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“Leaders Need A Clear Vision Like A Sailor”

Bill George, a leading author, professor at Harvard Business School, and much more, on leadership traits required to sail through times of ‘VUCA’

Photo Credit : Suresh Gola


Bill George wears several hats. In addition to being a director at Goldman Sachs and a trustee with the World Economic Forum USA, George has been teaching leadership at Harvard Business School since 2004 and authored four bestsellers, including the recently co-authored Discover Your True North. With his deep understanding stemming from decades of corporate experience, he knows first-hand what is expected of leadership during difficult times. 

VUCA for leadership

In the book, George has used the term VUCA 2.0. Describing it, he says, “The term came out for US Military Academy. It’s called Volatility, Uncertainty, Chaos, and Ambiguity. They predicted it 20 years ago and right now we are in the midst of multiple intersecting crises. The Covid crisis, the Russian war in Ukraine, inflation, people leaving the workforce, and others are crises very complex for people.”

According to him, “We need leaders who can lead through crises because we are not going back to stable times. You need a clear vision, like a sailor not losing sight of his vision, because we are going to be buffeted by high winds. For that, you need to know the world you are in. And you need deep experience in your industry. At the same time, you need to be very flexible and have a certain degree of agility and adaptability. Leaders can’t be of a fixed mindset.” 

The other qualities he lists are compassion for people, and the courage to lead through difficult times. These principles became centre-stage during the Covid crisis. “Earlier it was considered that the smartest person is the best leader. That is simply not true.”

A leader needs to integrate a whole lot of aspects, like action on climate change, healthcare and securing the financial future of employees and so on to help their kids go to universities. 

He sees the job of CEOs as being people’s officer, but rues that it’s the opposite now. “I told a group of CEOs in Harvard that your job is to be chief people officer for your company. Leaders are spending 72 per cent of their time on meetings. No! Go out, spend time in office, production floor, R&D labs, markets. Understand their work, support them in their work. It will be really effective,” he says.  

Remarkable Leaders

Interacting with a galaxy of leaders over the years, the leader whom he admires most is Nelson Mandela.  “He spent 27 years in jail for a crime he didn’t commit. But when he came out, he talked about uniting people and he did everything he could to unite the country. And we need more leaders like that who can unite people for a common purpose.” 

Talking about Indra Nooyi, former CEO of PepsiCo, he calls her “a woman of great courage and great vision”. Pointing to the criticism she drew for her long-term vision of healthier foods and beverages, George says he is all admiration for the tenacity she showed through the crisis, adding, “She will go down in history as truly great leader.”