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A Guide to Authentic Leadership for Senior Executives

Extract of a session that I delivered at the ICSA Annual Governance Summit 2018 in London for Board Executives and Company Secretaries.

The snow goose need not bathe itself to make itself white. Neither need you do anything but be yourself

Lao Tse

What does this quote mean in the context of leadership? Certainly we need to start with you as a person/the leader. What does being authentic mean in your context? You may well have been a technical expert as a professional lawyer, executive or company secretary and now you are leading others, with or without formal authority. You may have a team and be working very closely with your chair to influence and lead the board. Either way your skill set can no longer comprise just your technical expertise. It must include something else; something more about EQ and an understanding of relationships and change.

You as the Leader

1       So the first question to ask is what skills do you have in that regard? Are you extrovert? Are you easy to relate to? Are you a thinking analytic type of person or more emotional, more feeling? Are you comfortable with the big picture or prefer the details. You are not going to change these preferences. Nor should you. But how do you find out in the first place what they are? Because being aware of your strengths is the first step in knowing if you are being authentic. How do you find out?

As an organizational psychologist my job is largely helping leaders see themselves more clearly. There are lots of ways to gain insight here. For example, psychometrics such as Myers Briggs. 360 degree feedback so that we have others mirror back to us what they see in our behaviour. And just inviting feedback. Not so that we then try to be all things to all men but so that we can then explore deeper patterns and trends in our leadership behaviours and become more aware of what serves and what does not.

2       Leadership arises not in the normal day to day but when challenges and dilemmas present. Unlike management, it is needed when the future is uncertain and a decision or clarity is required. Because of this there is often some soul searching and a deeper level of inquiry required in order to consider the best way forward and the right actions to take. So the second area that leaders need to be attuned with in their role as board executives is their deeper purpose and values. This is because this will help them to maintain a centre of gravity in the face of differing views and approaches; to stayed centred when the going gets rough

Again there are many ways into this level of understanding. When I am working with leaders I might have them complete (a) a life line, with highs and lows to date exploring what meaning these had for them and therefore what might shape them as a leader or (b) an obituary, so that they realise, in perhaps stark terms, what matters ultimately to them in life or (c) a values exercise, choosing 50 values and reducing these to 20 and then 3-5; sharing with others why these last 3-5 have remained. What meaning do they hold for them as a person and in their role?

3       You can know your skills and preferences as well as your deeper sense of purpose and values and who you are. However, you will be dealing with other people who have differing skill sets, preferences and values on your board or in your executive teams. Being human, this can raise your anxiety and trigger unhelpful reactive responses. So another part of the task of being authentic is understanding your fallibility and anxieties and not then giving into them or having them leak out. You need to own and manage these and maybe even communicate them. Paradoxically because we are all human, expressing our vulnerability (consciously) can really help us to connect with others and enable us to lead more powerfully. This is perhaps why we see the rise in mindfulness and resilience programs, helping people manage their reactive responses and then lead better and more authentically.

When I first started out as an organizational psychologist (before that I was an international finance lawyer.) I specialised in this personal aspect of leadership and developing the skills and mind-set to lead others; which are different from the technical skills that may have got leaders promoted into senior positions. As time went by in my consulting practice, I realised that that was not enough. Let’s say for example, I work with all the leaders at the executive level just below the board. I develop their skill set in being able to have challenging and courageous conversations. The board supports this financial investment but does not itself have these brave conversations at board level. Instead there is a dominant chair and some dysfunctional relationships and patterns of behaviour amongst directors. How do you think it is going to go when one of my leaders goes to speak up at board level? Authentic maybe but not leading!

This was my experience prior to the crash when working with a bank that will remain nameless. It was known by my leaders how dysfunctional the board was at that time but no one could speak up until the bank actually crashed. The Enlightened Organization is full of such stories taken from the public domain, including some from The Roads to Ruin research by Airmic and Cass Business School.

Your Organization as a System

It follows that to be an effective leader, you have to go beyond the personal and get real about the system/organization/executive team/board that you are working with and leading.

1       What are their strengths? Perhaps they are different to yours? How do you work with this diversity and stay true to yourself?

2       What is their purpose and why does this group or team exist? If you know that you know how to align around the sweet spot. That is the place that you will be able to lead well from; not leaning too far towards their reality and losing yourself but at the same time not being positional about your skills and values while disregarding theirs. Can you find the common ground? 

3       From that vantage place can you see what is hindering progress? Don’t just step in naively as in the banking scenario mentioned before but understand the constraints so that you can lead creatively within them.

The Business Context

Finally, and arguably most importantly we don’t lead our boards or executive teams in a vacuum. The external context is ultimately the main determinant of what we should be doing and where we should be heading. To lead without this information is not possible and certainly not authentic.

1       There is an explosion of data and information from the outside world bombarding us with choices. Paying attention to PESTLE, is crucial here. Horizon scanning and determining relevance amongst the cacophony of data and noise is an essential part of the skill set required at this level. Why?

2       So that you can see what is emerging? What does the wider organization need from you and your executive team and what does the business context require of your board and organization? And

3       What else do you need to know….what do you not know?

Authentic Leadership in Role

All of this might seem like a lot of work but the message that I want to leave you with is that Authentic Leadership is taking actions in role that serve the purpose of the leader, the organization and the context; actions that serve the purpose of all three. That is the premise of my book The Enlightened OrganizationAuthentic Leadership is not a person but a role. It is exercised at those times when challenges and dilemmas arise and leadership is required. If you then at those times operate from the sweet spot of all three places then you cannot go wrong.

The work required is that of insight into all three and continuous alignment. Speaking from experience, there is no silver bullet but there is enormous joy and satisfaction in having walked the path and taken right action to influence the road map.

Reach out to me if you would like to discuss any of this in terms of your leadership or that of your fellow board executives