Bill George is the author of two books, True North and Authentic Leadership. He is the former CEO of Medtronic  (NYSE: MDT). During his 10-year tenure, he instilled values, inspired employees, delighted customers, and led the company to a 60-fold increase in its value -- equivalent to 35% investment returns per year. Motley Fool CEO Tom Gardner interviewed Bill several months ago to get his thoughts on what makes for great leaders. This is part three of six in the interview series. Please click here to read Part 1, and to find links to the rest of the series.

Tom Gardner: You emphasized the importance of self-awareness, and obviously the journey of any great leader is in large part a journey of self-awareness. How do you increase self-awareness? How do you improve someone's EQ? And how do you create a culture of feedback that is not threatening to people, such that they can safely focus on becoming more aware of their strengths and their weaknesses?

Bill George: That is a great question. You mentioned EQ, and I'd say that self-awareness is really the essence of emotional intelligence. And I think in the 21st century, unlike the 20th century, the delta factor -- the difference between good leaders and great leaders -- is going to be their emotional intelligence. We have seen so many leaders fail who were brilliant leaders but lacked that emotional intelligence, and it all starts with self-awareness. Now, that's a lot easier said than done, to say, "Go get self-awareness." And that's why I say that a lot of the leadership development programs are not effective, because you can't just tell somebody, "Get self-awareness."

I think you get it through, first of all, having a lot of intense experiences in the real world,and then getting feedback about how you did on your leadership. So it's important to give yourself different leadership experiences. Maybe they are in college, or maybe they are in a non-profit organization; maybe you are on the board of a community organization or working at the United Way. These are all leadership opportunities. When you've completed each, get feedback. I think the idea of 360-degree feedback, where you get feedback from your subordinates and your peers, is the most valuable thing you can do. And if you take that to heart, and really try to incorporate it into your leadership, and listen hard to what other people are telling you, you can become a great leader.

Most of those leaders who fail are ones that just refuse to listen to the feedback.

Also, there is a certain personality type that is very good at interfacing upward but goes and kicks people around downward. This is the most dangerous kind of person, because a lot of bosses get fooled by these people. These are people who typically lack self-awareness.

The final element of gaining self-awareness after getting the feedback is introspection and reflection. And this is something we overlook. We go from one experience to the next to the next to the next, and we think, "Wow, 40 experiences, this is all great!" But if you don't sit down and reflect, you won't grow enough. You need to ask, "What did I do well? What didn't I do? What turned me on? What didn't I like?" These are important questions.

And it's so much more important to do this than to go blaming your bosses. I had one young man I was mentoring once. He said, "You know, I have had 13 rotten bosses in the last 13 jobs. I have gotten fired 13 times." I said, "Well, it's about time you look at yourself in the mirror and stop blaming the bosses for being whatever" -- in this case, for being racist. This young man was Asian, but saying bosses are being racist, or being this or being that after 13 failed attempts -- maybe you need to look at yourself. You have to go through that period, and that can be very painful. 

That's why people who go through crucibles often use that as an opportunity to be introspective and be reflective about themselves, and to ask what do they want out of life, and why are they leading in the first place?

Gardner: Let's talk a little bit about problem leaders. Can you talk more about people who try to steer their career? Explain, as you see it, the difference between healthy and unhealthy ambition.

George: Yes, well there is a certain kind of leader that is definitely on the make. I suppose all young leaders are somewhat; I was to an extent. I hate to admit that, but it's true. They're on the make because they are ambitious to get ahead. But a lot of them are always looking up to the next job, rather than doing the job they've got. My advice always to people I am mentoring is, "You don't have to spend all your time trying to get noticed by other people. If you excel in your work, you will get noticed."

In businesses today, people are looking for talented leaders, so if you do the job, you are going to stand out. I think that's really key to the difference between people who are on the make and people really committed to leading and helping the company. If you can trust the organization you are in -- and frankly, a lot of people can't -- but if you can trust the organization you are in, then you can go with the flow and know that there is a sense there that when you are ready for the next promotion, the next opportunity, or somebody selects you for something you didn't expect, you should go with it and take it.

I think one of the big challenges every leader faces is when do you step up to the unexpected opportunity? The thing you never expected. My son just got a job opportunity where he is going into the pharmaceutical business, and he will be responsible for business in 73 countries. They are small countries all around the world, but he had the opportunity to either turn that down or to step up to it, and he did. I think it is really important that we sense that and say, "Hey, I can do that and I am going to step up to it and take that risk."

Gardner: How did you -- when you were a CEO, and how do you now -- advise others to spot imposters inside of their organization and what should be done when you find them?

George: It is hard, because a lot of the imposters are pretty good actors, and they act pretty well in front of top management. They can make a great presentation to an executive committee or a board. They dress well, look good, say the right things, and I think the most dangerous kind are the ones that are very flattering to top management, because all of us are subject to liking to be told we're doing a great job. 

I think the only way to do it is, again, back to the 360 feedback. Get feedback from their subordinates on how they are doing. I made it policy when I was at Medtronic never to promote anyone unless I had feedback on how that person acted as a leader and how they treated other people.

Now, sometimes I got fooled. But what I found is that the only way I kept from being fooled was by getting more information on how people are seen by others in the organization. And some of the best leaders -- back to an A.G. Laffley theme -- are not the most impressive when you first meet them. When you get to know them, you see what kind of people they are, but some of the people that come across as the flashiest, the best looking, the sharpest, are not necessarily the best leaders.

I think the big difference between leaders in the 21st century … and leaders in the 20th century [is] the difference between power and empowerment. People in my generation were looking for power. They wanted more and more power. They thought power was a limited commodity, that there is only so much of it to go around, so if I give you power, that means I have got less. I think leaders in this generation realize that's not true. That's why you see this dynamism in the networking of the best companies today, where leaders realize that if you empower other people to lead, then power is an unlimited quantity. It is more like love. The more you give it away, the more you will get. 

And so if you have that quality to empower the people, your organization can do anything. There are no limits on what it can do. But if you limit power, then other people can't do their jobs. So I think the empowering leaders realize that their job is to increase the total, the overall power of the organization, by empowering other people to step up and lead and having not just a few good leaders, but literally hundreds if not thousands of good leaders.

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