I have a stack of articles and subjects sitting in a folder waiting for me to write something about them on this site, but one in particular seemed most appropriate today, seeing as we are now officially in the Holiday Season, when thoughts turn to the North Pole more often than at other times of the year … and also because its content resonated so strongly with to the events and turns of my own life at the moment.
The article is an interview about leadership with Bill George, former CEO of Medtronic and current professor at Harvard University. The article appeared in the Fall 2012 issue of Rotman Magazine (a publication of the Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto, which almost always has some thought-provoking and worthwhile articles in it).
In 2007, George co-wrote a book on leadership called True North: Discover Your Authentic Leadership. I haven’t read the book itself, just the interview in which George talked about the book. So I can’t speak to the quality of the book, one way or another.
Having said that, however, the basic concept that drives the book seems like a worthy and important idea to ponder. It’s not a particularly complex thought; it’s simply that deep success, satisfaction and–not coincidentally–great leadership, comes from being a well-integrated, authentic human being whose actions are aligned with what he or she feels is most important. Or, as George puts it, from finding and following your own sense of “True North.”
In some senses, Professor George’s concept of “True North” is a lot like following a passion, except that it’s possible to follow a passion and still not be a well-integrated, authentic human being in or across the rest of your life. So I think being guided by a sense of True North means something more inclusive and holistic than simply following what ignites your passion. Especially because–at least in the interview–George does not present finding and following that path as an easy, “seven successful habits” or “3 easy steps” process.
“Discovering your True North takes a lifetime of commitment and learning,” George says. “Each day, as you are tested in the world, you have to be able to look at yourself in the mirror and respect the person you see and the life you are leading. Of course, some days are better than others, but as long as you are true to who you are, you can cope with the most difficult circumstances that life presents.”
This sentiment rings particularly true to me at the moment. When things are good and easy, with no crises or hard hits to manage, the choices life throws at you are much easier, because it’s possible to have several things you like or that matter to you at one time. When that sense of true self really matters is when things are bad, or really hard, and you can’t have everything–or even what you thought were some of the basic components–anymore. If you have to make really hard choices about what stays, and what you have to let go of, the only thing that allows you to make that choice and live with it is that sense of integrated clarity about what is most important.
I will only touch briefly on personal details here, because there’s nothing more dreary than someone else’s life problems. (Unless, of course, it’s happening on a reality TV show, in which case, for some bizarre reason I cannot fathom, people find the drama highly entertaining.) But right after I wrote my last post on “Unplanned Adventure,” my mother was taken to the hospital, where she has been ever since. She’s in intensive care at the moment, following major lung surgery. And while she is now expected to survive, life as she knew it, or we knew it, is over.
My father has brain damage and a seizure disorder from a fall a number of years ago and now has some dementia setting in, so he can’t be left alone. It’s also pretty clear they will need to move, and will need help going forward from here, despite their limited funds, so there’s a ton of work ahead to make that happen. And that’s on top of the work of managing the care of someone in the hospital as well as a special needs parent at home, which is not only a full-time job plus some, but also a job that has kept me away from my own home for almost a month already and is going to require me to be away from my home, my office, and my family for at least another few weeks. And when I return home, I’ll be bringing my parents with me. This on top of the family crisis of an injured son we were already managing (the subject of the “Unplanned Adventure” post). I have no idea when we will even be able to think about returning to anything resembling “normal” life.
Not surprisingly, the overwhelming needs of the moment have required that I let go of not only my “normal” life, but also almost all of the professional projects and goals I had for myself this year–and perhaps for longer than that. After all, you never know, when you step off the moving sidewalk, what doors will still be open, when you are finally able to step back on.
When Bill George talks about being tested by life and falling back on your sense of True North to navigate through the challenges, I don’t think he was really referring to the extremes of life crisis. But crisis–along with uncertainty and adventure–comes in many flavors and guises. And even if he was thinking about the uncharted adventure of leadership challenges, rather than the uncharted adventure of extreme family disasters, I think his words still apply.
I mind putting my work on a back burner. I mind letting go of opportunities and connections. My life explorations and writing projects have been my passion for a very long time. So the only thing that allows me to live with the requirement, and choice, to let go of those things for a while, is the sure knowledge that I am doing the most important thing that allows me to look myself in the mirror in the morning and like what I see. For as much as I love the adventures and writing I do on my own, and no matter what great goals or dreams I may have for myself, I have always been clear that the people in my life would, if push came to shove, trump my professional ambitions. Perhaps I hoped I wouldn’t have to make that choice, ever, but that kind of hard choice is what Professor George is talking about. Strength comes from clarity; from knowing what one true thing or commitment you would honor or what priority you would put first, if you had to choose only one.
That clarity makes navigating through the most uncertain, challenging, and uncharted parts of life easier, or at least more manageable. It’s not the same thing as leadership, in and of itself. But a leader who has that kind of integrated personal and professional authenticity and clarity about what matters most in a mission, a business, and life.. is someone who will remain constant and trustworthy, even in uncertain and uncharted waters, and even in the dark of a storm. That may not be the sum total definition of a leader, but it’s certainly an essential ingredient and starting point.
More on this to come at a later date, but for now … the interview (and perhaps even the book) is worth reading.