Discover Your True North by Bill George: Book Overview

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What is Discover Your True North by Bill George about? What’s the common thread among the world’s most successful business leaders?

In Discover Your True North, Bill George says that a successful business leader is more than just talent and charisma. It’s about staying true to yourself and being aligned to your values.

Read below for a brief overview of Discover Your True North by Bill George.

Discover Your True North by Bill George

What’s the common thread among the world’s most successful business leaders? In Discover Your True North, Bill George argues that it’s not about being the most talented, or the most charming person in the boardroom—it’s about being true to yourself and staying focused on your core priorities and values (what he calls your unique “True North”). 

After analyzing interviews with 48 international business leaders about their career journeys, George distills their most salient insights into simple guidelines that anyone can follow to become a leader in their organization: Work toward something you’re truly passionate about, optimize your leadership using introspection and feedback, and maintain a healthy personal life. George also describes common pitfalls that can distract leaders from their core purpose if they get caught up in the appeal of external rewards like money and fame. 

Bill George is an executive fellow at Harvard Business School where he also taught leadership courses for 18 years. He’s the former board chairman and CEO of the health care technology company Medtronic and was also a senior executive at Honeywell. He’s authored several books centered on his True North business leadership philosophy, beginning with the original 2007 edition of Discover Your True North. The first edition incorporated research interviews with 125 leaders, and for this 2015 expanded and updated edition, he interviewed 48 additional leaders. He also added a new chapter highlighting the emerging need for business leaders who can navigate the globalized business world. 

Identify Your Core Purpose and Ethical Principles

The first step to becoming an effective leader is to identify your core purpose (what George calls your “True North”) and ethical principles. The core purpose is your overarching goal for your career and the “why” behind everything you do in your leadership journey. Your ethical principles are the moral boundaries you must identify so you can work toward your core purpose without sacrificing your integrity. 

In this section, we’ll examine why these components are important and how to identify them based on your unique life experiences.  

The Core Purpose

George asserts that throughout your career, your core purpose will help guide you when making decisions and motivate you when you’re experiencing challenges. In other words, it’s something you can refer to and remind yourself of the ultimate goal you’re working toward. Without a core purpose, George warns, you risk ending up in an unfulfilling career because you chased things like a higher salary and fancy possessions instead of following your true passion. 

George says that no one can determine your core purpose for you. To identify your unique core purpose, start by reflecting on your life story and your biggest challenges (what George calls “crucibles”). George found through his interviews that many of the world’s successful business leaders were shaped by their life experiences and setbacks, which they channeled into a passion to pursue a meaningful goal. When you reflect on your own core purpose, these experiences could include experiences from your childhood or even recent events that impacted your priorities and vision for yourself. 

In one example of someone using their life story to define their core purpose, George describes how the early experiences of Howard Schultz—the former CEO of Starbucks—helped him identify his vision for his career. When he was a young child, his family struggled financially when his father was injured and lost both his job and health insurance. At this time, his mother was also pregnant, and they had no savings to cover expenses. 

Experiencing the precarity of poverty and seeing his father’s shame over his blue-collar job inspired Schultz’s core purpose—to create his own company where the employees would feel respected, and even part-time employees would have access to company-sponsored health insurance.

Ethical Principles

Once you’ve identified your core purpose, you’ll also need to reflect on what your ethics are as a leader. George says that by doing so, you can ensure that your team members align with those values as well as your core purpose. 

Another important element is articulating your ethical principles before you’re in crisis when they’ll be the hardest to stick to. For example, if you decide early in your career that you’ll never lie to your colleagues to cover up a mistake, it’ll be easier to stick to this choice even when you mess up and lying becomes tempting in the moment.  

Avoid Common Pitfalls

According to George, identifying your core purpose and ethics will help you become an effective and resilient leader throughout the ups and downs of your career. To illustrate the importance of having these guiding principles, George identifies the five traits that commonly cause leaders to stray from their core purpose and ethics

The common thread in these behaviors is self-centeredness and excessive pursuit of external rewards like power and money. George writes that by being aware of these potential pitfalls, you can recognize when your leadership is faltering and take corrective action (with your core purpose and values as a guide). 

Strengthen Your Leadership

George says that to avoid the common leadership problems of the previous section and reach your full potential as a leader, there are three key ways to optimize your leadership: 1) Find a role that you’re highly motivated to do and that takes advantage of your best skills (what George calls the “sweet spot”), 2) support your team members, and 3) adapt to the globalized business environment.

Find Your Ideal Role

George says that your ideal role will showcase your strongest skills and allow you to spend time doing things you’re highly motivated to do. To identify this kind of role, reflect on your strengths and your intrinsic motivation (motivation that comes from within, like the desire to create a more equitable world). If you’ve done some earnest introspection about your core purpose, you’ll likely already have a good understanding of what kind of work you’re intrinsically motivated by.

George gives the example of Warren Buffett as a successful business leader who found his ideal role in the business world. He writes that Buffett could have made a lot of money working as a stockbroker, focusing on trading and selling stocks for clients frequently to make a commission on the trades. However, Buffett knew this wasn’t the kind of work he was excited about or what he was best at. Instead, he chose to run his own investment firm, where he could implement his own investment philosophy (investing in companies long term). Running his own investment firm enabled Buffett to tap into both his strengths as an investor and his intrinsic motivation to do work that he enjoys.  

In contrast, George warns that if you’re in a role where you’re solely extrinsically motivated (by external rewards like a prestigious title or a high salary), you risk falling into the trap of sacrificing your core purpose and your ethics for material gain. For example, if you’re primarily motivated by receiving praise from your boss (rather than enjoying your work), you might start to sacrifice quality just to maintain high output and keep getting accolades. This pattern could then continue indefinitely, even if it isn’t aligned with your core purpose or values. 

George says that ultimately, external rewards will be unfulfilling because they don’t stem from an inner desire like your core purpose does. In addition, when you’re striving for things like money, fame, and power, you tend to make unhealthy comparisons between yourself and others, leading to dissatisfaction no matter how much you achieve. Therefore, George asserts that a desire for external rewards should always be balanced by your core purpose and intrinsic motivations. 

Support Your Team Members

George’s next piece of advice for strong leadership is to enable your team members to do their best work rather than trying to micromanage or force others to do what you want. He argues that this is important because younger generations expect their leaders to give them respect and autonomy over their work. Therefore, adopting this style of leadership will help you attract employees to your organization and advance your core purpose. To implement this team-oriented style of leadership (what George calls the “I to We” shift), you must build strong relationships with your employees and use feedback and introspection to increase your self-awareness. George says that to strengthen your relationships with team members, you have to be vulnerable and show mutual respect.

This gives you more credibility as a leader and establishes the supportive and non-hierarchical dynamic that millennial employees prefer. For example, if you’re providing constructive feedback to a team member about their work habits, you might tell them that you also struggled with some of those same behaviors in the past and let them know that you’ll provide any additional support they might need to improve. 

In addition to relationship-building, soliciting feedback is an important way to ensure that you’re supporting your team to the best of your ability. George advises you to process feedback objectively and follow it up with introspection about your behavior and how you can genuinely improve your strategies moving forward. He asserts that feedback is necessary to adapt your leadership style to your colleagues and the circumstances. For example, a person who’s newer in your industry may want more guidance, whereas a veteran employee might prefer to work more independently. Therefore, you may need to have one-on-one conversations to get feedback and understand these individual needs.

Adapt to the Globalized Business World

George’s next piece of advice for becoming a strong leader is to embrace the needs of a globalized business world. He argues that today, industries need to look toward global markets to expand, and businesses need leaders with specific skills that go beyond those of the past. These include geopolitical knowledge, awareness of the diverse needs of overseas markets, and the ability to navigate other cultures

George asserts that one aspect of geopolitical savvy is knowing what regions may experience political unrest that could influence your business prospects there. You may also need to understand how market trends are different in other countries depending on the culture. For example, in some regions, people might be more accustomed to using public transportation to get around, or they might be more environmentally conscious than the average person in the US. Thus, marketing cars in these places may require a different approach, or a new, experimental product instead. 

Another skill that’s important for the globalized business world is being able to thrive in new places and cultures. George says that leaders have to be open-minded and flexible about different ways of doing things—for example, tailoring a line of food products to incorporate culturally relevant and locally produced ingredients. George argues that the best way to prepare for these skills is by spending time abroad when you’re young. He says this will help you expand your horizons and learn about navigating cultural diversity. 

Nurture a Support System and a Balanced Life

The previous section focused on strategies to become a strong leader by improving the way you work. In the final section, we’ll cover George’s advice on how to bolster your leadership by maintaining a strong support system outside of work as well as maintaining a balanced life.

Maintain a Support System of Friends and Family

George says that no matter how talented you are as a business leader, it’s essential to have a group of people who will love you for who you are (not for your career success), accompany you through hard times, and keep you on track to pursue your core purpose. He explains that your support system will not only provide a loving environment to turn to when things don’t go your way but also help hold you accountable when you’re not being true to your core purpose or values. For example, if you start missing family dinners and other important events to stay late at the office, you may need your loved ones to intervene and remind you that your productivity isn’t as important as your relationships. George asserts that since this kind of trusting and enduring relationship takes time to build, it’s important to consistently prioritize your family and friends.

Make Time for Non-Work Activities

George also recommends that you make time for all the things you like to do—including spending time with your family and other hobbies. He says that whether it’s a physical activity or just relaxing in a peaceful place, having a healthy balance of activities that rejuvenate you will improve your mental health and therefore help you perform better at work, too. 

George describes the experiences of John Donahoe (the former CEO of eBay) to illustrate how a strong personal life can be a boon to your well-being and career. Donahoe was tasked with studying for final exams for business school while his fiancée Eileen was pregnant and due to give birth soon. Realizing that he wouldn’t be able to spend adequate time with Eileen and get top-notch grades, he opted to aim for “OK” grades so that he could fulfill his familial obligations. In the end, because he was less stressed than his colleagues and didn’t try to fill every moment with studying, he worked more efficiently and got all As.

Don’t Compartmentalize  

Along with thriving in your non-work life, George argues that you shouldn’t try too hard to keep your work life and personal life separate. This means that you shouldn’t have to put on a different persona or mask your personality at work, which will eventually exhaust you. Instead, George says to just be yourself, no matter where you are. He also recommends being honest with your colleagues about what’s important to you, even if that means bringing your personal life into work conversations sometimes. 

For example, when Donahoe (from the case study in the previous section) had a scheduling conflict with taking his kids to school and meeting with important clients, he chose to be upfront with his boss about needing to make a change. Instead of being afraid to have an honest conversation with his boss or sacrificing his family’s needs, he discussed it openly. To his surprise, his clients and boss respected him more for being clear about his priorities and found a way to work around the conflict.

Discover Your True North by Bill George: Book Overview

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Like what you just read? Read the rest of the world's best book summary and analysis of Bill George's "Discover Your True North" at Shortform.

Here's what you'll find in our full Discover Your True North summary:

  • Why being true to yourself is more important than having talent or charm
  • Guidelines anyone can follow to become a leader in their organization
  • How to identify your purpose and ethics based on your unique experiences

Katie Doll

Somehow, Katie was able to pull off her childhood dream of creating a career around books after graduating with a degree in English and a concentration in Creative Writing. Her preferred genre of books has changed drastically over the years, from fantasy/dystopian young-adult to moving novels and non-fiction books on the human experience. Katie especially enjoys reading and writing about all things television, good and bad.

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