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True North – Book and idea review


Authentic Leadership is the thing. The last few years have seen an explosion in publications claiming the virtues of Authentic Leadership, especially since the publication of True North by Bill George in 2007. I just read this book and it got me to think quite a lot about this.

It is a very well-written book that reads smoothly and gives a very positive picture about honest and hard working Americans who lead their companies to a better future by being open and fair. However, there are a few things in in the background that dissonate.

First of all, authentic leadership is not really a description of a certain leadership style or any observable facts, but it a moralistic value judgement of the person in question. It is also implicitly assumed that it is automatically better for the company to have an authentic leader. Both these concepts are not obvious.

True North is based on interviews with a hundred successful people who are regarded as “authentic”. We get to hear the leaders’ own stories and explanations for their success. The book is written as stories around different topics, with examples from the lives of the people interviewed, with their names included.

Therefore, every leader shares a story he/she wants us to hear, a story where he/she is the hero. We accept and acclaim that the heroes of our time get the power and perks associated with top-positions in the corporate world and the state administration. Therefore, almost all of the leaders interviewed claim that they have fairly struggled against improbable odds and made innumerable sacrifices to get where they are.
The stories all sound like the script of a classic Hollywood movie:
1. Show the hero in a sympathetic scene, e.g. playing football with his son.
2. Show the hero in a difficult situation, e.g. kidnap the son and put the police force to hunt the hero.
3. Let the hero kill all the villains, rescue the son and celebrate with the President. He is now worth a big house and a big car and the most beautiful lady.
All stories follow the same pattern.

True North is written as a handbook, how to “discover” your own authentic leadership, and how to communicate it. There is even a chapter in this book on how to frame your “life story” to fit the hero-pattern. Maybe it works for the people who work for you, if they think of you as a hero, but I am not convinced.

Therefore, I regard this book a collection of inspiring stories, not at all as a guideline for operation. There is a big contrast to e.g. “Good to Great” by Jim Collins, where objective criteria are defined first, and the examples come out. In addition, in “Good to Great”, most of the descriptions of the leaders are done by observers, not by the subjects themselves. I never trust someone who tells me that they have been winning everything against all odds.

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