Monthly Archives: April 2015 The Key to Creating Socially Conscious Business

Helping Others Bill GeorgeOn a broad scale, how do we create altruistic organizations that can really transform society and transform economic systems? This is the field I’ve been studying since I left the corporate world eight years ago, and I’m convinced that the key to this is compassionate, authentic leadership. We need a new generation of leaders to step forward and provide this new kind of leadership.

My basic premise is that compassionate, authentic leadership is essential. It’s not just that it’s good to have—it’s necessary for a healthy society. I’m disappointed in my generation of leaders; I believed that they failed in their responsibility. As a result of the failures of leadership in the last decade, there’s been a loss of confidence in our leaders, and a loss of trust. Each of us who takes a leadership role has a responsibility to the people we serve. If we put ourselves ahead of the public, we have failed in our responsibilities and we can cause great harm.

At my former company Medtronic, which makes medical products, our mission and our meaning was to restore people to full life and health. The way we measured ourselves was not by earnings per share but by how many people we helped. My greatest source of pride is that in the time I was there, we went from 300,000 people per year to 10 million people per year who were being restored to fuller, more active lives through our work. We always tried to convey this meaning to the people in the company, because that’s what inspired them, not the stock price, not the earnings.


The role of the leader in this century is different than in centuries past. It’s to bring people together around this sense of meaning, purpose, and values. It is a very difficult task, particularly in organizations that span the globe, to gain that kind of alignment where people believe in the purpose of the organization and practice its values.

The second role of the leader is not to exert power over other people. Many scholars have written about leadership as power. This idea of power suggests a zero-sum game: if I give you power, I have less. But I reject this idea. I think leadership is about empowering people to lead. If we can empower other people to step up and lead, then we have much stronger organizations, and we can all contribute to the best of our abilities.

Let me give you an example of a woman whom I met at Medtronic many years ago. She was making heart valves. If a human heart valve failed, they could actually take a valve from the pig and use it to replace the failed human heart valve. This woman was the top worker in the plant. When I asked her about her work, she looked at me with passion in her eyes and said, “My job is to make heart valves the save people’s lives. I make one thousand heart valves a year. If one valve is defective, someone will die, and I could never live with the idea that I caused the death of another person.” But she also said, “You know, when I go home at night, what I’m thinking about is that there are five thousand people in the world today who are alive and healthy because of the products I made.”

This woman is an empowered leader. She doesn’t have a formal leadership role, and she isn’t a supervisor, but everyone looks to her for inspiration. This is the kind of empowered leadership we need to spread more broadly.

This blog was originally posted 4/17/15 on

Huffington Post: Speaking Out Against Discrimination

Laws being passed this past week by Indiana and Arkansas to make discrimination legal on basis of religious freedom have stirred up a hornet’s nest of protests across the country, causing the Republican governors of these two states to ask that the legislation be modified.

While LGBT obviously oppose these laws, most of the criticism has come from CEOs of the nation’s leading companies. Last Sunday, Apple CEO Tim Cook led off the debate when he penned a powerful op-ed decrying Indiana’s religious freedom law. His decision to speak out was not without risk. Apple products exist in 76 countries where homosexuality is illegal. He wrote:

“On behalf of Apple, I’m standing up to oppose this new wave of legislation… regardless of what the law might allow in Indiana or Arkansas, Apple will never tolerate discrimination.”

Other CEOs, wary of similar risk, might have avoided the debate. In the past they have been reluctant to engage in these discussions, for fear of being criticized by their customers and employees, especially those who are evangelical Christians. The business response could have begun and ended with Apple.

But not this time.

In the past week, CEOs Doug McMillon of Walmart, Arne Sorenson of Marriott (a Mormon-founded company), Marc Benioff of Salesforce, and John Lechleiter of Eli Lilly (based in Indiana) have come out vigorously against similar laws. Walmart’s McMillon tweeted about a similar law being considered in Arkansas,

“Every day, in our stores, we see firsthand the benefits diversity and inclusion have on our associates, customers and communities we serve. For these reasons, we are asking Governor Hutchinson to veto this legislation.”

A few years ago, such public protest would have been surprising. For five years, I sat next to Lord John Browne, then chief executive of British Petroleum (BP), as we served together on the Goldman Sachs board. Browne is gay, yet this was a subject we never discussed. As he wrote in his poignant 2014 book, The Glass Closet, “My refusal to acknowledge my sexual orientation publicly stemmed from a lack of confidence… It is difficult to feel good about yourself when you are embarrassed to show who you actually are.”

Increasingly authenticity is seen as the gold standard for leadership. Fortunately, we see more courageous CEOs – willing to take stands for what they believe and for the diversity of their employees. Now, more than ever, it is essential our society treat everyone equally regardless of religion, national origin, race, or sexual preference.

Discrimination for any reason gives a rationale for all forms of discrimination. If the law permits business owners to discriminate against gays based on their religious views, what prevents them from discriminating against Muslims or Indians?

I know firsthand that wading into these debates has its downsides. As CEO of Medtronic in 2000, I spoke out against the Boys Scouts’ decision to prevent gay scouts from joining their ranks. I also supported the Medtronic Foundation’s decision to withhold grants to the Scouts because the Foundation does not fund organizations that discriminate for any reason. I received a lot of criticism from evangelical Christians and former Scouts among Medtronic employees, but it was worth it. Eventually, the local chapters amended their policies to accept all boys regardless of sexual preference, and years later the national organization followed suit.

It is encouraging that CEOs have taken an active role in this debate. But they can’t do it alone. Leaders from all walks of life, from government officials to civic leaders, need to embrace diversity in all forms. Speaking publicly against discrimination is the first step in that process.

As Tim Cook wrote in his op-ed, “Men and women have fought and died fighting to protect our country’s founding principles of freedom and equality. We owe it to them, to each other and to our future to continue to fight with our words and our actions to make sure we protect those ideals.”

To the CEOs who have already spoken out, thank you. Your voices are powerful, and have already forced the states of Indiana and Arkansas to amend their laws. As this national debate shows, there is much work left to do for Americans to accept all people as being equal under the law.


This article was originally posted 4/03/15 on the Huffington Post as part of a series on True North Leadership.