University of Southern California

Former Medtronic Head Finds Leadership in Book "True North"
George Searches for Antidotes to "Disastrous" Image-Over-Integrity CEOs
April 16, 2007 • by David Bloom

It's easy for executives and managers to lose their way when faced with complicated ethical and business dilemmas. But Bill George believes business leaders should point themselves in just one direction: "True North," the name of his latest, highly regarded book on leadership.

George, a Harvard University professor and former chairman and CEO of medical device giant Medtronic, was featured speaker at the 2006-2007 school year’s final USC Marshall Dean's Business Breakfast, which also was the first such breakfast for James G. Ellis as the new Marshall dean.

George's book focuses on finding the inner direction that allows a manager to become a leader, by remaining true to the experiences and beliefs that shape a person’s values, ethics and desires. He developed the material in conversations with 125 highly successful executives from major companies. The book already has attracted glowing mentions in reviews, with the New York Times calling it a "truly worthwhile look at leadership" and "one of the most important business books to come along in many years."

During the 11 years that George headed Medtronic, as it grew from a medium-sized firm to the largest company in medical technology, the company realized annualized growth rates of 38 percent, said USC Marshall Professor Warren Bennis, a mentor of George’s who introduced him at the breakfast.

After George retired from Medtronic in 2001 to teach, he watched in dismay as his former CEO peers were ensnared in scandal after scandal.

"I always thought my generation, the Kennedy kids, would do it better," George said. "I have to confess that my generation really did it a lot worse. We're still in a leadership crisis. It's pervasive."

The fallout of scandals such as Enron and WorldCom have major impacts on the rest of the business world, as they beget a series of controls on capitalist behavior to prevent repeats of the previous behaviors. Those legal attempts to prevent more bad actors sometimes create huge problems for even legitimate operators, as has happened with the Sarbanes-Oxley Act's Section 404.

Disastrous frauds such as Enron and WorldCom occur in part because of a "wrong-headed notion of leadership" inculcated in recent years that idolizes the "one person at the top of 100,000 employees" as "the only one that matters," George said. But a skewed process that values image over integrity leads to the hiring of charismatic CEOs who don’t know how to run a company and then are paid millions for their disastrous stints at the top.

George called for a new kind of leadership appropriate to the 21st Century, where executives define a shared mission and goals for their company, and identify shared values. Employees are then empowered to lead others rather than depending on top-down management that can’t hope to know everything going on in a complex, global company.

"Leadership has many voices," George said. "You have to be yourself. Twenty-first Century leadership is all about being who you are and then empowering other people to lead."

For the chairman of Wells Fargo, as George found in his research, that meant creating a homey banking experience inspired by his upbringing in a small town, working for a corner grocery store and playing high school sports.

For the chairman and CEO of Novartis, it meant becoming a physician after his own many childhood ailments introduced him to a doctor who listened to his patients' needs.

For the head of Starbuck's, it meant making sure even his part-time employees have health insurance, because his own father repeatedly lost jobs, and health insurance, and suffered for it.

And for George, it meant a long process of self-assessment, which began after he repeatedly failed to win elections to school government and fraternity brothers told him he was too self-centered and ambitious and came across to voters as inauthentic. The process of self review deepened with the deaths of his mother and his fiancée while he was still in his 20s.

"It does cause you to think about what you want to do with your life," George said. "Each of you know your true north, your values, your principles. The real challenge when you get out in the world is can you stay true to what you believe?"

Bill George's Five Keys to Finding the Leader in Yourself

"When these five things come together, you’ve learned to lead yourself," writer and teacher Bill George says. "From there, you can lead other people."

  • Self Awareness. Get feedback from the people around you.
  • Stay true to your values under pressure.
  • Balance "extrinsic" motivations such as money and fame with intrinsic rewards such as feeling like you’re making a difference, and improving the world.
  • Build and maintain a support team that can provide emotional and intellectual support, starting with one person with whom you can be completely honest.
  • Balance home life with career, to be more successful at both. For 13 years, George left the office at 5:30 to coach soccer.

The USC Marshall Dean's Business Breakfast Series is open to the public, but reservations are required. Each event begins at 7 a.m. with networking, followed by breakfast, a presentation by the featured speaker and Q&A. The gatherings normally end at 9 a.m. For more information or to RSVP, contact the USC Marshall School of Business' Corporate Relations office at 213-821-5277, or visit

The Dean's Business Breakfast series will return in the fall. To receive an announcement of scheduled speakers, email

About the USC Marshall School of Business
Consistently ranked among the nation's premier schools, USC Marshall is internationally recognized for its emphasis on entrepreneurship and innovation, social responsibility and path-breaking research. Located in the heart of Los Angeles, one of the world's leading business centers and the U.S. gateway to the Pacific Rim, Marshall offers its 5,700-plus undergraduate and graduate students a unique world view and impressive global experiential opportunities. With an alumni community spanning 123 countries, USC Marshall students join a worldwide community of thought leaders who are redefining the way business works.