Authentic Leadership Means Finding Your “True North”


In their book True North, authors Bill George and Peter Sims introduce the concept of  “authentic leadership.” The title comes from the metaphor that animates the book’s key lessons: an internal compass “that represents who you are as a human being at your deepest level.”

As a leader, having your own “True North” provides an overall orientation and approach based on “what is most important to you, your most cherished values, your passions and motivations and the sources of satisfaction in your life.” The authors derived their model for “authentic leadership” from interviews with 125 leaders, men and women ranging in age from 23 to 93, from different racial, religious and socioeconomic circumstances.

Discovering your True North, according to the authors, is a result of your own leadership journey, particularly from times of intense challenge or crisis – the so-called crucible – when core values are challenged. For many of the leaders interviewed, the challenges which provided greatest insight came at points of failure. In the case of one high-powered executive, his meteoric rise in the automotive sector was quickly followed by failure when he left to join a major telecommunications company. His experience proved particularly humbling, forcing him to “control his ego and recognize that there is more to life than just grabbing the next promotion.” He took that knowledge and pursued a position where he served in a long period of tutelage with a more senior leader, submerging himself in the detail of the company and ultimately succeeding his boss.

How does True North leadership translate to government?

Public service leadership at the federal, state and local level emanates from those who feel a call to serve, want “to make a difference” and desire to connect to a mission bigger than themselves, attracting leaders (and followers) with a passionate commitment to the public good.

But the public sector is highly intolerant of failure. And with good reason – the use of taxpayer resources is a public trust. Misuse or mismanagement of resources, human or financial, is not tolerated.  When no one can be allowed to fail and learn from that failure, leadership can become overly conservative, risk averse and controlling to the point of leaving good ideas, innovation and inspiration on the table. Over time, leadership of this type negatively affects performance, morale, turnover and outcomes.

How then does a public sector leader develop her own True North? In my federal career, I used two strategies to help inform my leadership practice, ensure alignment with my values and strive for continued improvement as I made my way up the ladder.

One challenge for federal managers is getting meaningful feedback on their performance. And paradoxically, it becomes more difficult the higher they go. That means that with each added level of authority and responsibility, many federal managers are not alerted to where they may be falling short. At senior levels, the required annual performance reviews are left to department and agency leaders with little time and often little interest in taking the time to give meaningful feedback to their leadership team.

My strategy was to actively seek out forms of feedback outside the performance review process. I actively sought leadership training opportunities, particularly those that included 360 feedback surveys of my performance. I also used organizational assessment tools like focus groups, surveys and questionnaires, including the government’s Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey (FEVS) to see how leadership responsibilities and performance were viewed. This feedback was essential in identifying areas of my leadership practice that needed attention.

Second, I formed my own True North leadership group. Together, with a colleague from another agency, we recruited more than a dozen leaders from foreign affairs agencies and the private and NGO sectors, including the State Department, the U.S. Agency for International Development, the Peace Corps, the World Bank, the Justice Department and the Millennium Challenge Corporation. We looked for diversity across gender, race and experience. We asked each member to commit to meeting once a month at a fixed time, hosted after work hours in the home of a group member. We wanted to create a safe space where everything stayed in the room so that leaders could speak candidly about their leadership aspirations and their challenges.

Some of the topics we discussed included being an “authentic leader,” work-life balance, teambuilding, crisis management, performance evaluation and dealing with conflict. We shared resources in the form of books, articles, training opportunities and experiences. We also took time to operate as a clinic to tackle a particular challenge facing one or more of our members.

This group of leaders helped me gain critical perspective on challenges I was living while offering moral support and specific strategic and tactical advice that I was able to incorporate into my leadership practice. Sometimes our monthly meetings drew only 3-4 people but the lower turnout made the conversations that much more personal. Fully attended meetings allowed for wide ranging discussions where individuals could swap information and harvest their own insights.

My effort to develop an authentic leadership practice, governed by my own True North, was helped immensely by trusted peers who helped me gain perspective and keep true to my values and who supported me when times were tough. A True North circle may be one way to develop your own internal compass to guide your leadership journey.


Neil A. Levine is part of the GovLoop Featured Blogger program, where we feature blog posts by government voices from all across the country (and world!). To see more Featured Blogger posts, click here.

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Kaitlyn Baker

Great article Neil! I love the idea of setting up a leadership group. Here at GovLoop we have bi-weekly managers meetings that serve as a space for us to talk about our individual challenges & goals, build our own training, and learn from each other – it has been hugely beneficial to me and the team as a whole. We’ll definitely have to check out True North!

Robert Edward Owen

Great article! If only all government agencies operated this way.
While it’s true the public sector management tends to be intolerant, it is only towards the subordinates. There is no true supervision of management above the supervisor level and most supervisors tend to find themselves at the bottom of the hill in relation to their managers and directors. The lower level supervisors and the real workers end up taking the blame for anything and everything that goes wrong, when in fact it should be the managers and directors taking responsibility.
What we end up with is those at the bottom being held accountable when management is not, thus having mismanagement of resources. Rather than properly maintaining facilities and equipment they get neglected and fall into disrepair in the interest of saving the public’s money. Personel also are neglected by being made to go year after year without an increase in their take-home pay and other benefits they were promised when they were hired being chipped away at. All in the interest of saving money because management has not managed the money properly. Morale goes to an all-time low adding to the underutilization of resources.
What should be honorable, productive and pleasing employment, ends up being the worst job you ever had.
Well, that’s my two cents worth. (maybe more)


Great article. The paradox that one get less and less feedback from supervisors and direct reports the higher one goes in the federal government is very problematic and a peer leadership network and other tools you mention are critical to keeping your eyes on the prize – productivity and excellence in every day work. Thank you!