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True North: Interview with Businessman Philanthropist Bill George on His New Book on Leadership PDF Print E-mail
Written by John Weeks   

True North: Interview with Former Medtronic CEO Bill George on Integrative Medicine and His Best-Sellers on Authentic Leadership

Summary: Bill George is known to many in the integrative medicine movement as the spouse of a powerful leader, Penny George. Penny George co-founded and served as the first president of the Bravewell Collaborative of philanthropists for integrative medicine. Bill George, as it turns out, has a resume in his own right that had something to do with  allowing the Georges to be so generous. He had a very successful tenure growing Medtronic from a $1.1 billion market value to $60+ billion during the 1990s. But what's been building his resume lately are two best-sellers on leadership which have had a high impact in the business community. The first was Authentic Leadership (2003) which connected leadership with values. His 2007 exploration of these leadership themes is entitled True North. The Integrator reached Bill George for a short interview on the new book, on leadership, and on what's needed in medicine.
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Bill George, a.k.a. Penny's spouse
Bill George
is known to many in the integrative medicine movement as the spouse of a powerful woman, Penny George. Penny George co-founded and served as the first president of the Philanthropic Collaborative for Integrative Medicine, which since changed its name to the Bravewell Collaborative.

Okay, Bill George actually has an accomplishment or two of his own. The quantitative side of Bill George's reputation is a singular measure which quickly grabs the attention of those who are either deeply aligned with American capitalism, curious about pure power, or both. The man took over a successful medical technology company known as Medtronic when it had a market capitalization of $1.1-billion. George left it a decade later with a market capitalization of about $60-billion. So if Bill George opens his mouth, a lot of would-be captains of industry will pay attention based on the sheer weight of that accomplishment.

Image Yet when Bill George opened his mouth a few years back with the first of his two books, what brought him his audience was something on the qualitative side of the man, to which he attributes a good deal of his success. The first book was a best seller entitled Authentic Leadership. The second, True North, (Jossey-Bass, 2007) is another best seller, in which he and co-author Peter Sims interview 125 business leaders to explore what makes up "authentic leadership." In his forward, Bill George does, still, acknowledge his spouse, better known to the integrative medicine crowd. He credits Penny George for teaching him "so much about people and (about) leading them."

In fact, the two Georges are deeply partnered in their philanthropic work with the George Family Foundation as they have been in other key decision points in Bill George's life. To learn a bit more about the man - and to help bring the lesser known George out of his wife's shadow - the Integrator caught up with Bill George in late April to talk about the book and particularly about his views on leadership and on integrative medicine. (Readers interested in learning more about Bill George's leadership ideas can go to

Integrator:  So how is the book doing?

Bill George
:  It's been on some best seller lists, gotten lots of good coverage. I've given several dozen speeches. They've shipped over 50,000 copies.

Integrator: You and your associate interviewed 125 business leaders about their own lives and leadership styles. Were there any surprises?

Bill George: My colleagues suggested I try to discover specific traits, characteristics or styles of leaders.
They were were worried we were just going to get mush back from the interviews. In 3000 pages of interviews, we found no clear leadership traits. Leaders are complex people who cannot be easily described by lists of characteristics. But we learned that life stories are what is really important. Not life history, but one's life story. It's how you frame your life. We all have these crucibles. It's what we make of them. These leaders frame and re-frame their lives around these crucible events.

Integrator: What were your crucibles?

Bill George
They're in the book. Being the only son of a father who felt a failure. Getting rejected for a few leadership positions. Not becoming CEO at Honeywell. The death of my mother when I was 24, then my fiance's death. Then Penny coming along. These were my crucibles.

Integrator: There are themes in your writing which are quite consonant with integrated health care thinking.

Bill and Penny George
Bill George: I got a nice note about the book from Rachel Remen.* She said: "It's about the authentic (you). We are talking about mind, body, heart and spirit. In discovering our wholeness, we discover our leadership."

Integrator: You speak in both books about the need for a leader to care for his or her self.

Bill George: Every leader who has failed has failed to lead themselves. They get caught up in the adoration of the outside world. They bow to pressure of the outside world. Leaders need to be grounded in their own personal life, their family life and their community. They need to lead from the heart and practice solid values.

Bill George's
5 Dimensions of an
Authentic Leader

Pursuing purpose with passion

Practicing solid values

Leading with heart

Establishing enduring relationships

Demonstrating self-discipline

Integrator: You list the dimensions of authentic leadership. I wonder, given the profile that environmental issues and global warming have, particularly in the last year, whether you think that there ought to be another dimension, this contribution to global health.

Bill George: I don't look so specifically at this. We look more generally at what is your legacy to the world. Are you doing something for poverty, education, the environment or health care. Helping people to be wealthy can be a contribution. We try to be non-judgmental.

Integrator: You and your spouse have been huge contributors to integrative medicine. What would you say about leadership in medicine?

Bill George: Leadership is woefully inadequate in medicine. We need to have doctors driving it instead of administrators. There is a reason doctors should be leading as they understand medicine far more deeply than administrators. I am a great believer in Mayo's patient-centered model. I also prefer the not-for-profit model. We need more patient-centered institutions like Mayo.

Integrator: Anything else?

Bill George:
Medicine is way too political. Doctors need to start early in understanding leadership, and in avoiding political battles.

* Rachel Remen, MD is an author and leader of the movement to transform medical education through integrative medicine principles.

Reading George's work is to take a measure of the dominant business culture. His leadership themes provide a kind of reassurance. The hunger expressed in the sales of George's books is for an integration of values among the for-profit leaders of the economy we inhabit. George offers corporate leaders a message that health, wholeness, collaboration and community can be aligned with dramatic business success.

Many of us who are involved in the integrated healthcare movement live a reverse image of the corporate leaders who are both the interview subjects in True North and the audience which has taken George's work to heart. For foot
-soldiers in the chronically underfunded grassroots movement to transform medicine through advancing health care, things are different. Heart, passion and community are the coin of the realm. Unfortunately, they are often the only coins. Our arrows point to our true norths, but, alas, a fuel shortage often keeps us from moving efficiently in the direction that we are pointed.

I personally have some curmudgeonly concerns about the extent to which heart-based values can be thoroughly aligned with a viciously competitive world. This is especially true when that world is organized principally around maximizing the return on investment. That said, the value in reading these books is that there is something in Bill George's work which suggests that the body-mind-spirit of the dominant business community may daily be opening new receptor sites for health creation. The book imparts both a language and a sense of culture which may help you find them.

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