Truly Authentic Leadership
There are few better examples of leading with heart than Marilyn Carlson Nelson. When she took over the Carlson companies from her 84-year-old father, Marilyn inherited a demoralized organization suffering from decades of top-down rule. She immediately set about changing things, expressing empathy for her employees and compassion for her customers. The result: a remarkable turnaround with record levels of growth and new heights in employee and customer satisfaction.
The ability to develop enduring relationships is an essential mark of authentic leaders. Today, people demand personal relationships with their leaders before they'll give themselves fully to their jobs. When A. G. Lafley became CEO of Procter & Gamble, he took over an organization in turmoil. A longtime company veteran, Lafley relied heavily on relationships he had built over 25 years to transform P&G's culture. Through his personal engagement with his employees, Lafley has created one of the great corporate success stories of the 21st century. One of my students who worked for P&G shared a story about Lafley's visit to his country. The student was at his desk when Lafley came down the hall. He shook his hand and asked him about his work. Then Lafley looked him in the eye and said, "The work you are doing is vital to the future of P&G ... ." That's the kind of behavior that empowers people to step up and lead, and it exemplifies the way authentic leaders act.
Authentic leaders also know that competing successfully takes a consistently high level of self-discipline. It would be hard to find someone who illustrates the positive effects of self-discipline better than Warren Buffett. For over 40 years, he has followed a basic set of principles that have made him the most successful investor in America. By avoiding debt and high-risk investments and concentrating on value companies and long-term positions, Buffett has been an absolute model of self-discipline-also reflected in his personal life. Buffett lives in the house he bought in 1956 for $31,500, drives an old car, and washes his meals down with a Cherry Coke at Gorat's, his favorite Omaha steakhouse.
The challenges of leadership are so great these days that many ask whether it's worth taking on a leadership role. This issue of "America's Best Leaders" tells the stories of people who said yes. They are, as Teddy Roosevelt said, "in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood ... who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions ... knows in the end the triumph of high achievement" that can come only by "daring greatly."
No individual achievement can equal the pleasure of leading a group of people to achieve a worthy goal. When you cross the finish line together, there's a deep satisfaction that it was your leadership that made the difference. There's simply nothing that can compare with that.
Bill George, the former chair and CEO of Medtronic, is a professor at Harvard Business School and a member of the Best Leaders selection committee. His new book, True North: Discover Your Authentic Leadership, will be published in March.