Few could argue that corporates of all sizes – and across sectors – are facing their biggest challenge yet. They are operating in the context of a stagnant local economy, with shareholders demanding ever-greater profits to be squeezed from tighter margins and tougher operating conditions. Time is increasingly scarce, deadlines are tighter, and employees are being required to produce greater results with less support.
With each passing year then, it becomes harder for corporates – and those who lead them – to keep up with this grinding cycle. As a result, leaders need to be armed with new tools in order to survive and ultimately succeed in this challenging ecosystem. Having worked closely with many leaders who are being tasked to produce huge profits under operational duress, I believe that the principle of Authentic Leadership (AL) is becoming one of the most essential ingredients for any corporate today.
It is tricky to pinpoint exactly what AL is – and how we identify and nurture it – but there are key elements that ultimately produce authenticity. The most clear-cut definition that I subscribe to is the one that I believe has the greatest potential to encourage people to speak their truth: in Greek, the word authento means, “to have full power,” suggesting that the individual is the “master of his or her own domain.” In other words, someone who is operating and making decisions according to his or her own moral compass – and being ‘true to self.’
It is important to note that authenticity is not a static way of being. Indeed, to try and remain true to self in every context is simply unrealistic. Ironically, the result of attempting to be the perfect, authentic leader often produces in-authenticity. Having observed and coached leaders from many different industries and cultures, my observation is that authenticity falls on a continuum. It is neither an either/or way of being but rather a both/and.
Key AL attributes
The key attributes of an authentic leader include the ability to be self-aware, and conscious of his/her thoughts, feelings, motives and values. An authentic leader is deeply committed to his own growth and development, as well as that of his team. It is also the willingness to be present and make oneself vulnerable during times of conflict or negotiation, expressing true thoughts and true feelings as well as strengths and weaknesses. Ultimately, this high level of “relational transparency” creates deep levels of trust, where individuals speak their truth and diverse points of view are encouraged.
AL and Performance
There is undoubtedly a strong link between authentic leadership and the performance of both teams and individuals. Put simply, AL facilitates trust, respect, and identification – and these factors enable employees to experience greater psychological safety. This safety encourages employees to feel free to take risks, to invest more of themselves, to propose unconventional ideas, and to introduce conflicting opinions without fear. As a result, employees tend to be more creative in facing problems and opportunities – and more successful in the long term.
The authenticity of the followers is equally as important as the authenticity of the leader in any situation. Being authentic is based on self-knowledge, living with purpose, and having deeply held beliefs. Leaders cannot force their followers to be authentic. It is a choice that only the follower can make.
AL Enemy No. 1: Profit Maximisation
Peter Drucker was quoted as saying: “Profit for a company is like oxygen for a person. If you don’t have enough of it, you’re out of the game. But if you think your life is about breathing, you’re really missing something.” All too often, a business is “really missing something”. Most businesses don’t just want profit. They want profit maximisation, which has a direct impact on control, meaning and time.
In order to reach profit maximisation, a few select individuals set the pace and direction within a company. Sadly, if individual freedom and self-expression hamper the pace and direction of the business, they will not be tolerated. This clearly does not encourage authentic leaders (or followers) to flourish.
Making the Shift
As long as the key objective for organisations is profit maximisation, AL is going to be a rarity. Yet if a link between speaking one’s truth and the bottom line is established, businesses may find it more desirable to create an environment where authenticity is encouraged and self-expression is valued. For this to become a possibility, there would need to be a profound shift in consciousness, where people are operating from an ‘ecosystem’ way of being, as opposed to ‘ego-system’.