For example, Starbucks’ founder Howard Schultz was forever changed at the age of 7 when a broken ankle caused his father to lose his deliveryman job and consequently his family’s health insurance and economic security.
“I wanted to build the kind of company my father never had a chance to work for,” he says in True North.
Schultz’s memories of his father’s lost health care led to Starbucks becoming the first U.S. company to provide health insurance for every employee, including those working as few as 20 hours a week.
Bill George, former CEO of Medtronic, and co-writer Peter Sims interviewed 125 executives, ages 23 to 93.
“Your truth is derived from your life story, and only you can determine what it should be,” writes George. “When you are aligned with who you are, you find coherence between your life story and your leadership.” That alignment is your “true north,” an internal compass.
“What emerges from these stories is that virtually all the leaders interviewed found their passion to lead through the uniqueness of their life stories,” he writes. “Not by being born as leaders. Not by believing they had the characteristics, traits, or style of a leader. Not by trying to emulate great leaders.”
Oprah Winfrey, for example, grew up poor and was molested. At 14, she bore a baby who lived only two weeks. Today, she has a media empire.
“It would have been easy for Winfrey to get caught up in feelings of victimhood. Yet she rose above them by reframing her story in positive terms: first by taking responsibility for her life and then in recognizing her mission to empower others to take responsibility for theirs,” he writes.
Winfrey’s transformation came in her mid-30s. Often, it takes that long to see “where we fit in the world and help us understand the meaning of those difficult experiences for our personal missions,” he writes. George was CEO of Medtronic, a global medical technology company, from 1991 to 2001 and chairman from 1996 to 2002. He, too, had crucibles that “ultimately transformed my approach to leadership.”
An only child, he was very close to his mother. He was in his mid-20s when she died suddenly of cancer and a heart attack. Eighteen months later, he was three weeks from being married when his fiancée died suddenly from a brain tumor.
“Her death came as an incredible shock. Once again, I felt all alone in the world.” Friends and prayer led him to recovery.
He married not long after and began a corporate career sprint. By 30, he was president of Litton Microwave. He moved on to continue the race at Honeywell.
But one day he admitted this was not how he wanted to spend his life. His unhappiness at work was harming his relationships with his wife, sons and friends.
With such a focus on becoming CEO, “I had lost sight of the purpose of my leadership — to benefit the lives of others.” Reflecting on how the support of others pulled him through his personal crises, he was able to make the connection to his life story and transform his approach to leadership.
George contacted Medtronic, whose offers he had three times declined because they had not suited his ambition to lead a large company. Within several months, he became its president.
“To become authentic leaders, we must discard the myth that leadership means having legions of supporters following our direction as we ascend to the pinnacles of power. Only then can we realize that authentic leadership is about empowering others on their journeys,” he writes.
This transformation in thinking from “I” to “we” is “the most important process leaders go through in becoming authentic,” he writes.
“Only when leaders stop focusing on their personal ego needs are they able to develop other leaders. … They recognize the unlimited potential of empowered leaders working together toward a shared purpose.”