What does being an authentic leader actually mean?

shutterstock_297258401If you put their policies on one side for a moment, what do you think of the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn and David Cameron? Who is the better leader? Maybe you consider the answer to be obvious or maybe you think that the question gets to the heart of some of the bigger leadership issues in our society.

Leadership has received lots of attention over the years. The focus has moved from one aspect to another over time. Most recently increasing emphasis has been devoted to the character and personal demeanour of the leader as oppose to their situation, behaviour, style or any one of many other points involved in  leading effectively.

This focus has crystallised in the literature into the need for leaders to be ‘authentic’:

“…engaging authentically with the people around you is the first task of genuine leadership.” (Forbes, 2013)

“…we need authentic leaders—people who own their mistakes, acknowledge their faults, and always put the interests of their organizations ahead of self-interests.” (Bill George, 2015)

“…simply put, people will not follow a leader they feel is unauthentic.” (“Creating the Best Workplace on Earth,” Harvard Business Review, May, 2013)

This emphasis seems to chime with the spirit of our times: its lack of trust in institutions and the evident frailties of a social and economic system that has not proved as robust as people thought at the last millennium.

Our current Labour and Conservative Party leaders expose some of the tensions created by the demand for authenticity and perhaps help open a window on what this apparently admirable quality might really mean for leaders.

What authenticity is not …

The dictionary will tell you that authentic means ‘of undisputed origin and not a copy; genuine.’

This might mean quite a number of different things when applied to a person. Not all are congruent with being an effective leader. Instinctively we might reach for variations on transparency, consistency and vulnerability but there are important problems with these as definitions.

Herminia Ibarra, in the HBR* identifies several possible interpretations of ‘authenticity’  and the challenges that these raise:

  1. Being true to yourself. But exactly what does this mean? Which of our many selves should we be true to? What if we need to change because we are leading a new change or role that has different needs?
  2. Behaving in line with what you feel inside i.e. being open and transparent. But, if you are completely transparent in your thoughts and feelings, people may easily lose confidence in you and your credibility as an effective leader.
  3. Sticking to your values. But what if things that we valued are no longer helpful and need to change if we are to lead effectively?

Back to Dave and Jeremy…who is closest to authenticity? Does authenticity really make the foundation for effective leadership? As is often the case in issues such as this, it is not as simple as some would make out. For instance, there is a tension between people being able to identify with a leader and the authority of the leader.

Emotionally I would baulk at being led ‘inauthentically’ but it is not immediately obvious, at least to me, what being authentic means. What therefore must I do -as a leader who is concerned about ‘being authentic’?

What does it really mean to be authentic?

There are elements of the interpretations above which speak into what it means to be an authentic leader but I think Heminia is right to highlight how grasping at any of these definitions could be counterproductive and undermine the influence of the leader.

The core of authenticity is truth.

Something is authentic because it is the genuine article and authenticity can only anchor itself around the truth of something. The authentic leader is therefore someone who leads in truth on a consistent and continual basis and it is this that breeds the kind of followership that they generate.

What do I mean by this?

Many psychologists when discussing authenticity think in terms of other traits – high esteem, operating in congruence with your core self, embracing vulnerability, listening well, seeing and appreciating others. All in themselves are healthy personal attributes but not what I would use to define authentic.

All these might make you feel comfortable but an authentic leader will I am sure sometimes make you feel really uncomfortable and put you under pressure to change your mind or direction.

Why? Because authenticity values truth above all else – both external truth (in the reality of the situation or the ‘brutal facts’, as others have described them) and personal truth (an awareness of and unbiasedness of self that leads to saying what you mean and speaking the truth, not lies or half truths, even about yourself). To be like this effectively requires lots of other characteristics that also make for a good leader, e.g. courage, confidence, an ability to marshall the facts and listen effectively, argue through issues, listen and communicate well – but at its heart it is about truth.

The essential difference is that authentic leaders anchor themselves on truth and judge their effectiveness and fitness in leading people towards this. Many other things are needed as well as authenticity to lead well but against this definition I would agree that it is a foundation for good leadership.

Avoiding the challenges in authentic leadership

This does not free up leaders from all the pitfalls that a desire to be authentic might create. Being authentic still has an important element of “the unimpeded operation of one’s true or core self in daily enterprise”, as Kernis and Goldman called it when they researched authenticity. This brings challenges to be managed:

  • Inflexibility of approach. Leaders need to flex their style to match the situation and the needs of the people being lead. Just because something feels odd does not mean it is inauthentic. Being true to yourself is no excuse for mis-leading others
  • Not listening and learning from others because you are so sure that you are the exclusive owner of the truth. Your mind should change when the facts warrant it
  • Over-exposing your feelings in ways that shake the confidence of others. You might  recognise truths in yourself but that doesn’t necessarily mean that they are helpful to share
  • Failing to recognise and respect the feelings of others. Truth needs to be served up in love. This mix provides the backbone and encouragement needed to lead well. Truth on its own can be very unattractive
  • Running back to your roots because you fear that moving forward might leave behind your core or real identity
  • Thinking that authenticity can be a substitute for competence. Both are needed


Back to Jeremy and Dave – chalk and cheese, you might say but then I could not possibly comment and anyway I rather like Feta.

*The authenticity paradox, Harvard Business Review, Jan/Feb 2015



Listen up: you need a contact strategy

junk-mail-1-1242531 It amazes me that in late 2015 so many organisations do not understand what it really means to manage customer relationships – 20 years since the CRM acronym started gaining currency in marketing circles.

This week I have been inundated by the ‘communications’ of some companies who have not thought at all about what it takes to have a good relationship with me. These are not small or second tier businesses.

Mainstream retailers, food stores, book distributors and online sale sites all are emailing me every few days. I have just about binned the Twitter feed from the HBR as it started to drown everyone else. Even my financial contacts, who must know a lot more about me than many companies, still can’t seem to say anything very relevant when they write.

This year it is clear that even middle of the road retailers have finally understood that they should communicate multichannel with their customers – digitally as well in-store…but several do not seem to have understood much more than this.

Seemingly many organisations have not worked out that if you send untargeted, over-frequent, and trivial communications to me (which is of course remarkably cheap and easy to do in this digital age!) then at minimum I will toss them away without opening and after a while I will ‘unsubscribe’!

Even skilled protagonists of the DM art are simply failing to think clearly. Some large charities are finding themselves mired in a controversy that will rumble on and start to do even more serious damage in 2016 as the frequency, channel and method of their contact with ‘active’ but vulnerable supporters has inflicted too much mail, high-pressure tactics and guilt-generating incentives on loyal supporters.

These scenarios are embarrassing and disastrous for what should be a mature and thoughtful discipline. Publicly they will push industry into the hands of more stringent regulations (voluntary or legal). Invisibly they will yet further undermine trust and respect for commerce. Both will significantly reduce the present value of the customer base and brand reputations, things that are as  valuable as gold in our media rich, low trust culture.

I am amazed that this problem persists. Anyone involved in direct marketing even 30 years ago would have known this. However, perhaps it is the very invisibility of the real damage that is the problem. Thirty years ago it cost a lot to send unwanted, unproductive communications to prospects. Mail and phone campaigns are expensive. You quickly trim those that do not make sense. Digital is too cheap and easy.

Why are we here?

There can be many reasons for organisations to end up with such a poor approach to their customers:

  • They might have developed their ability to communicate 1:1 incrementally, through a series of different functions and channels which they have failed to pull together organisationally. The result is a platform for multichannel communication but with no policy. This then becomes a vehicle for meeting only immediate, short term departmental priorities … and there are a lot of departments.
  • Functions are often siloed, competing to capture customer business through their own channel (e.g. website vs store, call centre vs web or face-to-face). Sometimes these silos are even different business units with very similar customer propositions (as I have experienced in banks).
  • In other places, poor monitoring and evaluation compounded by low visible campaign costs lead to over-contact and the loss of a customer perspective which degrades the long term value of the  contact list.

Beneath all of this though is the failure to appreciate that a policy is needed.

Organisations need an explicit, holistic strategy that governs the way that they will manage their contact with customers (especially but not exclusively proactive contact). This then needs to be operationalised effectively across the whole of the business.

A contact strategy

A contact strategy is required. These are the business rules that underpin where, when, what, how, and why contact is made with a customer. This explicit policy needs to specify how each customer segment will be handled: the channels to be used, maximum and minimum frequencies, by type of contact, expressed preferences, responses, value and level of personalisation required. All this can then be integrated with an up-to-date history of the relationship (contacts, account status etc). Only when this is done can appropriate direction and control be exercised over how a relationship is handled.

In essence it is just what you would expect a good salesperson to know about an important customer. The challenge is to do this for each of the millions of customers that some organisations are handling – and for the targets that they acquire through list purchase or media activity.

Yes – this will limit the activity that a company pursues with its customers and limit it towards what these customers are most likely to want. Yes – this will potentially impact short term revenues and the use of promotional campaigns. But this is what CRM is really about. It is where the brand, proposition and customer interaction should line up tightly.

A move to action

Some organisations get round the issue by limiting their contact carefully. Amazon, for instance, does not engage in much explicit differentiated proactive contact. It relies on general media and then inbound propensity based personalisation that is transactionally focused, either on its own site or through search engines like Google.

Others are moving to an explicit ‘permission’ based approach. I heard RNLI on the radio only a month go describing the moves that they are making to sort out their approach and data to address the issue of over-contact before it impacts their standing (see RNLI). Their approach will only market with explicit permission. They reckon however that this might cost them £35m over five years. Yet they think it is worth it to get a sustainable position. At least they are actually managing the issue.

Other are clearly not.

These will pay an invisible price which some organisations may not appreciate for several years as the responsiveness of their customer set, the strength of their brand image and the quality of their profit are eroded.




Live learning at TED

IMG_6382If you are a keen online user of the TED talks then, like me, you might have been quite excited at the prospect of getting along to a live TED event. So when Leamington held its first ever TED last weekend I was very pleased to be able to go along.

It was highly instructive.

It wasn’t just the content of the talks (which addressed topics as diverse as AI and music, overcoming fear, the Bloodhound world land speed record attempt and sex addiction). The quality was excellent and readily repaid sitting in a darkened auditorium on the only sunny day of the week.

In total, there were 16 sessions including 13 speakers, music and the alienZoo dance troupe. The talks followed the standard TED format – short and punchy, with the speaker stood on a circular rug in front of the big red letters of TED and the name of the location.

However, as much as the talks were great and the subjects and their narrators fascinating, the overriding learning from the day for me was not in the content, it was in the event itself. I came away with several lessons…


Action your passion

Frustrated, inspired or restive? There were several reminders throughout the event of the value that one person can create by running with an idea.

The event was organised by volunteers (for those who didn’t realise the ‘x’ at the end of a TED means independently organised) who, though working to a prescribed format, just decided one day to organise a TEDx in Leamington. Similarly one talk was given by someone who helped organise the video games ‘Backspace’ exhibition in Leamington a couple of years ago – and indeed launched her own business off the experience. Another had followed his own dream and used his experience to become a successful author.

In an era that can become hidebound by the need for training, qualifications and methods, the event showed just how powerful and vital it is to turn ideas into action and simply ‘do it’. The power is in the action.

Failing? Most people would want you to succeed

The event requires talks that must delivered with precise timing and a honed message. This ensures the quality. The result is that many speakers effectively memorise their script and deliver it on the day.

At Leamington, one person stumbled and stuck one minute into their talk. Despite trying to work around it, they could not remember what they had planned to say next.

They stopped and asked to restart. The audience?

From the very first moment of their difficulty, you could sense a deep well of support for them, willing them to remember their next line. Their request brought a huge round of applause cheering their decision to go back and try again. Next time through, no stumble and, at the conclusion of the talk, the biggest round of applause both for the talk and for the courage that fuelled its delivery.

When we read articles in magazines and newspapers which are often hugely cynical about people, it’s great to see that  in reality most people want each other to succeed and not to trip up, to prosper not to fail.

A spark is worth sharing

Quite a number of the speakers started on their subjects, sparked by something in their lives: challenges their children faced, problems they personally had to overcome, learning how to use a skill in new ways, loving a particular school subject. The immediate spark then became a flame.

We have great freedom to pursue our interests in leisure time and even in paid work. This privilege enables us to enrich our own lives as well as those of others. Too often we may not pay attention to those activities in which we really sparkle. Yet these can often be a source to steer a new path that benefits everyone.

Worth thinking about if you are engaged in something that produces little spark for you.

The nature of being human

Seeing so many speakers one after another reinforced the message that despite the importance of facts, analysis, organisation and logic, effective communication critically depends upon making an emotional connection with an audience.

This can be done in many ways: expressing genuine emotion, talking with engaging honesty, resonating with the values of the hearers, articulating what really matters. Each of these approaches caught the hearts and minds of the audience on Saturday.

It is easy to forget that we are not just human because we are smart but also because of our emotional makeup. Compelling human arguments make that emotional connection, in conversation and presentation.

I was left with a final phrase; a healthy little challenge to those of us who might  sometimes slip towards complacency…. “What’s your idea that’s worth spreading?”.

Now there’s a good question to ponder….I am sure there is a TED talk in that.



Principle 6: Work where you care

shutterstock_274488008The first five principles I have outlined are actions that leaders can undertake but the final one is a foundation that is much more difficult to create. It is a condition of success: If you want people to commit wholeheartedly to change, it is essential that you really care about them and the outcome for the organisation.

Care: verb ‘feel concern or interest; attach importance to something.’

This is not a technique nor an approach but it is something fundamental to the leader and their role …where and with whom they are engaged.

It can’t be faked. Have you ever noticed how easy it is to tell if someone really cares about something or the impact on someone? I have discovered this myself. When I have been in an organisation with someone who clearly cares about both what happens to the organisation and to me, I have found it a lot easier to commit to what we are doing. Where it is absent I have found it almost the kiss of death to commitment.

This leader’s ‘care’ is not the same as care about personal success or an organisational outcome from their own viewpoint. It is about care for something bigger and broader: the human organisation, its purpose and its people.

The impact of a lack of care

When leaders don’t care about people and purpose it sucks the heart out of a team. It destroys the meaning (and hence value) of what is begin done and relegates strategy and activity to insignificance. A key part of the leader’s purpose is to help capture the aspiration behind the activity and articulate the ‘something bigger than ourselves’ that is part of being an organisation. The same is true if leaders don’t care about the people in the team.

Leaders communicate their attitude regardless of their intent. Touchstone actions demonstrate it.

Where leaders are seeking commitment to a change, they are looking forward – to the future of the human organisation. As such they need to care about the people and the purpose of the organisation. Without this, commitment is dissipated. Leaders who don’t care alienate people from the organisation and its goals.

The challenge

1 Go where you care

I have been fortunate to be able to lead for the most part where I have found it easy to care about both the people and the outcome for the organisation. Yet it is too often a cliche when leaders describe their staff as ‘our most valuable asset’.

People can tell whether you mean it.

Therefore it is vital to perform a leadership role in a place and with people whom you genuinely care about. If, as a leader, you no longer have this where you are then it is time to move on. As a friend once expressed to be me – you need to be where your energy and heart are.

If not, then move on. If the leaders are not interested in the bigger picture of the human organisation – neither will others be interested. Energy and commitment will be expelled from the change.

2 Be interested

“The real reason that people are interested in leaders is because leaders are interested in people,”

 Major Chris Whipp    

To be an effective leader of change it is important that ‘we’ becomes much more significant than ‘I’. Bill George, the widely respected former CEO of Medtronic, puts this attribute down to the leader’s compassion. In his opinion, this is what makes the difference. To achieve this we need to be really interested in people – individually and collectively – not just task outcomes.

These are the “Level 5” leaders that Jim Collins identifies in ‘Good to Great’. Leaders who possess the paradoxical mix of two almost conflicting qualities: great ambition and personal humility.

Yet, it is easy for leaders to lose their interest and compassion for people. The relentless demand for results and forward progression can undermine the interest in people and break the emotional connection needed to generate commitment. This leaves people feeling that they are just human resource, and leaders failing to listen properly or not caring about individuals’ views.

The Tibetan scholar, Thupten Jinpa, explains that this compassion has three components:

1 A cognitive component: “I understand you”

2 An affective component: “I feel for you”

3 A motivational component: “I want to help you”

It is not about agreeing with others but it is about being interested in them as people, their work, aspirations, fears and life.

3 Find the hope in the vision

Even where a change has a painful and destructive aspect (eg including downsizing or retrenchment) it is important to help people find where the future is – for them. Commitment to change requires hope in a successful future and leaders who care will want to help people, whether they stay with the organisation or not, to grow and find that future.

Owning a forward facing interest in people is a very powerful trigger for people to commit to change. This is strengthened still further when this embodies a picture of something bigger in the future of the organisation.

The sense is beautifully captured by Antoine de Saint-Exupery, author of The Little Prince, who once said,  “If you want to build a ship, don’t herd people together to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.”

What might this look like?

There is no easy answer to this question.

It is not about set-piece activities or training. It is about the heart of the leaders. However, the sort of things that might be seen where leaders do have a heart for people and organisation are:

  • Genuine interest in the welfare of staff. Gallup CEO, Jim Clifton polls 1000 staff each day across the enterprise to understand how energised they are.
  • The presence and positive use of staff attitude, commitment or 360 feedback. Gallup offer organisations the opportunity to monitor employee commitment, a good measure of the level of care.
  • Commitment to the spirit of the core management tasks in leading people – e.g. helping to establish clear expectations with staff, providing supportive but critical feedback, ensuring that staff have the ability and control to meet their goals
  • An evident curiosity, enthusiasm and energy that engages others in the welfare and development of the organisation. A thirst for new ways to advance the aims of staff and the organisation.
  • Behaviours that evidence genuine interest in the people in the organisation – presence, empathy, listening, commitment to the building of teams

Sometimes it might be difficult to tell where this enthusiasm comes from – whether it is a commitment to something bigger or simply a projection of inner ego. The only true observation can be made by the leader themselves – and if there is no energy and commitment to this human organisation, then it is time to move elsewhere.



Principle 5: Build good bridges

BridgeI was in California this Easter and drove the second most popular tourist attraction in the USA, The Big Sur: a fantastic stretch of coastline south of San Francisco with spectacular coves, cliffs and the occasionally very large gorge that Route 1 needs to cross. It would be impossible to drive down this coast without the presence of bridges to cross these chasms.

Major change, if it is real, is an organisational chasm. Without good bridges it is impossible for people to travel wholeheartedly with it.

The sixth principle is therefore to make sure that the bridges for change, all the structures used to shepherd it forward, are really effective.

As I reflected on the essentials of wholehearted change, I started thinking that this one was simply too obvious.  Surely everyone realises that you must have things in place to enable change? However, in the end it stayed on my list for my ‘one side of paper’ principles because of the frequency with which I have observed that there have not been effective structures in place.

It is a frequent and major problem. Without effective bridges commitment to change is drastically undermined. It is like trying to drive along Route 1 without all the bridges being in place… fatal.

What are bridges?

Bridges are the key elements that will connect the way things are now with the way they need to be in the future  – but we need to think broadly…

Some are easy to identify. Most organisations have long since recognised the need for supporting structures for change programmes, and have project groups, program offices, plans and software to  handle everything from system changes and business projects, to strategy work and most any other major change. These are really useful.

However, they are rarely sufficient on their own. Effective bridges need to cover both the management and control elements that typical project management delivers and the context and environment in which the program office operates. Only in this way will the management elements work as they are supposed to!

Three challenges typically need to be addressed:

1 Clarity, capacity and contingency

The governance approach needs to deliver:

  • simplicity – as opposed to a bureaucratic or complex process
  • clarity – as opposed to confusion about who and where decisions or information are located
  • capacity – as opposed to overwhelming people with change on top of an unmitigated day-to-day workload
  • contingency  – to be clear how key risks or possibilities will be handled, so that current defaults do not undermine the change itself

These characteristics are not difficult to highlight but all too often change structures do not deliver. Overly complex processes, unclear responsibilities, work overload and unforeseen events overtake the support that is needed.

A critical eye is essential to challenge weaknesses against these criteria. Teams can misjudge how well these are fulfilled, especially if they are involved 24/7 when others interact only for a part of their work.

2 Careful use of metrics

Metrics are essential and need to be put in place but all too often in corporates they also present dangers.

They are sometimes used as a substitute for management – to squeeze people into new ways of working or reshape a business by the progressive tightening of key metrics. Either approach undermines wholeheartedness unless the measures are understood and owned by those in the change.

Secondly, measures that help scope or assess the desired state are sometimes simply loaded on top of the old as oppose to the old being redesigned. Established metrics quickly subvert new or undermine real change and commitment to it. Measures need to reflect what the organisation is really committed to doing and old measures need to be eliminated.

Finally, incentives are often built on measures to boost change (bonuses, price changes, premiums etc). These need care. Sometimes they work and sometimes they can backfire (as in the Israeli daycare facilities that introduced a small fine when parents picked up their children late and experienced an increase in late pickups rather than the desired reduction!). Again ownership and rationale are vital.

3 Proactive handling of obstacles…

As much as I dislike the term ‘proactive’, here it is critical. Too often the soft obstacles to change, reflecting power and decisions, key people or clear messages are not addressed upfront. It is left for those involved to resolve – work around people, work  through unfriendly powers or invent the narrative and rationale.

In terms of corporate politics, this is often not addressed as rigorously as it needs to be.

If, to create commitment, people are involved upfront and decisions are taken – then these need to be supported. Too often participants are disempowered either because they are not involved until after decisions are taken or because insufficient action is taken to support the implementation in the face of the status quo. Dealing with these issues then takes too much energy and time and undermines commitment.

What might this mean in practice?

This principle might be realised in many different ways. Priorities might be to:

  • Ensure that the participants in change help to shape it – with meetings, teams or other approaches and identify the things that might really derail its success
  • Investigate the history of failed changes in the organisation and what factors have driven this – then mitigate these. If necessary with some tough alignment at the top level
  • Where a discrete project is identifiable – establish a clear structure and staffing to drive the change and make sure that the new procedures are no more onerous than existing ones (even better make them simpler!)
  • Use teams to examine key areas (e.g. governance, measures, workload) and recommend the best mechanisms for change in each area
  • Use a framework that looks at the organisation in systemic terms to define what bridges are needed to help change move forward (eg Burke-Litwin, Nadler-Tushman)
  • Test that ‘things are clear’ by taking the temperature regularly. Find someone who can get alongside staff to check that people understand the story of the change, near term goals, how it’s going, how the ‘undiscussible’ obstacles to change are being handled etc. Capture the ‘voice of the participant’ in change
  • Early on, check that the change is not overly inside-out or top down and that the approach is ‘pulling’ change through not just pushing it forward
  • Check that the organisational talent is where the heart of the organisation wants to go… not sitting on the sidelines and waiting for failure
  • Cascade the change to ensure that leaders pull all constituencies through the change
  • Build in review processes to check that what is intended is realised – follow up checkpoints are really useful


In one client company, the cascade of new ways of working and a six monthly health check provided two invaluable bridges to help the business make the transformation of its sales approach. In another, the repeated polling of the ‘voice of the customer’ continually called people to account for the goals they were setting for service. In both cases these bridges were not the core project management of change that most energy tends to focus on but they ensured that power aligned with the change and not against it.

We typically underestimate the breadth and strength of the bridges needed to support change effectively. With wholehearted change the difficult things that must be covered are both the human and the technical elements.

In change, as in life :without good bridges people cannot travel very far. They will get stuck at one chasm or another.



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