I like to hike. I try to get out to the nearby mountains at least once a week. One of the first things I was told upon joining a hiking group was that I needed to carry certain hiking gear: Bear spray, proper hiking boots, a whistle and a compass were all recommended.
Thankfully I have never needed to rely on my compass but there is a security in knowing that I have it, a comfort in knowing that it will always accurately point to the north no matter what circumstances I might find myself in.
Author Bill George suggests that to be an authentic leader you must always follow your True North. He defines this as “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.”
George, the former CEO of Medtronic, is a professor of management practice at the Harvard Business School. It is through his collaboration with coauthor Peter Sims that Mr. George was able to pursue the answer to the question, “How can I become an authentic leader?”
Through sharing the results of interviews with over 125 leaders, True North is for anyone who wants to be an authentic leader. As the authors state, “You can discover your authentic leadership right now.”
The Big Idea
Follow your inner compass
"The purpose of this book, True North, is to enable you to discover your authentic leadership so that you can step up and lead while remaining true to who you are."
One of the things I liked about this book was that, although the discussion of leadership often took place in the context of the business world, it was clear that we all have an inner leader within us, regardless of title, position or vocation. One of the leaders interviewed for this book, Young & Rubicam CEO Ann Fudge, suggests that “the challenge is to understand ourselves well enough to discover where we can use our leadership gifts to serve others. We’re here for something. Life is about giving and living fully.”
In striving to be a leader that is genuine, that knows what they believe in and why, you need to be equipped to face the times when these qualities will be tested. It is during these trials and challenges, both personal and professional, that you will need your True North compass to guide your decision making, to be a benchmark for the choices you make in your company and your personal life. If you know it is the right thing, even in the face of adversity, you are following your internal compass.
The hardest person you will ever lead is yourself
"The reality is that no one can be authentic by trying to be like someone else."
It is important to recognize what John Donahoe, president of eBay, says: “leadership is a journey, not a destination. It is a marathon, not a sprint.”
It is within the discovery of what your internal compass points to, that Bill George places self-awareness on centre stage. The “Mount Everest”, if you will, of your True North compass. Realizing our strong points and our failings and what we excel at and what we get tripped up by are discovered by experience. Coming to a point of self awareness takes time and perhaps, some would suggest, is a process of self development that is never finished. We can be our own worst critic. We can be blinded by our desires.
It is when we embark on the humbling journey to understand ourselves that we will discover our authentic leadership. We no longer have to be someone else.
Your life story defines your leadership
"The reservoir of all my life experiences shaped me as a person and a leader."
We all have a story. Some are inspiring like retired CEO of General Mills, Reatha Clark King, who grew up in the 1940s as the daughter of farm laborers. Her father left the family when she was young and money was hard to come by. King found refuge in church where many women influenced her decision to go to university. She earned her Ph.D. in physical chemistry, started teaching in the academic world and eventually became president of Metropolitan State University. Throughout her journey racial and gender prejudices were common. It is her story that makes her the leader she is. “[M]y reasons for leading were not centered on my needs, but on the needs of my people, of women, and of my community.”
Bill George advocates for us to examine our life story and leadership opportunities to this point. He offers some provoking questions to get us thinking about our story, about where we came from. For example; “During your early years, which people had the greatest impact on you?” and “Can you identify instances where you were dissatisfied with your leadership or received constructive feedback from others about it?” They are both questions that take us back to our own individual leadership story. The authors suggest that once we know our story we will know what motivates us and in turn what direction our compass will take us.
The authors encourage “us as the author of our own stories to connect the dots between our past and our future to find our inspiration to lead authentically.”
And so, as I get out my backpack this week and fill up my water bottle, I’m going to be thinking about the direction I’m headed. I will be reminded that to be the leader I want to be I need to follow the course even when the trail might disappear. I will rest confidently knowing that if I get lost my internal compass will point to my True North. It will be a good hike.