True leadership has always been more difficult to maintain in challenging times, but the unique stressors facing governments and organisations throughout the world today call for a renewed attention to what constitutes genuine leadership.
These challenges have resulted in increased leadership focus on restoring trust, confidence, hope and optimism.
The need for veritable leadership is not only in response to organisational scandals attributed to poor and unethical leadership. Due to the continual pressure experienced at senior levels in organisations, many skilled and accomplished executives often feel that they are not good enough, which can have an adverse effect on their self-esteem at the expense of their careers and organisations.
There is therefore a need for leaders who lead with purpose, values and integrity, who build enduring organisations, motivate their staff to provide superior customer service, and who create long-term value for stakeholders, be those shareholders, communities or nations. When problems surfaced at, for instance, Enron and WorldCom, the extent of the leadership crisis within organisations became apparent, creating a widespread erosion of trust in business leaders.
What the world is searching for now is a way of leading that is based on substance rather than style of leadership, and integrity rather than image or position, to equip leaders to rebuild trust and to create the most compelling future for those who elected them into their positions. A good example of such a leader is Nelson Mandela, who was regarded as a true leader both whilst president and prisoner, due to a leadership presence that went beyond position.
Whilst the discussion thus far refers mostly to individual leaders, it is also important to consider the health of leadership teams. Often the cause of ineffective leadership teams is due to the fact that these consist of smart individuals with competitive rather than collaborative interpersonal dynamics within the team. Good teamwork remains the ultimate competitive advantage, and such teamwork can be developed only with a true leader at the helm; one who can be trusted, be an inspirational role model, and facilitate the process of developing effective team dynamics.
About leadership authenticity
To be nobody-but-yourself in a world which is doing its best, night and day, to make you everybody else ”means to fight the hardest battle which any human being can fight; and never stop fighting." cummings (as cited in Franzese, 2007).
In my practitioner experience with my clients, there often comes a time where individuals start searching for who they really are, the purpose of their lives, and the legacy they wish to leave behind. Whilst authentic leadership is a logical extension of the authentic self, it can also be regarded as the root construct of all true leadership. A leader who is authentic, therefore, can achieve more than one who is not. The extent to which the leader is authentic as a person directly affects the efficacy of his/her leadership of followers.
Authentic leaders are leaders who: (a) know who they are, and what they believe in; (b) display transparency and consistency between their values, ethical reasoning and actions; (c) focus on developing positive emotional states such as confidence, optimism, hope, and resilience within themselves; (d) are widely known and respected for their integrity (Avolio, Gardner, & Walumbwa, 2005, p. xxiii).
Impact of leadership authenticity
Authentic leaders are seen by their followers as true and natural leaders who have integrity and are ethical and trustworthy. They become empowering role-models to followers, as they lead in a manner that others recognise as authentic. Because they are more transparent, more open, and self-disclose more, they evoke higher levels of follower trust. Followers then feel more comfortable to be authentic as well, embracing and enacting the positive values of authenticity. This has important implications for resultant outcomes and performance, suggesting that authenticity is a leadership multiplier in terms of its effectiveness.
Individual and collective leadership authenticity is what is required to build the solid foundation of trust, which is required in any effective leadership team and organisation. The true measure of an effective team is whether it accomplishes the results that it sets out to achieve. To do that in a consistent, ongoing basis the team must ask themselves whether they really are a team, where each member is worthy of trust. Insufficient attention to results is often due to an absence of trust, which leads to a fear of conflict and, therefore, a lack of commitment, which, in turn, results in avoidance of accountability. A true leader can turn this around, starting with being the one that is prepared to go first and by building a foundation of trust within his/her team.
Development of leadership authenticity
Being able to lead self and others with awareness and authenticity also requires a journey of transformation where we need to explore integrate all of life's experiences that has culminated in who we are. In order to lead authentically, we need to understand the internal identity that drives us, and we need to understand our values and our purpose. This journey of developing leadership is therefore about getting to know our authentic self. It is about practising our values and principles, understanding what motivates us, and leading with purpose and passion.
Such a process can be fast-tracked with an appropriate leadership programme where leadership authenticity development starts with the development of self-leadership. As such a leader then interacts with others, those others, also called followers, will observe the leader's behaviour, and try and make sense of the authenticity of that behaviour. The degree of perceived authenticity then impacts on the quality of the leader-follower relationships, with underpinnings such as trust, transparency, predictability, and integrity. This, in turn, has an impact on the followers, with the leader receiving feedback through the follower feedback loop. This process helps leaders to self-verify authenticity and impact, and finally, aids the formation and reinforcement of an authentic organisational culture.
One of my experiential learnings is that everything starts with self, including the development of trust. It is near impossible to trust unknown entities, and as one of my clients had recently shared with me, "Often, the most unknown entity is the self." Therefore, before we can trust others, or be worthy of trust from others, we need to trust ourselves, and that becomes possible only once we have a deep understanding of our selves, and a deep commitment towards developing our highest authentic selves.
Typically, without an appropriate process to develop such leadership, it can take very long to develop the characteristics of leadership authenticity, requiring life- and leadership episodes that provide development opportunities. This begs the question whether companies can wait that long to have true leaders at the helm. Unless organisations focus on deliberately developing such leadership within a reasonable time span, organisations like Enron and WorldCom, and even governments, will head the news in stories of corruption and achieving wealth at the expense of their citizens, and even the world economy.
Avolio, B. J., Gardner, W. L., & Walumbwa, F. O. (2005). Preface.In W. L. Gardner, B. J. Avolio & F. O. Walumbwa (Eds.), Monographs in leadership and management volume 3: Authentic leadership theory and practice: Origins, effects and development (pp. xxi-xxix). Amsterdam: Elsevier.Franzese, A. T. (2007). To Thine Own Self Be True? An exploration in authenticity. (Doctorate of of Philosophy in the department of Sociology), Graduate school of Duke university, New York.