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Week of 3.16.07

Book Excerpt: "True North"
By Bill George

What is your True North?

True North Do you know what your life and your leadership are all about, and when you are being true to yourself?

True North is the internal compass that guides you successfully through life. It represents who you are as a human being at your deepest level. It is your orienting point - your fixed point in a spinning world - that helps you stay on track as a leader. Your True North is based on what is most important to you, your most cherished values, your passions and motivations, the sources of satisfaction in your life.

Just as a compass points toward a magnetic field, your True North pulls you toward the purpose of your leadership. When you follow your internal compass, your leadership will be authentic, and people will naturally want to associate with you. Although others may guide or influence you, your truth is derived from your life story and only you can determine what it should be.

Discovering your True North takes a lifetime of commitment and learning. Each day, as you are tested in the world, you yearn to look at yourself in the mirror and respect the person you see and the life you have chosen to lead. Some days will be better than others, but as long as you are true to who you are, you can cope with the most difficult circumstances that life presents.

The world may have very different expectations for you and your leadership than you have for yourself. Regardless of whether you are leading a small team or are at the top of a very powerful organization, you will be pressured by external forces to respond to their needs and seduced by rewards for fulfilling those needs. These pressures and seductions may cause you to detour from your True North. When you get too far off course, your internal compass tells you something is wrong and that you need to reorient yourself. It requires courage and resolve to resist the constant pressures and expectations confronting you and to take corrective action when necessary.

Sara Lee's CEO, Brenda Barnes, says: "The most important thing about leadership is your character and the values that guide your life."

If you are guided by an internal compass that represents your character and the values guide your decisions, you're going to be fine. Let your values guide your actions and don't ever lose your internal compass, because everything isn't black or white. There are a lot of gray areas in business.

When you are aligned with who you are, there is coherence between your life story and your leadership. As psychologist William James wrote a century ago, "I have often thought that the best way to define a man's character is to seek out the particular mental or moral attitude in which . . . he felt himself most deeply and intensively active and alive. At such moments, there is a voice inside which speaks and says, 'This is the real me.'"

Leadership is a journey, not a destination. It is a marathon, not a sprint. It is a process, not an outcome.
- John Donahoe, president of eBay
If you want to be an authentic leader, it is important to recognize that there is no such thing as "The One Minute Leader." Your journey to authentic leadership will take you through many peaks and valleys as you encounter the world's trials, rewards, and seductions. Becoming an authentic leader takes dedication to your development and growth, as there will be many temptations to pull you off course of your True North. Maintaining your authenticity along the way may be the greatest challenge you ever face.

In interviewing authentic leaders about their journeys and their development, what stood out was the passion they felt about their life stories and the motivation they gave them to become leaders. Begin by asking yourself: what is my life story? In understanding and framing it, you will find the calling to lead authentically, and you will maintain fidelity to your True North.

Starbucks founder Howard Schultz is a leader who used his life story to define his leadership. In the winter of 1961, seven-year-old Schultz was throwing snowballs with friends outside his family's apartment building in the federally subsidized Bayview Housing Projects in Brooklyn, New York. His mother yelled down from their seventh-floor apartment, "Howard, come inside. Dad had an accident." What followed would shape him for the rest of his life.

He found his father in a full-leg cast, sprawled on the living room couch. While working as a delivery driver, he had fallen on a sheet of ice and broken his ankle. As a result, his father lost his job and the family's healthcare benefits. Worker's compensation did not yet exist, and his mother could not go to work because she was seven months pregnant. The family had nothing to fall back on. Many evenings, Schultz listened as his parents argued at the dinner table about how much money they needed to borrow and from whom. If the telephone rang, his mother asked him to answer it and tell the bill collectors his parents were not at home.

Schultz vowed he would do it differently when he had the opportunity. He dreamed of building a company that treated its employees well and provided healthcare benefits. Little did he realize that one day he would be responsible for 140,000 employees working in 11,000 stores worldwide. Schultz was motivated by his life's experiences to found Starbucks and build it into the world's leading coffee house. After being CEO for thirteen years, he has turned the reins over to his successors but remains as chairman.

Memories of his father's lack of healthcare led Schultz to make Starbucks the first American company to provide access to health coverage for qualified employees who worked as little as twenty hours per week "My inspiration comes from seeing my father broken from the thirty terrible blue-collar jobs he had over his life, where an uneducated person just did not have a shot," Schultz said.

That event is directly linked to the culture and the values of Starbucks. I wanted to build the kind of company my father never had a chance to work for, where you would be valued and respected, no matter where you came from, the color of your skin, or your level of education. Offering healthcare was a transforming event in the equity of the Starbucks brand that created unbelievable trust with our people. We wanted to build a company that linked shareholder value to the cultural values we create with our people.

Unlike some who rise from humble beginnings to create great personal wealth, Schultz is not ashamed of his roots. He credits his life story with giving him the motivation to create one of the great business successes of the last twenty-five years. But understanding the meaning of his story took deep thought because, like nearly everyone, he had to confront fears and ghosts from his past.

His mother told him that he could do anything he wanted in America. "From my earliest memories, I remember her saying that over and over again. It was her mantra." His father had the opposite effect. As a truck driver, cab driver, and factory worker, he often worked two or three jobs at a time to make ends meet, but never earned more than $20,000 a year. Schultz watched his father break down as he complained bitterly about not having opportunities or respect from others.

As a teenager, Schultz felt the stigma of his father's failures, as the two clashed often. "I was bitter about his underachievement and lack of responsibility," he recalled. "I thought he could have accomplished so much more if he had tried." Schultz was determined to escape that fate. "Part of what has always driven me is fear of failure. I know all too well the face of self-defeat."

Schultz worked selling coffee filters during his late 20s, when he encountered Starbucks Coffee during a sales call at Pike Place Market in Seattle. "I felt I had discovered a whole new continent," he said. He actively campaigned to join the company, becoming its director of operations and marketing.

On a buying trip to Italy, Schultz noticed the unique community experience that Milanese espresso bars played in their customers' daily lives. He dreamt of creating a similar sense of community in the U.S., using coffee as the vehicle. Upon his return, Schultz decided to launch the new business on his own and opened three coffeehouses in Seattle. Learning he could acquire Starbucks from its founders, Schultz quickly rounded up financing from private investors.

The saddest day of Schultz's life was when his father died. Sharing with a friend the conflicts he felt in his relationship with his father, the friend remarked, "If he had been successful, you wouldn't have the drive you have now."

After his father's death, Schultz reframed his image of his father, recognizing strengths such as honesty, work ethic, and commitment to family. Instead of seeing his father as a failure, he came to believe the system had crushed him. "After he died, I realized I had judged him unfairly. He never had the opportunity to find fulfillment and dignity from meaningful work."

Schultz channeled his drive into building a company where his father would be proud to work. By paying more than minimum wage, offering substantial benefits, and granting stock options to all its workers, Starbucks offers its employees what Schultz's father never received. Schultz uses these incentives to attract and retain people whose values are consistent with the company's values. As a result, Starbucks' employee turnover is less than half that of other retailers. He says Starbucks gave him "the canvas to paint on."

Schultz's experience is instructive in the way he consciously used his life experiences to envision the kind of company he wanted to create in Starbucks and then made it happen. His example is one of dozens from authentic leaders who traced their success and inspiration directly to their life stories.

Reprinted with permission from True North Leaders