Sunday, February 9, 2014

Are You an Authentic Leader?

Bill George, Peter Sims, Andrew McLean, and Diana Mayer in 2007 wrote in the Harvard Business Review that “during the past 50 years, leadership scholars have conducted more than 1,000 studies in an attempt to determine the definitive styles, characteristics, or personality traits of great leaders. None of these studies has produced a clear profile of the ideal leader. Thank goodness. If scholars had produced a cookie-cutter leadership style, individuals would be forever trying to imitate it. They would make themselves into personae, not people, and others would see through them immediately.”
No one can be authentic by trying to imitate someone else. You can learn from others’ experiences, but there is no way you can be successful when you are trying to be like them. People trust you when you are genuine and authentic, not a replica of someone else. Amgen CEO and president Kevin Sharer, who gained priceless experience working as Jack Welch’s assistant in the 1980s, saw the downside of GE’s cult of personality in those days. “Everyone wanted to be like Jack,” he explains. “Leadership has many voices. You need to be who you are, not try to emulate somebody else.”
Bill George et al wrote that “people have developed a deep distrust of leaders. It is increasingly evident that we need a new kind of business leader in the twenty-first century. In 2003, Bill George’s book, Authentic Leadership: Rediscovering the Secrets to Creating Lasting Value, challenged a new generation to lead authentically. Authentic leaders demonstrate a passion for their purpose, practice their values consistently, and lead with their hearts as well as their heads. They establish long-term, meaningful relationships and have the self-discipline to get results. They know who they are.”
Now obviously Bill George is promoting his book here, but if you look beyond that the most important statement is worth re-reading “authentic leaders demonstrate a passion for their purpose, practice their values consistently, and lead with their hearts as well as their heads.”
From experience you’ll know when you’ve been in the company of a leader who leads with their hearts – they are people who not only know the business and the competitive landscape  they operate in – but they also know their people and are able to uniquely ‘communicate’ with each one to optimise outputs from their discussions. But more than that they know what motivates each of their staff members, and have a genuine interest in their lives.
There are plenty of leaders who ‘pretend’ to be authentic and interested in their staff. These  leaders genuinely believe they are fooling those around them in believing that they are really leading with their hearts and heads – but their staff know them for what they really are. These are opportunist leaders who will ‘play the heart card’ when it’s convenient for them, but often there is little substance and absolutely no action behind the words – the words are hollow.
In their research Bill George et al found that you do not have to be born with specific characteristics or traits of a leader. You do not have to wait for a tap on the shoulder. You do not have to be at the top of your organization. Instead, you can discover your potential right now. As Young & Rubicam chairman and CEO Ann Fudge, said, “All of us have the spark of leadership in us, whether it is in business, in government, or as a non-profit volunteer. The challenge is to understand ourselves well enough to discover where we can use our leadership gifts to serve others.”
The journey to authentic leadership begins with understanding the story of your life. Your life story provides the context for your experiences, and through it, you can find the inspiration to make an impact in the world. As the novelist John Barth once wrote, “The story of your life is not your life. It is your story.” In other words, it is your personal narrative that matters, not the mere facts of your life.
The journey of authentic leadership then develops further when you have the confidence and humility to use your ‘story’ to develop the ‘stories’, and hence lives, of others – when, besides confidence,  you have the emotional intelligence to share your stories, so that both you and the other person both develop further from sharing the story.
If you’re not being authentic each and every day you are missing the true gift of what great leadership is all about.
George, B., Sims, P., McLean, A.N. and Mayer, D. (2007). Discovering Your Authentic Leadership. Harvard Business Review, February.

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