#592     Innovative Leader           Volume 13, Number 1                 January 2004

Becoming an Authentic Leader
by Bill George

Bill George is former chairman and CEO, Medtronic (www.authenticleaders.org).  He is author of Authentic Leadership: Rediscovering the Secrets to Creating Lasting Value (Jossey-Bass, San Francisco, 2003), from which this article is based. 

Not long ago I was meeting with a group of high-talent young executives at Medtronic.  We were discussing career development when the leader of the group asked me to list the most important characteristics one has to have to be a leader in Medtronic.  I said, “I can summarize it in a single word: authenticity.”

After years of studying leaders and their traits, I believe that leadership begins and ends with authenticity.  It’s being yourself; being the person you were created to be.  This is not what most of the literature on leadership says, nor is it what the experts in corporate America teach.  Instead, they develop lists of leadership characteristics one is supposed to emulate.  They describe the styles of leaders and suggest that you adopt them.

This is the opposite of authenticity.  It is about developing the image or persona of a leader.  Unfortunately, the media, the business press, and even the movies glorify leaders with high-ego personalities.  They focus on the style of leaders, not their character.  In large measure, making heroes out of celebrity CEOs is at the heart of the crisis in corporate leadership.

The Authentic Leader

Authentic leaders genuinely desire to serve others through their leadership.  They are more interested in empowering the people they lead to make a difference than they are in power, money, or prestige for themselves.  They are as guided by qualities of the heart, by passion and compassion, as they are by qualities of the mind.

Authentic leaders are not born that way.  Many people have natural leadership gifts, but they have to develop them fully to become outstanding leaders.  Authentic leaders use their natural abilities, but they also recognize their shortcomings and work hard to overcome them.  They lead with purpose, meaning, and values.  They build enduring relationships with people.  Others follow them because they know where they stand.  They are consistent and self-disciplined.  When their principles are tested, they refuse to compromise.  Authentic leaders are dedicated to developing themselves because they know that becoming a leader takes a lifetime of personal growth.

Being Your Own Person

Leaders are all very different people.  Any prospective leader who buys into the necessity of attempting to emulate all the characteristics of a leader is doomed to fail.  I know because I tried it early in my career.  It simply doesn’t work.

The one essential quality a leader must have is to be your own person, authentic in every regard.  The best leaders are autonomous and highly independent.  Those who are too responsive to the desires of others are likely to be whipsawed by competing interests, too quick to deviate from their course or unwilling to make difficult decisions for fear of offending.  My advice to the people I mentor is simply to be themselves.

Being your own person is most challenging when it feels like everyone is pressuring you to take one course and you are standing alone.  In the first semester of business school we watched The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner.  Initially I did not relate to the film’s message, as I had always surrounded myself with people to avoid being lonely.  Learning to cope with the loneliness at the top is crucial so that you are not swayed by the pressure.  Being able to stand alone against the majority is essential to being your own person.

Shortly after I joined Medtronic as president, I walked into a meeting where it quickly became evident that a group of my colleagues had prearranged a strategy to settle a major patent dispute against Siemens on the basis of royalty-free cross-license as a show of good faith.  Intuitively, I knew the strategy was doomed to fail, so I stood alone against the entire group, refusing to go along.  My position may not have made me popular with my new teammates, but it was the right thing to do.  We later negotiated a settlement with Siemens for more than $400 million, at the time the second-largest patent settlement ever.

Developing Your Unique Leadership Style

To become authentic, each of us has to develop our own leadership style, consistent with our personality and character.  Unfortunately, the pressures of an organization push us to adhere to its normative style.  But if we conform to a style that is not consistent with who we are, we will never become authentic leaders.

Contrary to what much of the literature says, your type of leadership style is not what matters.  Great world leaders—George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Winston Churchill, Franklin Roosevelt, Margaret Thatcher, Martin Luther King, Mother Theresa, John E. Kennedy—all had very different styles.  Yet each of them was an entirely authentic human being.  There is no way you could ever attempt to emulate any of them without looking foolish.

The same is true for business leaders.  Compare the last three CEOs of General Electric: the statesmanship of Reginald Jones, the dynamism of Jack Welch, and the empowering style of Jeff Immelt.  All of them are highly successful leaders with entirely different leadership styles.  Yet the GE organization has rallied around each of them, adapted to their styles, and flourished as a result.  What counts is the authenticity of the leader, not the style.

Having said that, it is important that you develop a leadership style that works well for you and is consistent with your character and your personality.  Over time you will have to hone your style to be effective in leading different types of people and to work in different types of environments.  This is integral to your development as a leader.

To be effective in today’s fast-moving, highly competitive environment, leaders also have to adapt their style to fit the immediate situation.  There are times to be inspiring and motivating, and times to be tough about people decisions or financial decisions.  There are times to delegate, and times to be deeply immersed in the details.  There are times to communicate public messages, and times to have private conversations.  The use of adaptive styles is not inauthentic, and is very different from playing a succession of roles rather than being yourself.  Good leaders are able to nuance their styles to the demands of the situation, and to know when and how to deploy different styles.

Let me share a personal example to illustrate this point.  When I first joined Medtronic, I spent a lot of time learning the business and listening to customers.  I also focused on inspiring employees to fulfill the Medtronic mission of restoring people to full health.  At the same time, I saw many ways in which we needed to be more disciplined about decisions and spending, so I was very challenging in budget sessions and put strict controls on headcount additions.  At first some people found this confusing.  Eventually, they understood my reasons for adapting my style to the situation, and that I had to do so to be effective as their leader.

Being Aware of Your Weaknesses

Being true to the person you were created to be means accepting your faults as well as using your strengths.  Accepting your shadow side is an essential part of being authentic. The problem comes down when people are so eager to win the approval of others that they try to cover their shortcomings and sacrifice their authenticity to gain the respect and admiration of their associates.

I too have struggled in getting comfortable with my weaknesses—my tendency to intimidate others with an overly challenging style, my impatience, and my occasional lack of tact.  Only recently have I realized that my strengths and weaknesses are two sides of the same coin.  By challenging others in business meetings, I am able to get quickly to the heart of the issues, but my approach unnerves and intimidates less confident people.  My desire to get things done fast leads to superior results, but it exposes my impatience with people who move more slowly.  Being direct with others gets the message across clearly but often lacks tact.  Over time I have moderated my style and adapted my approach to make sure that people are engaged and empowered and that their voices are fully heard.

I have always been open to critical feedback, but also quite sensitive to it.  For years I felt I had to be perfect, or at least appear that I was on top of everything.  I tried to hide my weaknesses from others, fearing they would reject me if they knew who I really was.  Eventually, I realized that they could see my weaknesses more clearly than I could.  In attempting to cover things up, I was only fooling myself.

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