True North Groups: A Powerful Path to Personal and Leadership Development

Excerpt from “True North Groups: A Powerful Path to Personal and Leadership Development” by Bill George and Doug Baker (Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 2011).

By Bill George and Doug Baker

As a result of myriad leadership and economic failures in the past, both personal growth and leadership development are undergoing a significant rethinking. Macroeconomic theories prevalent for the last 30 years convinced many opinion leaders that people are motivated by monetary gains alone and act only in their economic self-interest.

As a result of economic difficulties in the first 10 years of the 21st century, these theories are being widely challenged. This is triggering a reassessment of the limits and importance of monetary gains. More importantly, it is rekindling desires to find a deeper sense of purpose and meaning in life.

Psychologists have known for decades that monetary accumulation and material possessions are only one of our drives. In 1943, Brandeis University Professor Abraham Maslow, founder of humanistic psychology, published his paper on the hierarchy of needs. Maslow postulated that human beings need to satisfy their more basic needs, such as physiological and safety needs, before they can focus on higher-order needs such as love/belonging, esteem, and self-actualization. We have learned in the past that society’s overemphasis on one aspect of needs—resources and money—has created a void in our society because higher-order needs are not being addressed.

Of course, there is so much more to life than money and its rewards. As human beings, we have a deep need to be loved by our family and friends and to experience intimacy in those relationships. We also crave self-esteem, self-confidence, the respect of others, and the ability to achieve things we deem worthwhile. At our highest level of need, we desire to think of ourselves as moral individuals who respect all human beings and can use our leadership to help others and better humanity.

True North Groups provide a safe place where we can explore the higher levels of Maslow’s hierarchy—love/belonging, esteem, and self-actualization. As people learn that material acquisitions alone cannot satisfy them, they are turning to small groups to address these needs and to understand the meaning of their lives.

True North Groups enable us to integrate these drives for bonding and comprehension into our development as human beings and leaders. In these groups there is no threat of being judged by peers, superiors, or society in general. Consulting executive Maureen Swan believes a True North Group is “a place where life gets real. It causes me to ask questions about how we can live our lives safely and helpfully, and how we can help others to grow.”

An important aspect of the growth experience in True North Groups is the development of emotional intelligence (EQ)—the ability to identify, assess, and control one’s emotions. The roots of EQ can be traced to Charles Darwin’s work on the importance of emotional expression for survival and adaptation to one’s environment.

In his 1998 book, “Working with Emotional Intelligence,” psychologist Daniel Goleman defined EQ as a set of competencies that drives leadership performance. His model includes:

  • Self-awareness: the ability to read one’s emotions and recognize their impact
  • Self-management: controlling one’s emotions and impulses and adapting to changing circumstances
  • Social awareness: the ability to sense, understand, and react to others’ emotions while comprehending social networks
  • Relationship management: the ability to inspire, influence, and develop others while managing conflict

Goleman believes individuals are born with a general emotional intelligence that determines their potential for learning emotional competencies. However, he says EQ competencies are not innate talents but rather are learned capabilities that can be developed to achieve outstanding performance.

True North Groups and the Development of Emotional Intelligence

Self-awareness may be the key to EQ, but gaining it is more difficult than it seems. In our experience, becoming self-aware requires three things:

  • Experience in real-world situations, including opportunities for leadership
  • Reflection about your experiences and the ability to process objectively what you did well and what you need to improve
  • Group interactions that can provide a place to share your experiences and get honest feedback about yourself

True North Groups are most effective in the third category. They provide the feedback that enables people to understand their blind spots, open up hidden areas, and gain a deeper understanding of who they are at their core. In so doing, they offer a unique environment for people to develop their self-awareness, self-compassion, and authenticity. Having self-awareness enables people to have compassion for themselves. Without self-compassion, it is difficult, if not impossible, to have genuine compassion for other people and the difficulties they may be facing. Self-compassion also leads to self-acceptance and, ultimately, to self- actualization. These qualities are essential to sustaining your authenticity as a leader.

Just as human motivation is being reinterpreted, leadership development also is being rethought. With multiple failures of command-and-control structures and top-down leadership styles, organizations are recognizing the need to develop a new generation of leaders who can lead effectively in the 21st century.

Progressive organizations need inner-directed leaders who have the necessary capabilities to empower their people at all levels to step up and lead. They need leaders who can align people around the organization’s mission and values, empower other people instead of exerting power over them, act as servant leaders, and collaborate throughout the organization.

This is a much different profile than the authoritarian style so prevalent among 20th-century leaders. It raises two vital questions about leadership development:

  • How can organizations develop inner-directed leaders?
  • How can they create development programs for large numbers of people instead of intensive programs for a few select leaders?

Before those questions can be answered, it is essential to get to the root cause of myriad leadership failures in the last decade. In our experience, we have never seen leaders fail for lack of raw intelligence. However, we have observed and worked with many leaders who have failed for lack of emotional intelligence.

Goleman explains, “High levels of cognitive ability (i.e., measured IQ of 120 or greater) are a threshold qualification for leadership roles. Once you are at or above that level, IQ loses power as a predictor of success. EQ then plays a larger role.” His conclusion was confirmed by a recent Egon Zehnder International study of executives who failed.

If emotional intelligence is the single most important determinant of leadership effectiveness, then how can we develop our EQ? This is where True North Groups become so valuable in leadership development. Our research and personal experiences indicate that being part of an ongoing group of six people who know you intimately is the best way to develop your EQ.

Leadership development consultant Dr. Kathryn Williams describes the role of small groups in her work in leadership development. She says, “For development of leaders or people, group work is the best technique. Groups accelerate people’s ability to better understand themselves and identify with others. Through the group experience, people can be given honest feedback in a way that is not destructive.” In working with True North Groups, we have learned the added benefits of having feedback from the multiple perspectives of peers within the group. This approach is more likely to enable individuals to absorb the feedback and use it to develop themselves than is feedback from a boss or someone who individuals may not be convinced has their best interests at heart.

Digging into why a True North Group has been so important to her leadership development, Maureen Swan concludes, “The small group is a place where you get to know who you are.”

My group causes me to reflect on where I am in my development. It enables me to be a better leader and understand what gets in my way of being effective. It’s much easier to do this in a small group than it is in the work world. I need to share with the group what I don’t know, which is difficult for leaders to acknowledge in themselves.

As the limitations of leaders at the top have become apparent, there is growing recognition of the importance of developing leaders at all levels, even those with no direct reports. Consequently, organizations need to develop a much broader array of leaders than in the past, when they focused on a few select leaders. True North Groups can help to fill this gap in leadership development. There is essentially no cost to these groups, no professional leaders are required, and limited staff is needed to support them. In this sense, they are scalable for organizations that want to use True North Groups to develop large numbers of leaders.

Your Personal Growth and Leadership Development

How will your True North Group help you grow as a human being and develop as a leader? An important part of your self-awareness is accepting yourself with all your strengths and weaknesses and having confidence that others will accept you for who you are. The confidence gained in your group enables you to face difficult situations in your life and work and to navigate them successfully. On the other side of this coin, you learn in your group to accept others’ differences rather than judging them. You gain the ability to celebrate their differences and to learn from people whose life experiences differ from yours. These experiences give you the capacity for sharing yourself in intimate ways and for experiencing high levels of openness with others. Your True North Group also serves as a support team when you are facing challenging times, just as you will develop the capacity for supporting others in their difficult hours.

In your True North Group, you learn how to give and receive feedback in nonjudgmental ways, without taking it personally. This is an invaluable skill that is essential to constructive human interactions, and it is a necessity for leaders who want to empower others to be constructive members of organizations meeting high performance standards.

Maureen Swan explains how her group impacted her leadership: “My group has enabled me to see where I am in my emotional development and how that enables me to be a better leader or disables my leadership,” she says. “As a leader, I have learned that it can’t be about me anymore. My role is to ignite people’s passion around our common purpose.”

Excerpted with permission from Berrett-Koehler Publishers from “True North Groups: A Powerful Path to Personal and Leadership Development” by Bill George and Doug Baker, copyright 2011.

Bill George is a professor of management practice at Harvard Business School and is the former chairman and CEO, Medtronic Inc. He is a board member of ExxonMobil, Goldman Sachs, Carnegie Endowment, World Economic Forum USA, and Tyrone Guthrie Theater. He is the author of four bestselling books, including “Authentic Leadership” (Jossey-Bass, 2003), “True North” (Jossey-Bass, 2007), “Finding Your True North: A Personal Guide” (Jossey-Bass, 2008), and “7 Lessons for Leading in Crisis” (Jossey-Bass, 2009). Visit or follow him on Twitter:

Doug Baker is founder and co-principal of Conversations of Consequence, an organization that creates small growth groups directed toward leaders in their communities. He is the retired senior vice president of Human Resources, American Express Financial Advisors. He has taught at the University of St. Thomas and at Gustavus Adolphus University.

Lorri Freifeld is the editor/publisher of Training magazine. She writes on a number of topics, including talent management, training technology, and leadership development. She spearheads two awards programs: the Training APEX Awards and Emerging Training Leaders. A writer/editor for the last 30 years, she has held editing positions at a variety of publications and holds a Master’s degree in journalism from New York University.