This spring, at ConantLeadership’s 5th biannual BLUEPRINT Leadership Summit—a virtual meeting of top leadership luminaries—Bill George (Executive Fellow at Harvard Business School, former Board Chair & CEO of Medtronic, and bestselling author of True North: Emerging Leader Edition) spoke with Doug Conant (Founder of ConantLeadership, former CEO of Campbell Soup Company, and bestselling author of The Blueprint: 6 Practical Steps to Lift Your Leadership to New Heights) about how emerging leaders can find their true north and lead authentically.
Enjoy the following key tips and takeaways from their conversation in this blog recap. (Then, register now for the upcoming fall BLUEPRINT Summit on 9/25-9/29. This event is free but space is limited.)
Step Up and Lead Now, No Matter Your Title
Both panelists have championed authentic leadership throughout their careers and are now dedicated to empowering the next generation of leaders. Doug and Bill, both former Fortune 500 CEOs, have taught, practiced, and studied leadership for decades, often eschewing a ruthless style for a more enlightened approach. Together, they are heartened by how much the leadership paradigm has changed over the course of their lifetimes—from hierarchical to more collaborative. But there’s still a long way to go. They discuss how today’s changing landscape poses challenges and opportunities in equal measure.
Bill observes that emerging leaders feel as if they’re swimming upstream, fighting against an onslaught of crises and complexity in the post-pandemic era. While these struggles are often ascribed to Gen Z and Millennials, he says it’s more than a generational phenomenon. To meet the moment, Bill says that leaders across generations must adapt to a new style of authentic leadership, rejecting the fear-based, ego-driven model that reigned supreme in corporate culture in the 1990s and early 2000s (and maintains a lingering hold today).
Bill reassures leaders that stepping into authentic leadership doesn’t have to be a lofty task, issuing this clarion call: “Step up and lead now. You don’t have to be CEO . . . you can lead right where you are.” How to get started? He explains that great leaders make the biggest difference by having a deep sense of purpose—a connection to their “true north”—and then aligning that purpose with the organization.
While finding your purpose can seem like a big ask, Doug says it only requires a bit of reflection to begin. He emphasizes the importance of self-knowledge to leadership success: “It’s hard to have the courage of your convictions if you don’t know what your convictions are.” If emerging leaders aren’t sure how they want to show up, they’ll waste time trying to be someone they’re not—and may bring others down with them if they’re led astray. Headlines on Elizabeth Holmes (Theranos), Adam Neumann (WeWork), and Sam Bankman-Fried (FTX) speak volumes about the dangers of misaligned, inauthentic leadership. And Bill’s latest book, True North: Emerging Leader Edition, aims to prevent early-career leaders from going down the same misguided path.
Both panelists say cautionary tales show how a “fake it ‘til you make it” mindset can do more harm than good. Instead, they encourage new leaders to get familiar with who they are at their core—and to envision the kind of leader they want to be. This inner work of self-actualization serves as a compass to help people lead with intention, compassion, and moral courage when they are inevitably put to the test.
Lead with Your Heart, Not Just Your Head
Doug shares a favorite quote from Brené Brown, a renowned bestselling author and previous BLUEPRINT Leadership Summit speaker: “You either walk into your story and own your truth, or you live outside of your story, hustling for your worthiness.” He explains that when leaders don’t understand who they are, they may strive for somebody else’s idea of greatness, forgoing fulfillment that aligns with their inner voice. As the late Warren Bennis said, “Becoming a leader is synonymous with becoming yourself. It is precisely that simple, and it is also that difficult.” To achieve breakthrough, Doug says leaders must do the work to excavate lessons from their life that will guide them on their leadership journey. This work is at the heart of the 6-step process he shares in his book, The Blueprint.
Bill agrees, sharing his own difficult path toward authentic leadership: One fall day in the late 1980s as he drove home from Honeywell, where he was an ambitious executive vying to be CEO, he glanced at himself in the rearview mirror. That’s when it hit him: He was miserable. Everything felt wrong, from his idea of success down to the cufflinks he wore. He wasn’t being true to himself; he was living outside of his story. Months later, after some serious self-reflection, Bill started a new role as an executive at Medtronic (where he would go on to become CEO), a company more aligned with his values, this time armed with more inner insight.
At Medtronic, Bill finally found a mission he could relate to. The company’s measure of success wasn’t in dollars per share, but in lives helped: “Our metric became how many seconds would it take until another person is restored to full life and health by a Medtronic product? And when I went there, it was about 100 seconds. When I left, it was down to seven seconds. Today, it’s two per second.” The mission buoyed Medtronic’s position in the marketplace too: The more people they helped, the more their financial returns improved, resulting in a virtuous “win-win” circle benefiting patients, employees, and shareholders.
Newly inspired by a worthy mission, Bill wanted to better understand the needs of his customers and to experience the impact of Medtronic’s products. So he’d drive in early, change into scrubs, meet with doctors, and witness the issues physicians and patients faced in real time. During his tenure, he personally observed over 700 medical procedures.
The lesson? Bill says his top piece of leadership advice, something he hopes others don’t have to learn the hard way, is: “Get out and spend time with your people.” Instead of pulling everyone in the direction you want to go, first listen to where they’re coming from and, “lead with your heart, not just your head.” Just as leaders must gain better self-understanding to become authentic, they must also gain deeper insight into their employees and customers to become effective. To generate the best solutions for their business, leaders must know who they’re serving—deeply.
Doug builds on this, emphasizing the importance of “leading by listening.” He says new leaders must listen carefully enough to know what’s being said and what’s not being said. In other words, show you care. Start by rolling up your sleeves: Talk to people on the production floor, the innovators in the lab, the people you serve, and “don’t get trapped by the bureaucracy,” warns Bill. The panelists are unanimous: If you stay stuck in your office, you risk losing touch with the very people your leadership affects.
Be Tough-Minded on Standards and Tender-Hearted with People
Doug says that authentic leadership that honors people is essential to creating a workplace culture that benefits employees and shareholders alike: “It’s not either/or, it’s both.” Countless studies across decades show that an engaged workforce is a competitive advantage in the marketplace. And one way to bolster engagement is to model desired behavior.
At Medtronic, employees saw Bill’s trips to observe medical procedures and heard from patients firsthand about how the company’s devices helped them. It made the mission real. Both panelists urge leaders across industries to take a similar approach, setting a positive example while also lifting performance. Doug extends the call to new managers: “[This] doesn’t have to be done by the CEO. If you’re a manager of a group, you can start to model the behavior that you’re looking for, which hopefully is mission-driven and signaling to people [that you’re] tough-minded on standards,” and, “tender-hearted with people.”
For Bill, this brings to mind the idea of leader as coach. He references his book, True North: Emerging Leader Edition, in which the COACH acronym indicates the standards every leader should fiercely uphold:
- Care about the people you lead
- Organize people where they’re most effective
- Align people with a shared mission and values
- Challenge people to reach their full potential
- Help people get enough support to solve tough problems
The two experts are clear: Emerging leaders must learn to bring an abundant spirit to their leadership, bringing the purpose to life by being tough and tender, caring and challenging, serving every stakeholder—from the frontline to the boardroom.
Flip the Organization Upside Down
As the saying goes, “What got you here won’t get you there.” If emerging leaders want to make a difference, Bill has some unconventional advice: “Flip the organization upside down and put the frontline people on top,” turning the traditional corporate hierarchy on its head. When flipped, leaders are at the bottom, in a foundational position of support. Bill says that authentic leaders will recognize the switch not as a demotion, but as a show of strength—a way to elevate frontline workers, customer-facing teams, production staff, R&D innovators, and more. The panelists say that’s the kind of culture that inspires people to give their full commitment.
In the same spirit, Doug says it’s powerful to put employees first, asking yourself: “How can you serve them in a way that they will then serve your customers, internal or external, with excellence?” Both experts agree that this comes back to servant leadership: The most effective leaders have enough humility to turn things upside down, anchoring the organization in its mission, from the bottom to the top.
In closing, Bill calls for leaders to meet their full potential, “take on more challenges,” and “keep going because the world needs your leadership.” Emerging leaders can answer the call by heeding our experts’ tips for finding true north and leading authentically in a changing paradigm: Step up and lead now; lead with your heart; be tough-minded on standards and tender-hearted with people; and flip the organization upside down.
Enjoyed these insights? Register today for our next #BLUEPRINTSummit on 9/25-9/29. This event is free but space is limited so make sure to claim your spot. You can also find full video recordings of this session and Doug’s past #BLUEPRINTSummit conversations with top thought leaders like Brené Brown, Amy Edmondson, Indra Nooyi, Dan Pink, Susan Cain, and more in our video library. And find more blog recaps of summit discussions in our resources.
About the Author: Vanessa Bradford is a freelance content writer and copywriter, and C3PR’s Content Marketing Director.