic leader. If you do not
have integrity, no one will trust you,
nor should they. The values of authentic
leaders are shaped by their personal
beliefs and developed through study,
introspection, consultation with others
and years of experience. The test of
authentic leaders’ values is not what
they say but the values they practice
under pressure. If leaders are not true
to the values they profess, people
quickly lose confidence in their leadership.
Authentic leaders lead with their
hearts as well as their hands. To some,
leading with the heart may sound soft,
as though authentic leaders cannot
make tough choices involving pain and
loss. Leading with the heart is anything
but soft. It means having passion for
your work, compassion for the people
you serve, empathy for the people you
work with and the courage to make difficult
decisions. Courage is an especially
important quality for leaders as they
navigate through unpredictable terrain.
What Causes Disorientation? Before people take on leadership
roles, they should first ask themselves
two fundamental questions:
“What motivates me to lead?”
and “What is the purpose of my leadership?”
If honest answers to the first
question are simply power, prestige
and money, leaders risk being trapped
by external gratification as the source of
BILL GEORGE, IE 64, is the former chief executive and
chairman of the board of Medtronic, the world’s leading medical
technology company. Under his leadership, Medtronic’s
market capitalization grew from $1.1 billion to $60 billion,
averaging 35 percent a year. A professor of management practice
at Harvard Business School and the best-selling author of
“Authentic Leadership,” George is frequently asked for his
insights. George’s latest best-seller, “True North,” excerpted
here, is hailed by The New York Times as “one of the most
important books on leadership to come along in years. It is far
more reality-based than the theories peddled by the bulk of management pundits.”
48 Georgia Tech Alumni Magazine • Fall 2007
fresh start where no one knew me. … I
learned the hard way that I couldn’t
escape my past unless I changed myself
in the present. I ran for office in my college
fraternity six times and lost every
time. Clearly, I had not learned why
others did not want to follow me.
At this point a group of seniors
took me under their wing and gave me
some sound advice. “Bill, you have a
lot of ability, but you come across as
more interested in getting ahead than
you are in helping other people. No
wonder no one wants to follow your
lead.” Although devastated by this
feedback, I took their advice to heart. I
talked to my peers about what I was
doing wrong and how I could change.
Eventually, the changes took hold, and
I was chosen for more leadership positions
than I could take on. Most
rewarding of all was being selected as
fraternity president by the same people
who had rejected me earlier.
In my mid-20s I experienced the
most significant crucibles of my life. An
only child, I was extremely close to my
mother, who gave me unconditional
love. When she died suddenly of cancer
and a heart attack, I went into a
period of deep reflection about the purpose
of my life. Eighteen months later,
as I was only three weeks away from
being married, my fiancee died suddenly
from a malignant brain tumor.
Her death came as an incredible shock.
Once again, I felt all alone in the world.
Had it not been for the power of prayer
and the support of my friends, I might
not have recovered.
Not long after that, I had the blessing
of meeting my future wife, Penny.
She was very empathetic about my
experiences, and a year later we were
married. I can honestly say that she has
been the best thing that ever happened
to me. In addition to being a great wife
and mother, Penny is an outstanding
counselor to me.
Even so, I still wasn’t out of the
woods. I saw myself on an unbroken
sprint to the top of a major corpor- >>>
“I was so focused
on becoming
CEO that I had
lost sight of the
purpose of my
leadership —
to benefit the
lives of others.”
49 Georgia Tech Alumni Magazine • Fall 2007
ation. By age 30, I was president of
Litton Microwave, the pioneer and
leader in the emerging U.S. consumer
microwave oven industry. For the next
five years I led our team in creating the
field of consumer microwave cooking.
Toward the end of that time, the board
of directors of our parent company,
Litton Industries, visited our rapidly
growing division. I was proud to
explain how we had grown at 55 percent
per year and had become the
largest profit contributor in the corporation.
Sailing high, I was pulled aside
after the meeting by the corporate
CEO, who offered some stern advice.
“Young man, you’re still in the honeymoon
phase here. You don’t have a
clue what business is all about. Wait
until you have to turn around failing
His advice really angered me. I
thought he was the one who didn’t
have a clue about how to create growth
businesses. Was I ever wrong. A year
later I left Litton and joined Honeywell,
with the opportunity to lead a global
corporation. As I was asked to turn
around one business after another, I
recognized that Litton’s CEO had been
absolutely right. During my fourth
major turnaround, I finally looked at
myself in the mirror and admitted this
was not how I wanted to spend my life.
I was in the midst of a severe crucible
but had been too busy to recognize
it. I finally faced the reality that
my unhappiness at work was harming
my marriage, my relationship to our
sons and my close friendships. Maybe
my destiny was not to be CEO of
Honeywell after all or maybe I would
not enjoy the job if I got it.
At that point I talked with my
wife, my best friend, and a group of
men I met with each week and asked
them all for candid feedback. They had
seen what was happening and were
pleased I was finally facing it. I was so
focused on becoming CEO that I had
lost sight of the purpose of my leadership
— to benefit the lives of others.
“By discovering
the purpose of
my leadership
in serving
patients and
employees, I
was finally
on the right
side of the
from ‘I’ to ‘we.’”
50 Georgia Tech Alumni Magazine • Fall 2007
For all my earlier work, I had not fully
made the transition from “I” to “we.”
Three times I had turned down the
opportunity to become president and
CEO of Medtronic, the creator of the
pacemaker, because I did not believe the
company suited my ambition to lead a
large company. Back then, it was only
one-third the size of the sector I was
leading at Honeywell. Facing up to my
need for a renewed sense of purpose, I
called Medtronic back to find out if the
position was still open.
Several months later, after conversations
about the Med tronic mission with
founder Earl Bakken, I joined Medtronic
as president. My 13 years there became
the best professional experience of my
life. By embracing the Medtronic mission
of restoring people to full life and
health, and discovering the purpose of
my leadership in serving patients and
empowering 30,000 employees, I was
finally on the right side of the transformation
from “I” to “we.”
Professional Support Network Many leaders develop professional
peer networks both
within and outside their organizations
to consult with them about
important issues and to provide counsel
and guidance. EBay’s (John) Donahoe
noted, “You can learn a little bit from a
lot of people.” Rob Chess, chairman of
Nektar Therapeutics, commented, “If
someone does something very well, I try
to understand how I can apply it to my
work.” Some leaders mentioned the
value of their involvement with executive
roundtable groups and professional
organizations like the Young Presidents’
Organization. YPO provides a forum
where members can talk openly about
their challenges and a network to
exchange ideas and learn from each
other. Having a peer support structure
within your organization can be invaluable,
because colleagues may be facing
comparable experiences, have insights
about things you do not see or be in a
restaurants owned by his family. After
early success in his new role, relationships
with his people grew strained as
he tried to change the firm’s direction.
He explained, “By the end of the 1970s,
I was fed up. A lot of people were
opposing what I was trying to get
done. Finally, I just threw up my hands
and asked my self, ‘Do I want to keep
beating my head against this wall?’”
Rogers took a six-month sabbatical
and went to Solana Beach outside San
Diego. He lived on the beach for six
months, ran every day and learned to
surf while he thought about his
options. “Finally, I said to myself, ‘Is
this really my people’s fault? Maybe
I’m the problem. I may have the right
ideas, but I’m not providing the right
He returned to the business and
unveiled a new corporate strategy. He
told his team, “We’re stopping the
growth and committing to quality first.
It’s no longer bigger and better. It’s better
before bigger. If we don’t get better,
we haven’t earned the right to get bigger.”
Rogers’ organization quickly
solidified around the new strategy as
Waffle House was transformed into a
success story that has been sustained
for 30 years.
What Will Your Legacy Be? Why not take the opportunity
to think about that question
right now, while you are still
writing your life story? Just as it is
never too late to lead, it is never too late
to make a difference in the world and
to leave a legacy for those who come
along after you. But only you can
answer that question. When you know
your answer, you will also recognize
why leadership is so fulfilling. GT
Excerpted with permission of the publisher
John Wiley & Sons Inc., “True North: Discover
Your Authentic Leadership,” by Bill George
and Peter Sims. Copyright © 2007 by William
George. This book is available at all bookstores,
online booksellers and from the
Wiley Web site at, or call
1 (800) 225-5945.
position to offer you real-time feedback
on your leadership. Because being on
top of an organization can be lonely
and isolating, some leaders use subordinates
as an advisory network, even in
the most difficult business circumstances.
CEOs look to members of their
board of directors for advice at crucial
points, so why not have your own personal
board of directors? Your board
might include several highly trusted
personal and professional advisers,
people you respect for their professional
expertise, insights and wisdom and
for their commitment to your personal
well-being. Your team can also include
close friends, mentors, your lawyer,
financial planner or personal coach.
You can meet with them on a regular
basis or when you are facing especially
difficult decisions.
Your journey to leadership is likely
to take unexpected turns. Life is full of
challenging situations, including ethical
dilemmas, midcourse career changes or
burnout, seemingly intract able interpersonal
challenges with colleagues, marriage
and family issues, failures and
loneliness. At times you may feel you
are losing your way or have gotten off
the course of your True North.
Getting back on track alone is very
difficult. That is when you most need
your support team. It is important to
build your team long before there is a
crisis in your life.
Staying Grounded Taking sabbaticals is (one) way in
which authentic leaders ground
themselves. John Donahoe’s sabbatical
lasted three months. Brenda
Barnes was away from the workplace
for several years to focus on her family
before she returned to the corporate
world as president of Sara Lee. Many
other leaders, such as Joe Rogers Jr. (IM
68), also took sabbaticals.
Rogers did not take long to become
CEO. At 26 he was put in charge of
Waffle House, a chain of breakfast
51 Georgia Tech Alumni Magazine • Fall 2007


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