Bill George - Word Business Forum 2011

Bill George is a professor of management at Harvard University. He is also former chief executive of Medtronic, where he grew the company from $1.1 billion market capitalization to $60 billion in just 10 years. It’s this experience, being the leader responsible for such a dramatic period of growth in such a volatile market space, that makes George such an interesting subject on paper. But it’s his demeanor that first struck me. I found myself sitting in the audience noting his casual dress, the way his arms swing haphazardly before he crosses them across his chest, his direct yet casual banter; Bill George is an everyman. As much as we love to ascribe an air of pomp and circumstance to those whose work we admire, there is as much a tribute to be shared when those expectations are broken. In the case of Bill George, I find myself admiring him for his leadership lessons, and for his ability to maintain his pragmatic and approachable sensibility while delivering explosive business results.

This sensibility is absolutely apparent in his take on leadership.

George has three operating questions that guide his model for leadership.

  1. What is the purpose of my leadership? In his book True North, George provides an exercise in which the reader is to write an essay to herself describing the long-term purpose of her leadership. The first step in defining great leadership is understanding the near-term purpose of it. However, leadership objectives can’t be fairly assessed without asking the next question. …
  2. How can I stay the course with my values and purpose? George asserts that daily efforts in leadership are likely more connected than we think to the rest of our lives. His follow-up question is appropriately leading: In what ways does the purpose of your leadership relate to the rest of your life? Is it integral to it or separate from it?
  3. How can I develop my leadership? George cites a 2009 Harvard study which revealed that 69% of respondents believe there is a leadership crisis in the U.S., exacerbated by widespread loss of trust in politicians, media, finance, and business leaders. In recovering trust, George says leaders must recover their compassion, contemplation, and sense of purpose.

It’s these three simple questions, combined with George’s profound experience and straight-forward approach to issues so many professionals make too complex, that cement his credibility. He reminds us to align people around mission and values before projects and processes, empower people to stand up and lead, and to do so in a collaborative spirit. I love the simplicity of this message.

So much of George’s presentation clearly comes from a deeply personal place. As he prepared his close, his talk turned particularly sober. “A key part of leadership development,” he said, “is to develop your emotional intelligence.” Practical skills and technical training will give you the tools you need to do a job. But it’s emotional intelligence that allows you to work with others cooperatively, collaboratively, and to create great programs.

Finally, George concluded with a challenge. He said that on our deathbed, we’re going to ask ourselves what we did to make a difference in the world around us by way of our leadership. “If you can work out what that is now,” he challenged the room, “then do it now.”