In HBR article ‘Managing Authenticity: The Paradox of Great Leadership’ Rob Goffee and Gareth Jones argue “people want to be led by someone real.” They suggest the growing demand for leaders to be authentic is in part “a response to the publicʼs widespread disenchantment with politicians and business people.” This resonated with me and certainly reflects my own experiences of what people are looking for from people in positions of authority. The challenge I often observe leaders struggling with however is how to follow the ‘rules of effective leadership’ while at the same time being who they truly are.
A client once asked me “how do I be myself when I keep being told the way I am isn’t good enough”. Geoff was referring to the advice I and other advisors before me had given him about shifting his approach. There was no question Geoff needed to change a lot about the way he went about things in order to more successfully inspire and engage his team. The owner and CEO of a manufacturing business Geoff had a ‘gruff’ and in many people’s eyes aggressive style of leadership. Frustrated by what he viewed as a contradiction in the advise he had been given, Geoff was sincerely perplexed as to how he could both be himself and improve his approach to people management.
While leaders like Geoff arguably need to be more ‘polished’ others need to be less ‘smooth’. Goffee and Jones suggest “our growing dissatisfaction with sleek, ersatz, airbrushed leadership is what makes authenticity such a desirable quality in todayʼs corporations.” Too often I observe leaders build a façade that ultimately most people see through. The image they present is incongruent with the glimpses people see of their real character and intentions. As the age old saying goes “actions speak louder than words”; it doesn’t matter what you say, what matters is how you behave. Leaders who talk the talk without walking the walk, quickly erode confidence and ultimately lose any trust people have in them.
The advice I offered Geoff was to “focus on being the best possible version of yourself”. That is ‘real’ but also everything he is capable of being if he so chooses. Being an authentic leader isn’t about being a polished or even sophisticated communicator. Equally it doesn’t work to impact people with the ‘warts and all’ aspects of your character. What being an authentic leader is about is bringing into the light those aspects of who you truly are that others are able to trust and respect. In my experience most people associate authenticity with being sincere, honest, and having integrity.
Geoff didn’t need to become a charismatic smooth operator, what he needed to do was bring greater sensitivity and emotional maturity to his approach. The next question he asked me was revealing of the challenge that lay ahead for him – “what happens if I don’t care what other people think or feel? I just want them to get on with doing the job I’m paying them to do.” My honest answer to Geoff was this – if he was serious about leveraging the full potential of his team to optimize business results he had two choices: 1) learn to care and therefore grow or 2) get out of his own way and engage a CEO capable of leading his team.
There is a baseline of behaviour that most people expect from leaders. Your ability to meet these expectations profoundly impacts the extent to which people will trust, respect and ultimately choose to follow you. Most people want to know you and rely on your ability to be open and honest. What they don’t want is to endure the draining or demoralizing impacts of your behaviour. Among the most important things you can do to balance the need to be yourself while avoiding adverse consequences of your character flaws are:
- Be vulnerable: show people that you are willing to own your mistakes and acknowledge your weaknesses. Don’t underestimate the extent to which people are more likely to trust and respect a leader who doesn’t claim to be perfect. Reasonable human beings understand that none of us are perfect and are likely to cut you some slack when you get things wrong.
- Keep growing: work on your weaknesses: the ability for your team to see that you are sincerely striving to be a better version of yourself is a powerful way to earn respect. If you acknowledge your faults but then fail to work to improve people will be left feeling you just don’t care. In many ways they would prefer you were oblivious than carelessly undermine their wellbeing or success.
- Share insight into who you are: your hopes, dreams, likes, dislikes. You don’t need to open up your personal life but you do need to allow people to see beyond the façade to the person you really are.
- Be aware of how you impact others: adopt strategies that mitigate the negative influence you can have. If like Geoff you struggle with your temper learn to take a walk around the block, meditate or keep a punching bag in your office. Whatever it takes to ensure you don’t beat up on people.