Bill George is former Chairman and CEO of Medtronic, whose market cap grew an average of 35% annually under his leadership, and currently a prof at Harvard Business School. I caught his interview with Charlie Rose and John Whitehead today, and that segment included these exchanges:
Charlie Rose: [Leadership] can be taught and learned?
Bill George: Learned. I teach now, and I don't think you can teach leadership, I think you can learn about it. I think you can learn about yourself. It comes from within, from who are you inside and what makes you tick, and what are those tapes playing in your head about what you want to be and what your limitations are.
(later in the interview)
Bill George: In this century, leadership has changed. Leadership is not about getting people to follow you, the "Great Man theory," follow you over the hill General George Patton style. That idea is out. To me, the great leaders today are able to align people around a sense of purpose and values and get that consistency all around the globe, and then empower other people to step up and lead. And I've found that in organizations that are really effective at generating leaders, there are thousands of leaders because people empower them to step up and lead.
Charlie Rose: I asked [earlier] about teaching leadership--what can you teach?
Bill George: What we can do is cause people to come together and learn about themselves through dialogue... You learn about who you are, and if you go inside yourself, you find out, "What are my passions?"
Charlie Rose: One last question: Self-analysis is crucial to leadership?
Bill George: Yes, absolutely.
Charlie Rose: If you can delude yourself, or if you are in self-denial, you will never be able to [lead]?
Bill George: Can you get... Do you seek out honest feedback from people about who you are? The hardest thing we have to do is see ourselves as others see us. And do you gain that self-awareness? Some people think they have it, but they've never really tested themselves, and that is crucial. Until you have that level of self-awareness, and you know who you really are... As one of our leaders said, "You know, I won't trust anyone who's never failed because they don't really know who they are."
I'm struck by George's emphasis on increased self-awareness through dialogue and feedback from others. These practices are hallmarks of the work I do with students at Stanford's Graduate School of Business, not only in our more formally organized leadership development programs, but also in our "Interpersonal Dynamics" classes, both of which provide students with extensive feedback on how others see them.
These methods are a perfect complement to George's vision of 21st century leadership, in which a leader's ability to inspire others to "follow you over the hill" is of less importance than your ability "to align people around a sense of purpose and values...and then empower other people to step up and lead."
If you're inspiring followers, self-awareness is less important than the natural charisma we've traditionally associated with strong leadership. But if you're aligning and empowering other leaders, your success will depend on your ability to connect with people not as "followers" but as independent decision-makers and to motivate and influence them by speaking to their needs and interests. This requires a keen degree of self-awareness and the ability to see yourself clearly through the eyes of others.
(Presumably George discusses these issues further in his recently published True North, which has been well-received by my colleagues but has yet to make it to the top of my reading list.)