True North Groups: Helping Leaders Find Their Way

Published: Jan 24, 2019
Modified: Aug 30, 2019

By Bill George

The leadership failures of the past decade have triggered a fundamental rethinking of both leadership and leadership development. The hierarchical model so prevalent in the 20th century no longer motivates people, particularly the younger generations.

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. Top-down leaders may achieve near-term results, but only authentic leaders can galvanize the entire organization to sustain long-term performance.

It’s clear we also need to reassess leadership development. In recent decades companies have focused more on succession processes that ensure the emergence of a select group of leaders who can successfully assume top leadership roles. With the shift to collaborative organizations with flat structures, companies recognize they need to develop a broader array of leaders. In the 21st century, organizations need many talented leaders--hundreds, even thousands--operating throughout the organization, rather than just a few stars.

Leadership is no longer based primarily on characteristics, styles, knowledge, skills, and competencies--all of which are related to IQ. It must come from an authentic place within, which is the essential quality of leaders with high levels of what psychologist Daniel Goleman refers to as emotional intelligence, or EQ. I have never seen leaders fail because of a lack of IQ. However, I have seen them fail for lack of EQ.

In interviews with 125 authentic leaders for my book True North, our research team and I learned that EQ starts with having a deep understanding and acceptance of one's life story and the crucibles that people have experienced. Gaining self-awareness is more difficult than it seems. Becoming self-aware requires three things:

1. Experience in real-world situations.
2. Reflection about your experiences and the ability to process them objectively.
3. Group interactions that can provide a place to share your experiences and get honest feedback.

The missing link in leadership development is having a safe place where people can share their experiences, their challenges, and their frustrations, and get honest feedback. This link can be provided by a small, intimate group of peers that allows people to talk openly about these issues in a confidential setting—what we call True North Groups.

How will a True North Group help people develop as leaders? An important part of self-awareness is accepting yourself and having confidence that others will accept you. The support you will gain in a group and the confidence it will give you will enable you to face challenges and navigate them successfully. In your True North Group you learn how to give and receive feedback in non-judgmental ways without taking it personally, a necessity for leaders.

More than 1,500 HBS students have experienced these groups since 2005, as well as students from multiple executive education courses and Young Global Leaders of the World Economic Forum. Evaluations from 2005 to the present from these participants–MBAs and mid-career executives alike–have been uniformly positive.

Thanks to the pioneering example of Unilever CEO Paul Polman, we can see the effect these groups have on more senior executives. Polman is asking his top five hundred 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.”

Polman’s leadership is 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 to get them started), and limited staff is needed to support them. They are scalable for organizations that want to use True North Groups to develop large numbers of leaders.

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. These groups are based on commitment to the discovery of and adherence to one’s guiding values, and dedication to the well-being of each individual in the group and the group itself.

Often peers who work together in the same organization or on task teams want to continue to meet after the task is complete. They may be looking for people with whom they can share their leadership challenges in a confidential setting. One model that has worked well is for small groups of executive women in companies to meet to support their accelerated development.

Through True North Groups, my colleagues and I believe 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.


Editor's Note: Bill George’s newest book, True North Group: A Powerful Path to Personal and Leadership Development, is worthy of more than a footnote in this issue of Leader’s Edge. It is a continuation of his best-selling True North, and George wrote it with Doug Baker, founder and co-principal of Conversations of Consequence.

In this new book, George continues an idea that came out of True North—how people become leaders. George did an interview on Edgewise, AMA’s podcast program, during which he pointed to how the book offers the means to have “in our lives a small, intimate group of people with whom we can have complete trust, total confidentiality, and be very open.”

According to George, a True North Group consists of a group of six to eight people who agree to share the greatest challenges in their lives—both in their work and in their personal lives. George considers it a “very big idea” and so do those who have read the book. Executives see it as a key to leadership development, helping to develop the emotional intelligence and self-awareness that are the essence of leadership. “With such a group,” he told his audience, “you can see yourself as others see you and, most important, have help in working through a difficult situation, either one from your past or one in your present, or, maybe, give you the insight you need to determine where you want to go in the future.”

True North Group doesn’t just offer this idea for consideration. It gives readers the practical help they need to choose members of their group and commit trust and confidentiality with one another. As George said, “In our society today, groups have fallen apart. Just having 2,000 people on your Facebook page does not ensure the level of intimacy or support when you really most need it.”

Listen to Bill George’s Edgewise podcast.

About the Author(s)

george-bill_rdax_120x180Bill George  professor of management practice at Harvard Business School, is the coauthor of True North Groups and four other bestselling books, including True North. He was chair and CEO of Medtronic and currently serves on the board of directors of ExxonMobil and Goldman Sachs.