Vail Symposium event promotes purposeful living

Last event featured former Medtronic CEO and senior fellow at Harvard Business School Bill George

Kimberly Nicoletti, Special to the Daily
Bill George discusses living a purposeful life as part of the Vail Symposium's programs.
Kimberly Nicoletti/Special to the Daily

What’s really important in your life?

That was the question Bill George, Medtronic CEO and senior fellow at Harvard Business School, asked the audience Tuesday night at Vail Symposium’s “Discover Your True North.” The 90-minute discussion, presented in collaboration with the Vail Alliance for Purposeful Living, included practical ideas for living an authentic life and stories of leaders who have — and sometimes haven’t — lived purposeful lives.

George began by pointing out how the pandemic, the war in Ukraine, a 9% inflation rate and the threat of a recession is stressing people, making them “tired.” Then, he quickly turned toward solutions, beginning with the paradigm of authentic leadership, which he described as “going beyond being genuine — it’s knowing who you are: Knowing where do I fit, then gaining knowledge of your true north.”

“If you’re going to be a leader, understanding your purpose is so essential,” he said.

And he’s quite an expert in the field. He has written four bestsellers: “Authentic Leadership,” “True North,” “Finding Your True North” and “7 Lessons for Leading in Crisis.” In addition to being the professor of management practice from 2004 to 2014, he teaches leadership in executive education programs at Harvard Business School.

Support Local Journalism

He explained how, “in the old days,” leadership meant judging employees’ performance and only using your intellect. Now, leaders guide people with their hearts. Whether in a corporation, home or community, that means leading out of passion, compassion (serving others), empathy (“because everyone is going through tough times,” he said) and the courage to stand up for moral issues.

“Your IQ doesn’t change much from age 10 to 60, but your EQ (emotional intelligence) increases through self-awareness,” he said.

He divided life stages into thirds: the first, until about 30, revolves around preparing for what you’re going to do in life; the second, from about age 30 to 60, involves taking on leadership roles; and the last third is the “wisdom period,” a time of giving back.

He told stories of how we all go through crucibles, including his own. While he served in the Vietnam War, his mother passed away, and then his 25-year-old fiancé died three weeks before their wedding. While he did meet his current wife of 53 years shortly after, he still faced challenges. He lost passion for his career and lost sight of who he was before moving to Medtronic.

“The most common reasons for losing (your) way are striving for external validation and measuring yourself by how the world measures (success): money, fame and power,” he said.

He talked about purpose not as a changing, elusive thing, but rather as your reason for getting out of bed in the morning, your “why.” His revolves around helping people reach their full potential, and although the ways he does that may look a little different from when he was in college, they still involve the process of helping and mentoring others.

“If you were about to die and your favorite granddaughter asked you, ‘what’s the most important thing in your life,’ what would you tell her? What did you devote your life to?” he asked the audience at Edwards Interfaith Chapel on Tuesday.

He challenged people to consider how they can contribute more, no matter what stage of life they’re in.

He also described what it really means to be a leader through the acronym, “coach.” You must: Care about people, Organize them, Align people with their mission and purpose, Challenge them to do their best and help them succeed by showing them how.

“It’s time for the new generation of leaders to step up, and by that I mean Gen. X, the millennials and Gen. Z,” he said at the beginning of his talk, later stating: “We need leaders with moral courage, with conviction. You don’t have to please others; you have to stand up for what’s right. … As a moral leader, what issue are you going to focus on for the rest of your life? You can’t change the (whole) world, but you can have an impact.”

Before he moved on to a very dynamic Q&A session, he encouraged people to maintain two practices. First, he asked them to take at least 20 minutes a day — setting aside all electronics and distractions — to reflect upon how they showed up today. His second suggestion was to surround yourself with truth tellers — loved ones who will honestly cut through your blind spots and tell you how you’re showing up.

“Some of it’s painful, but that’s how we learn,” he said. “It leads us to gain self-awareness, which leads to self-acceptance, and then to self-compassion.”

Want to learn more?

The Vail Symposium hosts affordable, thought provoking and diverse programs for everyone (and even includes Vail employee and Eagle County teacher and student discounts). From arts and culture to environmental awareness, conversations on controversial issues, hot topics and consciousness, you’ll find stimulating discussions. Here’s what’s coming this summer:

July 28, 6 p.m. Vail Mountain School: Christo and Jeanne-Claude: Reflecting on the 50th Anniversary of “Valley Curtain” and the Artists’ Legacy — The 4 1/2-acre curtain of orange fabric hanging across a Colorado highway took more than 100 engineers, construction workers and volunteers 28 months to plan and erect. Learn about its development, construction and legacy, as well as other public installations of the Claudes.

Aug. 10, 6 p.m. Donovan Pavilion: Disruptive Energy Futures: The Economy and Resilient Energy Supplies — Most of the energy we use is wasted, but smarter technologies and designs could provide the same or better services with far less energy, money and risk. Join Amory Lovins, cofounder of Rocky Mountain Institute, in this eye-opening program.

Aug. 24, 6 p.m. Vail Interfaith Chapel: Conversations on Controversial Issues presents U.S. Immigration, moderated by Clay Jenkinson — Jenkinson gathers experts for a thoughtful, civil, rigorous and historically grounded discussion on U.S. immigration policy and immigration in American life.

Note: In September, topics include, “The March to Midterms: A Bipartisan Discussion on the State of American Politics at Home and Abroad” (Sept. 8); “Pull the Plug on Stress: Tools to Adapt and Thrive During Uncertain Times” (Sept. 14); and “Up Your Game” and “Unleash Your Creativity” (two separate workshops Sept. 15).

For more information and for tickets, visit:

Bill George, the author of “Discover Your True North,” gave a talk at Edwards Interfaith Chapel Tuesday, as part of the Vail Symposium.
Courtesy image
Bill George talks to an audience at Edwards Interfaith Chapel on Tuesday evening.
Kimberly Nicoletti/Special to the Daily

Support Local Journalism