The Leadership of People

This article is part of a series on what causes a firm’s value to increase

Leadership is a topic like the Hydra’s Head from Greek mythology – cut off one head and two grow back. There are more theories of and approaches to leadership than you can possibly count. John Donahoe, then president of eBay, said “Leadership is a journey, not a destination. It is a marathon, not a sprint. It is a process, not an outcome”. So why tackle such a diverse and hard to pin down topic? The reason is real leadership seems very hard to find and when an organization “has it” and its competitors do not, other things held equal, it will outperform its competitors.


Of the hundreds of books on leadership I have read and tried to practice, one stands out for me based on my experiences in organizations and has some academic underpinning – Bill George’s True North: Discover Your Authentic Leadership (2007). Bill is the former CEO and Chairman of Medtronic and now an adjunct professor at Harvard. I will paraphrase him in this article.

Do you consider yourself a true leader of people? What are the behaviors, values and attitudes that set you apart from non-leaders?

I bet you included things like “you lead by example”, “you would not ask someone to do something you would not do yourself”, “you give credit to your teams and not to yourself”, “you have the ability to look at both sides of a problem before getting to the root of the problem”, “you have integrity and are authentic and demonstrate it” to name a few. You would be correct on these. However this list describes good leaders in both good and bad times. In good times though many people can look like true leaders, only to crumple when times get rough.

What then are the behaviors, values and attitudes of the true leader when times get difficult? The complexity here is that we can observe behaviors but observing values and attitudes evolves over time as we see the leader in action.

Bill George describes in True North the five requirements for being an Authentic Leader:

  • Pursuing purpose with passion
  • Practicing solid values
  • Leading with heart
  • Establishing enduring relationships
  • Demonstrating self-discipline

He then describes the Compass for finding your True North of leadership, and staying on that journey:

Solid values and principles that uplift people

Sound motivations to be a Leader in the first place

Leading an Integrated Life

Having a Support Team

Having Self Awareness

At this level, this sounds like the Boy Scout oath. So how can we make this more real? I think it is very insightful to look at what Bill describes as five types of leaders who lose their way on their leadership journey, if indeed they were meant to be leaders in the first place. I think if you assess yourself honestly and have not fallen into one or more of these traps, you probably are a true leader. Have you witnessed any of these kinds of “leaders”? In my twenty-five years in consulting, I have worked with several of each kind and witnessed declining organizational performance in each instance:

Impostors – they rise through the organizational ranks with a combination of cunning and aggression. They understand the politics of getting ahead and let no one stand in their way. Because their greatest strength is besting internal opponents, they often become paranoid someone is out to get them and they become unable to act decisively.

Rationalizers – they always appear to be on top of all issues. However, when things do not go their way, they blame external forces and subordinates. As they advance and find themselves in greater challenges, they transmit pressure to subordinates. This almost always causes a short term orientation and they try to make current numbers look good at the expense of the future. By then that leader is gone and the new leader takes the fall.

Glory Seekers – they define themselves by acclaim from the external world. Money, fame, glory and power are their goals. Their thirst for fame is unquenchable but there are always people with more money, more accolades, etc., so there is always a void. And there is envy of those with more that leads to subordinates viewing this leader with cynicism and disdain.

Loners – they avoid forming close relationships with mentors and support groups. They believe they can and must go it alone, either for the accolades or they think they are smarter than anyone else. They reject honest feedback and thereby can be prone to making major mistakes.

Shooting Stars – for them work is all there is. To observers they are perpetual motion machines. They forgo family, friendships, and their communities. They move up so rapidly they cannot learn from their mistakes, until the very big one happens.

I have found Bill’s views of leadership very insightful and they have allowed me to look in my mirror and improve. How about you? Is true, authentic leadership found in large doses all over your organization? If not, is this important?

Next Up: The Exceptional Organization

Bill Bigler is Director of MBA Programs and associate professor of strategy at LSU Shreveport. He spent twenty five years in the strategy consulting industry before returning to academia full time at LSUS. He is involved with several global professional strategy organizations and can be reached at and