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STANFORD GRADUATE SCHOOL OF BUSINESS — By typical measures of success, Bill George had it all.

There he was, in an executive job at Honeywell and sitting atop a short list of people being considered to become the U.S.-based international conglomerate’s next CEO.

However, during that period back in the late 1980s he was miserable, George admitted to an audience at the Stanford Graduate School of Business. He was assigned to oversee several corporate turnarounds, and his heart wasn’t in it. “I’ve always loved being engaged with customers and employees,” he explained. “Well, we were chasing numbers.”

Rather than being a “values-centered leader” who contributes to society while keeping a passion for his work, George said he was focused on “trying to impress everyone and say just the right thing at the right time. I was playing the corporate game.”

So, he switched gears and accepted the number two job at medical device maker Medtronic. Within two years, George became CEO of that company, a maker of cardiac pacemakers, spinal implants, insulin pumps, and other products that bolster people’s health.

Joining Medtronic, where he worked for 13 years, “was the best decision of my professional life,” George told MBA students during his View from the Top address on November 14. “I felt like I was coming home (to) people I could work with and learn a lot from — and really make a difference.”

George left Medtronic in 2002 and is now a professor of management practice at Harvard Business School.

During more than four decades in the corporate world, George has learned it’s a myth that the smartest people become the best leaders. In fact, he believes, top-notch leaders don’t need a high IQ, but do need a high EQ — “emotional intelligence,” a different way of being smart. EQ is characterized by the ability to recognize, control, and evaluate emotions, and use that knowledge to inspire, influence, and develop others while managing conflicts.

George finds that military veterans are often the best leaders in his Harvard management classes, success he attributes to their experience in completing difficult missions at young ages. However, experience alone isn’t enough. He gave the example of GE, a company he said gives managers tons of opportunities to be in charge, but keeps them “moving so fast that they keep repeating their mistakes in every job they move into.”

He urged the new generation of leaders to avoid getting caught in the same trap by taking time to reflect while meditating, jogging, taking a long walk, or talking things over with a trusted sounding board. George said he relies on feedback from a small group of trusted advisors that he’s met with every week for years.

“These people know me inside out,” he said. “They were the ones who could see where I was coming from. You need to have some way of processing in your life what’s going right and what’s going wrong.”

George wasn’t always regarded as someone worth following, even though he tried. While an engineering student at the Georgia Institute of Technology, some classmates took him aside and quietly told him that no one wanted to work with him — much less be led by him — because his super-ambition left him no time to invest in others, a trait that turned people off. 

He took their assessment to heart and changed his ways. He went on to be elected to leadership posts at Georgia Tech and at Harvard, where he earned his MBA in 1966.

After holding civilian jobs at the U.S. Department of Defense and the U.S. Navy, George got his first shot at managing people at Litton Microwave Cooking Products when he was 27. “Somebody bet on me at a very young age,” George explained, adding, “I made a lot of mistakes, but it was a fabulous experience. You don’t learn just by studying other people’s experiences or textbooks. You learn by actually doing.”

He found his professional passion in the health care industry. After joining Medtronic as president and chief operating officer in 1989, George became immersed in the business’ mandate to make a difference in people’s lives. He went into operating rooms to observe doctors using Medtronic products and talked with employees who were fiercely dedicated to producing high-quality medical devices.

In fact, George said his major achievement at Medtronic wasn’t boosting the company’s financial standing. Instead, he’s most proud of the number of people who are restored to health after receiving a Medtronic-developed medical device. “Every minute that goes by, 20 people are being restored by a Medtronic product,” he said. “To me, that’s what it’s all about.”

He urged students to also chose a career for which they have personal passion:  “You’re going to spend more time at your work than you will anywhere else in your life, so don’t you have a right to have meaning in your work? People are not cogs in a wheel.”

George’s book, True North, A Powerful Path to Personal and Leadership Development, was published in September. It is coauthored with George Baker, MBA ’62.

— Michele Chandler

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Also on Stanford Knowledgebase:

  1. DaVita’s CEO Says It Takes a Village To Develop Leaders
  2. Getting Emotional About Health
  3. Getting Leaders Onboard is Key to Successful Change

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