Article: Why leaders need to be authentic to be successful

Learning & Development

Why leaders need to be authentic to be successful

One of the reasons for not being authentic and conforming, could be our constant perseverance to seek approval from others, the team's leader, a popular peer or even our family. Their approvals tend to give, an imagined support, to our brave ideas, which may otherwise run the risk of rejection.
Why leaders need to be authentic to be successful

My son’s broken arm was being bandaged. To cheer him up, I offered him a chocolate I had promised. One bite of the chocolate and my 5 year old cried out-“I don’t want this, it is not Cadburys!” As my actions did not match the promise made to him, he refused to accept the chocolate, I had offered to pacify. My eyes widened as I tried to struggle with, ‘how could a small child understand the difference?’ Chocolate is chocolate after all! Isn’t the child’s response the typical way most of us express and feel when we come across people, colleagues, leaders who are not authentic? A hunger for authenticity guides us, in every age and aspect of life. It drives our explorations of work & relationships. What does being authentic mean then?

The term ‘authentic’ is defined as ‘genuine’, ‘true’ or ‘real’. If we apply this definition to leadership, we expect somebody who would be true to themselves rather than somebody who puts on a façade. It calls for a leader who is able to ‘self-recognize’ themselves. Let us indulge in this term a little. Self-recognition marks the beginning of a lifelong search for the one ‘true ‘self and for a feeling of behaving in accordance with that self. This can be called as authenticity. We may find many leaders, behaving contrary, to what their perceptions are of self and it is rather annoying. The leaders may behave so, because of the pressures created by the expectations that many organizations have on how leaders should behave. Though, each of us or the brands we see around us may be shaped by influences since childhood, authenticity is being the ability to self-recognize oneself and being ‘only you’. Whether, it is an iconic brand like Starbucks or the Indian dairy giant Amul, each of these, were able to self-recognize themselves and stayed the course of authenticity.  Both the brands, did at times, deviate from their goals as they tried to mimic their competitors. However, authentic leaders like Howard Schultz & Dr.Verghese Kurien, who led them, saw to it that the brands’ very purpose & being, stayed intact. 

If being authentic has so many benefits, what makes us inhibited about it and why do we conform? 

One of the reasons for not being authentic and conforming, could be our constant perseverance to seek approval from others, the team’s leader, a popular peer or even our family. Their approvals tend to give, an imagined support, to our brave ideas, which may otherwise run the risk of rejection. Approvals from all around us, also transform us, into an imaginary world, of never missing out on losing respect of people at work, key opportunities, or going against the cultural norm. Thus, we compromise on being the real us. If we all rush in to mimic a leader, who the entire project team, considers as a role model and if these leaders do not approve or support an original idea we may have, an inauthentic person would just seek the short route to a compromise and trade it for originality. We may lose something precious when we all conform to a single model of leadership. How then, can we understand the importance of being authentic in business and develop authenticity in us as leaders of tomorrow?

Few ways of developing authenticity and genuineness as leaders are elaborated here:

 1.  Focus on your ‘interiority’- This term is coined by Caroline McHugh, thought leader, founder & CEO of IDOLOGY. It means that we are our own competition and need not think ourselves as inferior or superior. We would need to build our ‘persona’ so that we are perception free. It is necessary to leverage, on our inner voice so that we do not let judgements about us affect us. Focus is needed more on ‘laying one brick at a time rather than a wall’. This is sure to make us feel more powerful and authentic, to express and practice our views without the fear of being watched. 

2. Utmost belief in the possibilities- As authentic leaders, we can create and represent an idea to make a difference to people’s lives. As we try to explore possibilities, fears may distract us. However, when we overcome these fears, we open doors of possibilities. A good example is of Dr. Verghese Kurien, Father of the White Revolution and the man behind Amul. Legendary adman, Sylvester Da Cunha, who worked on the original Amul campaign recalled Dr. Kurien, on his birth anniversary.-“Dr. Kurien was a true human being in every sense of the word whose dream and focus was the well-being of the farmers rather than selling a brand.” Though Dr. Kurien had many detractors, he believed in the possibilities of his dream and went ahead successfully in his true authentic style.

3. Build your character to be authentic leaders- This demands such a leader to be flexible with their styles in dealing with situations. Whether it is in the inspiring role as a mentor, coach, or even during difficult situations that demands terminating people. Authenticity can still be practiced in challenging times, like a sun bursting through a cloudy sky. Few years ago, US unemployment had climbed to 5.5% and Howard Shultz had to take the difficult decision of laying off people, though Starbucks was not the only company restructuring. Through this tough period, Shultz made the decision as compassionately as possible, knowing very well as an authentic leader, that doing nothing would have been far worse a tragedy.

4. Nourish a state of constant growing- The word ‘rigidity’ does not exist for an authentic leader. Such a leader learns through the multiple role experiences they are in and authenticity takes them through this developmental journey of growth. Bill George, an American businessman and academic, compares authentic skill building to superior performances in any form of sports that can be perfected after years of challenging situations. Nurturing rigid and set beliefs in our lives may distort experience and narrow understanding of self. An example can be a successful commercial musician who complains about the poor quality of the movies, however, does not give up the big paychecks and conforms to quality. This shows that the individual is nourishing certain beliefs and not examining his assumptions. A  set of rigid thinking in the form of the ‘shoulds’, ‘ought’s’ and ‘have to’s’ cannot shape us to be authentic in our lives, instead, it leads to rigid thinking and conformity. 

5. Demonstrate complete emotional intelligence- Staying calm in the face of challenges and showing emotional mastery can be a true test for an authentic leader. Emotional outbursts are rarely seen in them. Howard Shultz’s (Chairman of Starbucks) authenticity shone forth through one of the most unheard of decisions in American business. The economy was in deep financial crisis and the digital revolution had brought a surge of new competitors in the coffee business. Instead of panicking, Shultz matched his behavior to the context, by quietly closing down Starbucks’s stores in America, to retrain the team at the stores to create authentic coffee. This was done to restore the passion and commitment that everyone at the organization needed to have for their customers. He exhibited the hallmark of a true authentic leader through self-monitoring, and used emotional intelligence, to communicate effectively, to his team and various stakeholders and made an epic turnaround win for Starbucks.

6. Authentic leaders are real and need not be perfect- They do not make a pretense of being authentic. They may stumble and fall as they make decisions, but they are willing to admit their errors and learn from them. They know how to ask others for help. Authentic leaders accept not only the discomforts of their decisions, but are also open and aware about their failures and faults, whether it is the times they may have lost their temper or fallen back on their promises. They are more accepting of their self that is made of different parts, which they may like or not like. They do not turn defensive or blame others when they meet failure. Leaders with a sense of authenticity are not weighed down by the choices they make and are highly realistic. As psychiatrist Peter Kramer says “we all have multiple layers of self and ever-shifting perspectives.” Authentic leaders know well that authenticity need not always be pretty. It is just real.

Nor are authentic leaders always humble or modest. It takes a great deal of self-confidence to lead through very difficult situations.

All the paths to building authenticity as mentioned above, indicate the necessity and seriousness with which, we may need to process our severe trials as leaders.  These crucibles can help us understand ourselves better and reframe our experiences to discover our authentic selves. Authentic leaders thus constitute the vast majority of people, chosen today for the key roles in business. Rather than conforming, authenticity demands doing the difficult task of developing one’s inner self and staying ready to work at new challenges. 

In The Way of Man, philosopher Martin Buber relates a Hasidic parable about a Rabbi Zusya, a scholar who has a deathbed revelation- "In the next life, I shall not be asked, why were you not more like Moses?” he says. "I shall be asked, 'Why were you not more like Zusya?”

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Topics: Learning & Development, Leadership

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