Discover Your True North

by Bill George

The term True North refers to “the internal compass that guides you successfully through life… It is derived from your most deeply held beliefs, your values, and the principles you lead by.” Quoting Warren Bennis, “Leadership is character.”

Everybody develops their own True North. “Today authenticity is seen as the gold standard for leadership… The reality is that no one can be authentic by trying to be like someone else. You can learn from others’ experiences, but you cannot be successful trying to be like them. People will only trust you when you are genuine and authentic.”

Crucibles. “Most of the leaders we interviewed were shaped by severe trials in their lives, which we call crucibles… Crucibles are the real test of your character and can be transformative experiences that empower you to reframe your life’s meaning. Eventually, you will look back at your experiences and draw strength from them.” In the words of Pedro Algorta, “Use the event to transform your wound into a pearl.”

Chapter 5 includes the story of Sallie Krawcheck, head of Citigroup’s Smith Barney wealth management business during the financial crisis. “Krawcheck advocated returning client funds on certain products. She bluntly asserted that Citi had broken clients’ trust by pushing low-risk alternative investments that were actually high risk.” CEO Vikram Pandit disagreed, but the board sided with Krawcheck. “Pandit fired her months later.”

Quoting John Hope Bryant, “Life is 10 percent what happens to you and 90 percent how you respond.”

Sense of Purpose. Chapter 10 includes a fascinating story about Roy Vagelos, CEO of Merck from 1985 to 1994, which demonstrates that doing the right thing can be very good for the bottom line. “I first met Vagelos when he was selected for the U.S. Business Hall of Fame for his leadership in eliminating the African disease known as river blindness. Merck discovered a cure, the drug Mectizan, but market projections indicated Africans could not afford it. Vagelos took the courageous course of completing the drug’s development and distributing it for free throughout Africa—until all river blindness was eradicated. He explained, ‘Here’s a drug that can prevent blindness in 18 million people.’”

“‘That single decision put Merck in a position where we could recruit anybody we wanted for the next decade.’”

“During the 1980s and early 1990s, Merck had the most productive record producing lifesaving new drugs of any pharmaceutical company, in large part because of the inspiration Merck’s researchers drew from Vagelos’s passion and sense of purpose. Not surprisingly, Merck’s shareholder value increased 10 times in 10 years.”

Empowerment. Chapter 10 also includes a section called Empowerment in a Crisis, describing Anne Mulcahy’s dramatic turnaround of Xerox, refusing to take the Chapter 11 bankruptcy path. “Authentic leaders, such as Mulcahy, recognize the collective power of an empowered team far exceeds that of any single individual, and they rally teams around a common cause.”

Self-awareness.  George explains his Peeling the Onion metaphor. “Understanding the outer layers is a necessary first step to going deeper into what lies beneath, because these layers provide access to your inner core. Peeling the onion further, you gain a deeper understanding of your strengths, weaknesses, values, and motivations. Underneath the layers of your metaphorical onion lies your understanding of your life story. There your experiences create a mosaic of your life. As you approach the deepest layers surrounding your inner core, you find your blind spots and your vulnerabilities. At the core of your being is your True North: what you believe and how you envision your place on Earth.”

Sweet Spot. Chapter 6 reminds me of psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi‘s concept of flow. “Your sweet spot [is] the intersection of your motivations and your greatest strengths. When you are operating in your sweet spot, you feel inspired to do great things and confident that you can accomplish them because you are using your strengths. Having an awareness of what motivates you and understanding your strengths and weaknesses enables you to discover your sweet spot. When you do, you create a powerful flywheel that enables you to be both successful and fulfilled. Operating in your sweet spot, you are aligned with your True North and have the greatest opportunities to make a difference in the world.”

Quoting Dave Cox, CEO of Cowles Media: “Why would you want to spend your time doing work you don’t enjoy? These should be the best years of your life. There is so much energy that results from feeling valued and connecting with your passions. That’s when you add the greatest value.”

Integrated Life. “To lead an integrated life, you need to bring together the major elements of your personal life and professional life, including work, family, community, and friends, so that you can be the same person in each environment… Doing so will make you a more effective leader in all aspects of your life… Real integrity results from merging all aspects of your life so that you are true to yourself in all settings.”

Stress. eBay CEO John Donahoe said, “‘I remember watching the inefficiency that kicked in when people stressed out.’ That experience showed him a strong personal life could be an ally in achieving professional success.”

Global Leadership. Chapter 12 is about global intelligence, which George calls GQ. “GQ consists of seven elements, all of which are essential for global leaders: adaptability, awareness, curiosity, empathy, alignment, collaboration, integration… One of the best ways for aspiring leaders to increase their GQ is to live in an emerging country.”

Life Story: “As Amgen’s Kevin Sharer said, ‘You are the mosaic of all your experiences.’ Just as you conclude one portion of your journey, another opportunity emerges, so you can take what you learned from previous experiences and apply it to new situations. If you embrace your life story and learn its lessons, your leadership journey will never end.”

Building Sustainable Value. “In recent years, short-term traders, including hedge funds, have steadily gained power. These active investors, compensated with high fees and earning 20 percent of the realized profits, have had an insidious effect on capitalism. Focused on driving short-term gains rather than investing in companies for long-term returns, they have created a frenzy to maximize short-term shareholder value. By forcing companies to cut research and other long-term investments, their pressure can destroy the economic value and future viability of firms.”

“Infosys founder Narayana Murthy believes the purpose of business must go beyond maximizing shareholder value. He said, ‘You cannot sustain long-term shareholder value unless you create sustainable value for your customers, while assuring fairness to all stakeholders: customers, employees, investors, vendor partners, governments, and society. ‘The best index of success is longevity. If you have existed for a long time, that means have gone through thick and thin, learned to strengthen your character, focused on clients, and tightened your belt. That is what makes you stronger.’”

Bill George was CEO of Medtronic from 1991 to 2001 and chairman of the board from 1996 to 2002. He has also served on the boards of Target, Novartis, and Goldman Sachs. He previously wrote Authentic Leadership: Rediscovering the Secrets to Creating Lasting Value (2003) and 7 Lessons for Leading in a Crisis (2009).

George, Bill. Discover Your True North. Hoboken, New Jersey: John Wiley & Sons, 2015. Buy from

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Other books cited in this book:

The Human Side of Enterprise by Douglas McGregor

On Becoming a Leader by Warren Bennis

Still Surprised by Warren Bennis

Geeks and Geezers by Warren Bennis

On the Brink by Hank Paulson

Love Leadership by John Hope Bryant

Wherever You Go, There You Are by Jon Kabat-Zinn

How Will You Measure Your Life by Clay Christensen

Long Walk to Freedom by Nelson Mandela

Conscious Capitalism by John Mackey

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