The College of Idaho on Business

Scott Johnson: To lead authentically, you need a sturdy internal compass

Director of The College of Idaho’s business and accounting departmentFebruary 19, 2014 

Johnson, Scott

Scott Johnson


With the snow and ice on our campus, it’s hard to believe the spring semester is upon us at The College of Idaho, where we offer a class called Leadership in Business. There are divergent views about whether it is possible (or practical) to teach leadership in a classroom; certainly, we can read about leadership theories and how to hypothetically apply them in the workplace, and we can discuss real-world examples from case studies and biographical profiles.

We also benefit tremendously from having wonderful guest speakers sharing their own experiences. However, there is a difference — and a potential danger — in saying we can understand effective leadership because we have seen, heard about or read about how others lead. We cannot just study the leadership of others and become effective leaders any more than we can watch baseball games and become skilled players.

We can, however, learn from the life stories of others and reflect on how our own journeys influence our purpose for leadership. We must first understand ourselves, through self-awareness and introspection, and then align our values and principles and motivations in an approach called Authentic Leadership.

Former Medtronic CEO (and current Harvard professor) Bill George wrote about this “internal compass” that we can all develop, in different ways, in two influential books, “Authentic Leadership” and “True North.” The notion of being true to ourselves through relational transparency sounds obvious; but think about the seemingly continuous examples of leadership blunders and ethical abuses just since the turn of the century, from Enron and Worldcom, through the corporate forces behind the economic crisis a few years ago to more recent incidents in Idaho where leaders made investment decisions that allegedly were not transparent or principled.

Contextual awareness also matters for effective leadership. It isn’t simply inwardly focused self-awareness, but how we connect with others among various factors and situations.

Through his research involving more than 125 business leaders, George suggests leaders can become derailed if they lose sight of their True North and act instead as Imposters (lacking self-awareness and self-esteem), Rationalizers (deviating from their values), Glory Seekers (chasing acclaim), Loners (failing to build support teams), and Shooting Stars (lacking the grounding of an integrated life).

A common theme among these is ego-driven behavior as opposed to humility. Notorious leadership failures occurred in larger organizations with more isolation and distance among levels and less accountability.

One powerful lesson I’ve learned from smaller businesses in Caldwell is the clarity and impact of guiding values embodied by all employees. This is why we want our students to go out into the community, to learn from our local leaders and understand context, and make connections among ideas and experiences to inspire their own authentic leadership development.

We’re privileged to have supportive community leaders who understand that learning happens throughout life and not just in classrooms, who share their stories with the next generation of leaders.; 459-5219

Idaho Statesman is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service