Peter Sims Feature
Leading from Your “True North”
26 I Nonprofit Professional Performance Magazine True North is who you are at your deepest level. It’s being connected to your core values, and essentially living a life where you are yourself. For Richard and for me, that was a long, painful process of reflection and T here’s no one right way of finding your True North. Some people, from a very early age, seem to be connected with their True North and lead from that. Wendy Kopp, the founder of Teach for America, knew in college she wanted to work on education issues in America, and wrote a paper, that led to a conference, that led to starting Teach for America. She was 21 years old. In True North, the vast majority of people (Bill George and I interviewed 130 leaders) stated they found their True North through a lot of experiences and by developing a self- awareness that only comes from what one of our interviewees described as “rubbing up against the world.” An example of that might be Richard Tait: somebody who worked at Microsoft in his 20s, and didn’t find the work fulfilling or meaningful at the end of his 20s/beginning of his 30s. So he stepped out into the unknown to try to become an entrepreneur at that stage. He became massively depressed, confused, and really lacked confidence because he no longer had the Microsoft name to hide behind, and had to really get to know who he was and what he cared about most. It took several years before he came up with the idea for what became the board game company Cranium. He had to wander through a number of “dark valleys” of loneliness, despair, hopelessness, depression, in order to eventually get to a place where he could be himself.
School, Joel Peterson, says “Feedback is the breakfast of champions.” The more feedback you can get, the more experiences you can have to understand your interests and your values, and your areas of weakness, the better. Values, though, aren’t just for the leader.Value alignment is essential between the leader and the organization. If there isn’t value alignment between the CEO and the organization’s mission, then that CEO is not going to be able to motivate people. It will be blatantly clear that the wrong person is in the job. It’s absolutely essential that the person leading an organization role-model the values of the organization. Organizations are like people: their values are shaped by the values of the founder, and as the organization grows up, it’s like a child who’s been influenced by parents, and those core values remain the same. A great example of where this went spectacularly wrong is Hewlett Packard. The values of Hewlett Packard were around empowerment, authenticity, innovation, giving back to society.Then the company had a series of people leading whose values were just the opposite, most notably Carly Fiorina. Carly Fiorina was known to stay in her office, not walk around, and she was also known to say that “we have to throw away the HP way, the company’s core values, and reinvent the new HP,” kind of in her own image. Disaster! One of the greatest leadership disasters of the past hundred years! Hewlett Packard is a company that’s still trying to find itself again.The alignment between a leader and an organization, in terms of values, is essential. If something is one of my core values, I show it through actions. If you value humility, then
self-discovery. For most people, that level of self-awareness only comes through a lot of painful experiences and course corrections, to connect with your True North. We cited some research from Stanford Business School where the most-successful accomplished alumni said that self-awareness was the most important leadership development trait they could have.There’s a ton of research out there that supports that notion. From our research with practitioners, if you don’t know who you are and you can’t lead yourself, there’s no way you’re going to be able to effectively lead others because you’re going to be inconsistent, and you’re going to do all the things that prevent you from gaining trust with others. If you’re authentic, if you’re aware of who you are, for example to know what you’re good at and what you’re not good at, and can let go of having to control everything, you’re going to end up empowering other people. People feel connected to other people who are themselves, who are authentic. People tend to not trust or feel connected to people who are putting on airs and who are holy. Sometimes people have no awareness of their lack of authenticity. We wrote True North for people who want to lead authentic lives, who want to be connected to their values. The process of developing self-awareness can be driven largely by getting feedback on a regular basis. One of my professors at Stanford Business
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