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Bill George: Leading From Your True North

Georgia Tech has been buzzing with meaningful conversations and activities this month. As we break ground on the new Tech Square Towers, ILSI and The Office of Special Scholarships had the honor of co-sponsoring one of the towers’ donors and namesakes, Bill George, for our final Impact event of the semester. 

Bill received his undergraduate degree in industrial engineering with high honors from Georgia Tech and his MBA with high distinction from Harvard University, where he was a Baker Scholar. Over the years, Bill and his wife Penny have maintained close ties to Georgia Tech through philanthropic contributions. Additionally, Bill has made it his mission to invest in developing leaders, specifically the younger generations, as they find their purpose. A full auditorium and online audience sat captivated by Bill’s stories and advice.  

Third-year Georgia Tech Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering major and Stamp President Scholar, Mahogany Labor Below, wonderfully moderated our conversation. Below are some of the highlights from that conversation. 


Q: What was it like to write your latest book, True North: Emerging Leaders, with your co-author, Zack? What did you learn along the way? 

Bill: My co-author, Zach Clayton, has been my mentor, if you will. He's thirty-seven years old. He's taught me all about social media and how millennial generation thinks and what they care about. And so I couldn't write a book like this talking about the new generation to leaders in your generation without him.  

I think we're going through a massive change in leadership. On the surface, it's a generational change from 30 years of the Baby Boomers, which has been much more about money, fame, and power, and always putting the shareholder first, to a new generation of emerging leaders which I define as Gen X, Millennials and Gen Z.  

So that's what motivated me- to say I want to accelerate this generational change. I think it's time for the old generation to more or less step aside and make way for younger leaders, and I think too many organizations have said, “You have to wait your turn in line,” and I don't believe that. I think younger leaders can make a huge difference today. It's not just about whoever's the head of the organization, the CEO or the president. It's about people throughout the organization who lead.  


Q: How do you define authentic leadership? 

Bill: I call authentic leadership being who you are and being really good at bringing people together to work as a team. And, serving the needs of everyone you work with; your customers, your employees, your communities, as well as your investors and shareholders. 

I see this book as a call to lead differently. To lead with your true north. To lead with who you are and to find a real purpose for your leadership. I think that this has become really important. As a as a person, and as a leader. Can you be yourself in an organization? Can you be who you are and be respected for who you are, not what you are? Can you find a place for your personal purpose which may take a while to figure out, as it did me?  


Q: Your book is divided into four sections with different characteristics for leaders to develop. What guided you to select these topics? 

 Bill: I used to ask recent college graduates, “What's the purpose of your leadership? And they really couldn't answer, even in my MBA classrooms. The answers were just kind of, “To make the world a better place.” Well, you can't do that until you know who you are, and this is harder than you think. You must gain self-awareness, know your blind spots, but particularly address the difficult times in your lives. 

I lost seven elections in a row as a young person. I lost one in high school and six more at Georgia Tech. I was about as low as I could be. It may sound trivial to you, but the point was that I was chasing the wrong goal. I was trying to win elections, thinking that I was “popular” or “accepted” by winning elections and getting titles, which is really the wrong thing to chase. I had to spend about a year trying to come to myself during my sophomore year. 

I think this is so important, how you think about who you are. And that is what the whole first section about, how to get people to find good things in difficulties. What did I learn by losing seven elections? It’s about relationships. It’s not about being the smartest person, it's not about being the most organized. It's all about learning how to build deep connections with people. And that's what I learned here at Georgia Tech. I learned more my four years here than I have at any point in time in my life. 


Q:  It's hard to define our truth north. What are some daily actions that will take us toward that purpose?   

A: Well, it took me a long time to get there. When I was nine or ten years old, my father came to me and said, “Son, I failed in my career. I want you to be the leader I never became.”  

I was pushing him away, resisting him, while also thinking it was about getting a major title. So I got off on the wrong track and have realized life is not really about that. Yes, most of us would like to make the world a better place, but we have to think about how we are really going to do that. 

I first worked for a few companies where I felt like I had to put my armor on every day. I finally got to Metronic and found a much smaller company. It wasn't that large company my father envisioned but, I could be myself there, and I could find real purpose and alignment. That was something I could really buy into now. I'm no expert on medicine. I wasn't then I'm not now, even though I've been involved in health care for 25 years. But it was an opportunity for me to find this alignment with a group of people where we came together with a common purpose and we measured ourselves at Medtronic not by what our revenues were, or what our profits were, but by the people we restored to full life and health.  

It took me a long time to know what I thought. I wanted to lead an organization, but I didn't know why, and it took me a while to be that leader and then find the right place to do it.   


Q: How have you mastered the act of leading yourself? Does anyone help you? 

Bill: Well, I think the hardest thing is gaining self-awareness and knowing who you are, looking at yourself in the mirror. My wonderful wife, Penny, will sometimes hold up that mirror. But I think you have to learn how to hold it up yourself and say, “Is this really the way I want to be? Am I doing what I want to do by being that person?” 

The second thing is getting honest feedback. If you surround yourself with people that tell you how great you are, and I've seen a lot of business leaders do this, it never works because you can't see yourself. It's critical to have truth-tellers. People that give you honest feedback in a large organization. I think the best feedback we get is in 360 feedback. We get it from our subordinates and our peers. The people who work with us. 


Bill gave us plenty to think about as we left that day and into our own areas of leadership. We are thankful for his dedication to the passing on of wisdom and leadership, specifically to the next generation of leaders. To learn more about Bill’s philosophy on leadership, you can read his latest book, True North: Leading Authentically in Today’s Workplace, the Emerging Leader Edition.


You can watch the full conversation on ILSI’s YouTube channel, along with some of the other outstanding Impact presentations from this and previous seasons. 
The Institute for Leadership and Social Impact is an interdisciplinary institute that promotes servant leadership and social innovation that contribute to a more just, caring, and equitable world. 

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