The following is an excerpt from Daniel Goleman's new collection, The Executive Edge: An Insider's Guide to Outstanding Leadership.
Daniel Goleman: You say that you have to do a certain kind of inner work to find your true north, to be an authentic leader. What is that inner work, and where does it lead?
Bill George: I think it starts with your life story, knowing where you came from, who you are, what really is important. What has shaped you along the way. And what we found was everyone wants to talk about that, but about 80% of the people want to talk about the crucible -- the most difficult time of their life. Think of the crucible where the refiner's fire tests you, and that's where you're really tested. We aren't tested by success; we're tested by going through a very difficult time and saying, "If I can get through this, I can get through anything." You don't deny that you went through that, and I think that's what shapes you, but the key is: How do you frame that crucible?
Goleman: The crucible can be a job loss, a disaster, a business going under?
George: A rejection by good friends, not being cool in school. I lost seven elections. Was I a failure? Yeah, but I had to learn from that experience. I wanted to be a leader and I was being rejected, seven times in a row.
If you aren't willing to live it, if you go into denial and say, "well, that didn't happen" -- actually it did happen. It's part of who you are, so it's how you frame it. Can you frame yourself as a victim? "Those kids didn't like me, so that was the problem," or do you see how that was a great learning experience, and ask yourself, "how do I learn?" And so that then shapes what we call your true north, your most deeply held values and beliefs. What do you really believe, at your core? Do you believe people are inherently good, or basically not good? What are the values you live by, and then what are the principles you translate into leading or interacting with people?
And people know what those are. I've rarely encountered anyone who didn't know. The question is: "Can I stay on course? Can I be successful? They're going to kill me. If they knew who I really was, they wouldn't be interviewing me." Well, actually, they might! It's a cathartic experience to share who you are, and not be rejected. I think that's so important, because otherwise you're living a lie. You're hiding parts of you -- that you got fired from a job, that you had problems. But that's part of who we are. If that's what has shaped you, it's a good thing.
Goleman: What's the role of self-awareness in finding your authentic self?
George: There's been a lot of work -- and you've done a lot more work than I have on this -- but one of the things that I've observed in leaders is beyond a certain level of IQ. Leadership is not defined by IQ, it's defined by emotional intelligence. And at a certain level of IQ, I actually think it's inverse, so if your IQ is so high that you won't listen to anyone else, you're not going to be a very good leader. And so it can actually work against you.
Goleman: Although, I would say it may not be your actual IQ. It sounds like you're talking about a narcissistic leader.
George: Exactly. That's a person who has to be the smartest person in the room, no matter what the question is, what the field is, or whether it's his area of expertise or not.
But to me, the essence of emotional intelligence is self-awareness. How can I have great relationships with other people if I don't know who I am? And that is the key factor of why people are successful in leadership. They may achieve, they may get to this point, but they may fail too. Better to fail early than to fail when you get the big responsibility.
What I've been wrestling with is how do you gain self-awareness? I feel that you have to have real-world experience. I think you have to have a way to process experiences internally. Call it reflection, introspection. I have to meditate regularly. Some people like to pray. Some people have an intimate person, a spouse, or someone with whom the can share everything. You have to have some way to process that experience. Just having the experience doesn't do it, because you'll repeat the same mistakes and you just find the mistakes get bigger and bigger. I also think you need to have a way to process it through feedback -- honest feedback with other people that you trust, not feedback from people you don't trust. Having a group of people with whom you can share on an intimate level, not at a superficial level. So many of our societal interactions are superficial today. They don't allow us to be truly authentic.
From The Executive Edge: An Insider's Guide to Outstanding Leadership. Copyright 2015 More Than Sound. Reprinted with permission from More Than Sound.