Discipline #4 – Showing your Authenticity
Several years ago I was in Singapore on business. As with many cities there was an evening market where I was offered a Rolex watch for about $10. With a cynical smile I asked if the watch was “genuine.” The response with a huge smile and a vigorous shake of the head was “genuine copy.”
Leaders in disruptive times are clearly under continual pressure, or at least expected from their stakeholders to be optimistic, show hope, have clear vision, and to lead with assured commitment and confidence. As leaders we know that it is extremely difficult to model this expected behavior for long periods of time and fake it. Leaders in disruptive times can only meet the new daily and unexpected challenges of leadership if they are genuine in who they really are, that is they are genuine or authentic leaders.
The idea of authentic leadership (AL) has developed over the last several years, using different names until Bill George’s book Authentic Leadership popularized the term in 2003. So what is really different for leaders in VUCA times now almost 20 years later? The foundational elements of authentic leaders are: Self-awareness, Balanced Processing, Moral and Ethical behavior and Relational Transparency. Pragmatically these may be demonstrated by a leader whose leadership practices encourages the organization to implicitly trust the leader “all the time” as their talk and actions are 100% congruent with who they are in real life or “in their PJ’s”. The Authentic Leader listens, processes fairly with equity, and seldom if ever uses their title to “swing a vote” (balanced processing), They are beyond reproach being ethical, moral, and they say it all without holding back (transparent).
As my father used to say regarding all intangibles including integrity, “you will know it when you see it.” I wish there was a quick checklist, or a character “thermometer” that you could stick under a leader’s tongue to measure their authenticity, but in my experience, it’s a judgment call and it is always made by others (authentic leaders do not self-report on being authentic). Let me share a profile of one colleague (of many wonderful men and women who have influenced my leadership) in my season of serving at a large international ministry. I actually worked twice for this organization, and on returning the second time, this individual was the only leader from the executive suite to “come down” to the bull pen to personally welcome me back and to share how much value he saw in my new role this second time around. He was genuinely interested in who I was and what I was being called to in being part of significant change in the organization. This behavior was proved absolutely consistent with who he was as a person, and what we (the plebs) saw of him as a leader. His default leadership style was intentional process and decisions motivated by his internal compass of genuine and fair principles and values. He knew who he was, both as a person and a leader. More often than not, he was the last one to speak in a meeting, normally to assimilate the conversation, or to ask stretching and open questions initiating further discussion and always a better outcome. A genuine leader who I find myself personally and subconsciously emulating – he “leaked” authenticity. He was an avid learners reminding me that authentic leaders are continuously committed to their own learning in order to understand themselves better as a person and how they and others see the world (sometimes differently). Authentic leaders know themselves well – they are extremely self-aware.
A close “cousin” to self-awareness is moral and ethical values. It is impossible to be an authentic leader and be considered ambiguous in your ethical or moral values. Enron, Wells Fargo, Credit Suisse are familiar names of a far too long list of organizations and leaders who have ignored these essential behaviors and values. The list of individual corporate and Church leaders who have resigned for “moral failures” is now almost too common to make headline news. Leadership in fast-changing times causes leaders opportunities to “cut corners” looking attractive or even essential in the heat and challenges of expedience. Being authentic is knowing that this is unacceptable, not sustainable, and will for any organization be unforgivable.
Authentic leaders demonstrate vulnerability and at the same time fully understand their genuine and influential power with others (Balanced Processing). Being expected to deliver great outcomes over shorter periods of time in a VUCA world, with stakeholders being increasingly impatient for results and demanding immediate outcomes, being authentic as a leader is continuous pressure. The pressures of instant delivery versus longer-term desirable outcomes are a true leadership tension in itself and often lead to autocratic style of leadership. Authentic leaders resist this urge and through a balanced approach encourage input from their teams and the organization, prior to making sustainable and owned decisions leading to outcomes that have significant and positive impact for the internal contributors and the customers. Authentic leaders have a balanced and equitable style and approach to leading and listening.
Peter Northhouse in his book, Leadership: Theory and Practice (2013, p 264) states that authentic leaders show relational transparency when the communicate openly and are “real in their relationships with others.” Barring sharing sensitive information, authentic leaders are open and honest in a genuine way and always choose to share appropriate information openly. However, there is a fine line between being transparent and being inappropriate. Although most genuine leaders are aware (self-aware again) of the sensitivity of information, in changing times where this is a continuous call for confidence, leaders are expected to be more vulnerable and empathize with the difficulties of the times. Careful thought and meticulous preparation are needed in communicating with more levels of detail. Multi-generational workforces, hybrid workforces, and technology is requiring new thinking of how to be transparent and lead. Transparency requires leaders to give the full “100%. Holding back information, other than for legal or policy, is becoming one of the major expectations of leaders when asking employees if their leader is transparent in their communications. Followers are expecting the full story, not the abridged version.
In a VUCA world no one, not even the best and most experienced leaders have all the answers. It is a truism that a leader’s day never ends the way they planned it as change and learning is on a fast-moving continuum. However what does not change is the ability of the leader to live passionately vision and purpose, be aware of who they are, never to compromise their values, to lead and be the team, and to maximize transparency with those who follow them. Being authentic in VUCA times is not only necessary, it is essential.