Nonprofit Business Advisor, Strategies to Survive and Grow in Tough Times

True North Groups: A Big Idea for Developing Leaders

By Bill George Winter 2012

True North Groups, the new book I have written with coauthor Doug Baker, chronicles the small groups that are a big idea for developing a new generation of authentic leaders. Having participated in two of these groups for more than 25 years, led groups for 1,500 participants at Harvard Business School (HBS), and studied the interviews from 50 group members, I have learned just how powerful these groups are in personal growth and leadership development. I believe these groups will contribute in important ways to developing the leadership we need now.

It wasn’t so long ago that business leaders were widely admired, even adulated. In the 1990s, they were treated like rock stars by the media, the enthusiasm no doubt fueled by a strong economy. We saw a decade of sustained growth that added 22 million jobs and spawned a seemingly endless array of dynamic new companies, many built on the Silicon Valley venture capital model.

In the past decade it all came crashing down. The dot-com bubble burst. Enron, WorldCom, and Tyco failed and their leaders went to jail. Inappropriate accounting forced more than 100 companies to restate earnings. Then came the subprime mortgage collapse and economic meltdown of 2008. Dozens of banks went under or were forced into fire sales, and the U.S. economy went into a tailspin from which it has yet to recover.

What happened? Many leaders placed self-interest and short-term shareholder value ahead of building their institutions for the long term. This caused the destruction of major companies, the loss of millions of jobs, and declining shareholder value. Little wonder that trust in business leaders has dropped dramatically. Once trust is lost, it is very hard to regain.

In the 20th century business leadership became an elite profession, dominated by managers who ruled their enterprises from the top down. Influenced by two world wars and the Depression, organizations were structured along military lines, with multiple layers of leadership establishing control through rules, policies, and procedures.

These days that hierarchical model has ceased to be effective because it fails to motivate people, particularly the younger generations. Today’s successful companies are filled with knowledge workers who don’t respond to hierarchical leadership.

Command-and-control leaders are finding it very difficult to motivate frontline employees and take advantage of their knowledge and wisdom. I was most inspired by Medtronic’s frontline leaders, such as the woman who told me that her greatest satisfaction came from the 5,000 people alive today because of heart valves she made. This woman—a leader in her own right, although she has no direct reports—speaks to another powerful motivation for 21st-century employees: satisfaction that goes far beyond a paycheck. Today’s employees are searching for genuine meaning from their work, not just financial rewards.

The 21st-Century Leader

Solving a crisis of this magnitude calls for a new generation of authentic leaders comfortable with entirely different organization structures. This new generation inspires people through the company’s mission and values and achieves sustainable results with flat organizations that operate globally on a horizontal basis.

It is only through authenticity that leaders can gain the confidence and support of their people. Leaders must be committed to the long-term health of their institutions, live their values consistently, and place their customers and employees ahead of short-term shareholder pressures and the potential for personal gains.

Today’s most successful leaders focus on sustaining superior performance by aligning people around mission and values and empowering leaders at all levels, while serving customers and collaborating throughout the organization.

Aligning: The leader’s most difficult task is to align people around the organization’s mission and shared values. Gaining alignment is especially tough in far-flung global organizations.

Empowering: Twenty-first-century leaders empower people at all levels to step up and lead, combined with sophisticated accountability systems to ensure commitments are met.

Serving: CEOs who spend their time listening to Wall Street often ignore their most important stakeholder group—their customers. Employees are much more motivated by serving customers than they are by getting stock prices up, and this motivation ultimately results in sustainable increases in shareholder value.

Collaborating: The days of the heroic solo performer are waning. The challenges today’s businesses face are too complex to be solved by individuals or even single organizations. Collaboration—within organizations and with customers, suppliers, and even competitors—is required to take on challenging problems and get them solved.

Organizations filled with aligned, empowered, and collaborative employees focused on serving customers will outperform hierarchical organizations every time. Top-down leaders may achieve near-term results, but only authentic leaders can galvanize the entire organization to sustain long-term performance.

After becoming CEO of IBM, Sam Palmisano transformed its long-standing bureaucracy, shifting the organization from rules orientation to leading by values, using collaboration to break down the silos. The results have been dramatic: since 2002, IBM’s earnings per share have grown 273 percent and its stock price has doubled.

Leadership Development

These changes in leadership are triggering a reassessment of how we develop leaders. In recent decades companies have focused on succession processes that ensure the emergence of a select group of leaders to assume the top leadership roles. The best of these companies spend substantial sums on these few leaders, while relegating others to learning traditional management skills.

With the shift to collaborative organizations with flat structures, companies are recognizing they need to develop a much broader array of leaders than in the past. In the 21st century, organizations need many talented leaders—hundreds, even thousands—operating throughout the organization, rather than just a few stars. This will require new approaches to leadership development—not just extensions of today’s approaches.

The Role of Emotional Intelligence

The likelihood of being a successful leader is ultimately not about intelligence as it is traditionally measured. Leadership is no longer based solely on characteristics, styles, knowledge, skills, and competencies—all of which are related to IQ. In my experience I have never seen leaders fail for lack of raw intelligence, but have observed and worked with more than a hundred who have failed for lack of what psychologist Daniel Goleman calls emotional intelligence (EQ). Effective leadership, sustainable over long periods of time, must come from an authentic place within, which is the essential quality of leaders with high levels of EQ.

In his landmark book Working with Emotional Intelligence, Goleman describes EQ as including four competencies: self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, and relationship management. Goleman believes that “EQ competencies are not innate talents, but rather learned capabilities that can be developed to achieve outstanding performance.” He explains, “High levels of cognitive ability (i.e., measured IQ of 120 or greater) are a threshold qualification for leadership roles. Once you are at or above that level, IQ loses power as a predictor of success.”

To develop the leaders they need for the 21st century, companies must look at EQ as a key part of the leadership development equation. In interviews with 125 authentic leaders for True North, we learned that EQ starts with having a deep understanding and acceptance of your life story and the crucibles you have experienced. This is crucial to knowing who you are and discerning your leadership purpose.

Gaining self-awareness is more difficult than it seems. Becoming self-aware requires three things:

Experience in real-world situations, including leadership opportunities.

Reflection about your experiences and the ability to process objectively what you did well and what you need to improve.

Group interactions that can provide a place to share your experiences and get honest feedback about yourself.

The Emergence of True North Groups

The missing link in leadership development is having a safe place where people can share their experiences, challenges, and frustrations and get honest feedback. This link can be provided by True North Groups—small, intimate groups of peers where people can talk openly in confidential settings.

Your True North is the orienting point that keeps you on track as a human being and leader. It represents what is most important to you: your beliefs, values, motivations, and sources of satisfaction. Most people know what their True North is but often deviate from it, pressured by external forces or seduced by extrinsic rewards.

True North Groups provide the feedback that enables people to understand their blind spots, open up hidden areas, and gain a deeper understanding of who they are. They offer unique environments for people to develop self-awareness, self-compassion, and authenticity.

True North Groups help you grow as a human being and leader, as you learn to accept yourself and your strengths and weaknesses and gain confidence that others accept you for who you are. Your group’s support provides the confidence to navigate difficult situations in your life and work.

How They Work

Your True North Group provides support when you’re facing challenging times. By openly sharing yourself in intimate ways, you learn to trust your group when you may be losing your bearings or deviating from your beliefs and values. Because they know your life story, group members can perceive how prior events in your life may be influencing your decisions.

In your True North Group you learn how to give and receive feedback in nonjudgmental ways, without taking it personally. This is an invaluable skill, one that is essential to constructive human interactions and a necessity for leaders. You also learn to accept others rather than judging them, as you celebrate their differences and learn from their unique life experiences.

Leadership development consultant Kathryn Williams observes, “For development of leaders or people, group work is the best technique. Groups accelerate people’s ability to understand themselves better and identify with others. Through the group experience people can be given honest feedback in a way that is not destructive.”

Digging into why a True North Group has been so important to her leadership development, Maureen Swan concludes, “The small group is a place where you get to know who you are.” She explains: “My group causes me to reflect on where I am in my development. It enables me to be and understand what gets in my way of being a more effective leader. I share with my group what I don’t know, which is often difficult for leaders to acknowledge about themselves.”

My True North Groups

With six others, Coauthor Doug Baker and I formed our first True North Group in 1975. The eight of us have met weekly for the past 36 years. In 1983 we formed a couples group with our spouses and two other couples who were good friends. These two groups have been a godsend in my life. It was my men’s group that gave me the encouragement to give up a promising career path to follow my heart to Medtronic and pursue its mission of “restoring people to full life and health.” When my wife, Penny, was diagnosed with breast cancer, it was our couples group that was there for us as Penny went through her surgery.

When I concluded my business career after thirty-three years of working for three major corporations, I decided to take up teaching and mentoring to try to help develop the leaders of the future. After being a visiting professor at two Swiss institutions, I joined Harvard Business School’s faculty in 2004 as professor of management practice to teach the new required MBA course, Leadership and Corporate Accountability.

Believing MBA students needed a leadership development course based on inner-directed leadership, I created Authentic Leadership Development (ALD) as an elective course. We also initiated a field research project to conduct in-depth interviews with 125 authentic leaders. These interviews made it unmistakably clear that these leaders were shaped and propelled not by their characteristics or competencies but by their life stories and the crucibles they faced.

Through firsthand retelling of these often-painful stories, they learned who they were and what was important to them. They spoke in compelling ways about how their unique life stories had empowered them to succeed. By testing themselves through real-world experiences and reframing their life stories, they were able to unleash their passions and discover their leadership purpose. But they also struggled to cope with the pressures of leadership and avoid its seductions while staying on the course set by their inner compass—their True North.

To provide MBAs an intimate setting to discuss highly personal and emotional topics, we created six-person True North Groups, which were allotted half of the official class time. More than 1,500 HBS students and midcareer leaders have experienced these groups since 2005. Their evaluations of their groups have been uniformly positive, with near-perfect ratings. Many describe their experience as “transformative.” More recently, True North Groups have been adopted by several other academic institutions. These groups are the most powerful education experience I have ever witnessed.

Thanks to the pioneering example of Unilever CEO Paul Polman, we are seeing the impact these groups have on more senior executives. Based on the success of the first 100 participants over the past three years, Polman is asking his top 500 executives worldwide to experience these groups. He notes, “Forming True North Groups is an integral part of the Unilever Leadership Development Programme to prepare our future leaders for an increasingly volatile and uncertain world where the only true differentiation is the quality of leadership of all.”

These success stories are also paving the way for other corporations to use True North Groups to develop large numbers of leaders throughout their organizations. There is essentially no cost to these groups, no professional leaders are required (although some organizations use facilitators or coaches to get them started), and limited staff is needed to support them. In this sense they are scalable for organizations that want to use True North Groups to develop large numbers of authentic leaders.

Finding and Forming Your True North Group

If you want to form your own True North Group, start by gathering a group of people who are compatible and respectful of each other. In selecting members, it is essential to hold to rigorous standards and not to compromise. One or two ill-fitting members can easily reduce the feelings of trust and openness.

Solid members lead to better, deeper discussions of significant topics. Members must have the self-discipline and commitment to make time in their schedules for the group’s sessions. They will also attract other good members when the group wants to expand or replace people who have left.

Often peers who work together in the same organization or on task teams want to continue to meet on a more personal basis after the task is complete. They may be looking for people with whom they can share the leadership challenges they are facing and get honest feedback and advice in confidential settings. In other cases people in the same organization become friends and are looking for a group of people who will enable them to grow as individuals.

Another key decision for your group is the model for leading it. Our research has shown that three leadership models can be successful: peer facilitators, professional facilitators, and group members as permanent facilitators. Like all group decisions, decisions about facilitators should be made jointly, with careful consideration of all members’ goals and needs.

With a peer facilitator approach, leadership of the group rotates each meeting. The facilitator is responsible for choosing the program, introducing it to the group, and facilitating the group’s discussion. The facilitator also takes responsibility for the group’s process, ensuring the discussion flows smoothly.

What to Expect

Many people report that they discuss life experiences with their True North Groups that they have shared with few, if any, people in their lives. Others report seeing their crucibles in entirely new ways. This can lead to a healthy reframing of life’s most difficult experiences. Revisiting painful and difficult times and exploring their dark sides can be healing. In learning about crucibles others have faced, people realize they are not alone in facing great challenges. Group meetings build trust among group members, which can lead to higher levels of self-awareness and sensitivity to the challenges others face.

In your True North Group you will learn what your passions and motivations are based on and how they often guide the course of your life. For example, one person who had a life-threatening illness in his teenage years learned to see himself as an overcomer rather than a victim. He then dedicated himself to helping other young people with life-threatening diseases. Another who lost her mother to breast cancer was encouraged by her group to pursue a career in medicine.

One MBA participant describes her True North Group as “one of my best experiences of my education. It provided support, encouraged introspection, and consisted of the best discussions I’ve had. It gave me an opportunity to reflect on my life and share my feelings in an open and supportive environment. As a result, I faced things about myself I always knew were there but had tried to hide.”


We have learned that True North Groups can be an effective force in changing people’s lives—personally and professionally—in profound ways. They can also become instrumental in changing the way organizations work. Widespread use of these groups could lead to a deep bench of the kinds of leaders needed now and for the future—and transform leadership in the process.

This is applied leadership development at its finest. Through True North Groups, leadership development can be transformed to develop large numbers of inner-directed leaders who will bring authenticity to their leadership and in turn transform their companies into authentic organizations.


Bill George is a bestselling author of “7 Lessons for Leading in Crisis,” “True North,” “Finding Your True North,” and “Authentic Leadership.” He is a professor of management practice at Harvard Business School and the former chairman and CEO of Medtronic. He is on the boards of ExxonMobil, Goldman Sachs, Carnegie Endowment, World Economic Forum USA, and Tyrone Guthrie Theater. He is a regular contributor to CNBC and Harvard Business School’s “Working Knowledge.” His new book, with coauthor Doug Baker, is “True North Groups.” Visit his website at

Copyright © 2000-2015 by John Wiley & Sons, Inc. or related companies. All rights reserved.