Take a look in the business section of any bookstore or glance at popular business websites and the word ‘authenticity’ is rarely far away whenever ‘leadership’ is mentioned.
The basic premise of many leadership articles is that authenticity is a critical part of being a leader. Leadership is a tough game and many people try it and find themselves wanting, not least when it comes to staying authentic and true to their own values.
TOUGH AT ANY LEVEL
There are many competing pressures on a leader. The patrol leader is under pressure to lead by example in getting the tents up before it rains, yet she is also aware that collecting firewood is a chore that will be made easier to bear for her younger scouts, if she too is rolling up her sleeves and rifling through the damp undergrowth.
The County Commissioner frequently has to balance the demands of the vocal minority with the needs of the two big groups in the county, without whose engagement and support the event may not have the numbers to proceed.
The Group Leader often walks a very fine line in managing complex and sometimes terse relationships between a large and diverse group of volunteers, all focused on different work and resulting in the inevitable, if occasional differences of view over resource allocation and strategy.
THE MEANING OF AUTHENTIC
The basic premise of the ‘authenticity’ argument is that if as a leader, you can tie your approach and ultimately many of your decisions back to a group of core beliefs and a style that reflects those beliefs, you become more believable and your decisions will be more credible.
Like many things about leadership, the reality is often a bit more complex and nuanced than that. You may well have a set of values and views yourself, but what if you lead a group within which are many who do not share your outlook?
Leadership is a lonely role and one of the reasons for this is that a good leader must try to accommodate all views, recognize all concerns yet do so in a manner that might sometimes create distance from those closest to your own comfort zone. Ironically, a leader who sticks with their own kind and ignores others in the group she leads ends up loosing the credibility of everyone, yet being too overt or keen to appease those who do not subscribe to your values and viewpoints can alienate what in politics, might be called your ‘base vote’ – it’s a very difficult balancing act and few people actually manage to do it well.
STAND FOR SOMETHING
Standing for something is important. A leader without any beliefs, without the courage of his or her own convictions, is not a leader. Leaders get tested. Standing for something can become intensely difficult on occasion.
However, standing for something is not enough. A leader needs to set out what she stands for and why. This is a risky strategy, because to do so makes a leader vulnerable, should actions depart from the beliefs. When this happens, the authenticity of the leader is questioned.
In his career, theirishscouter works with brands. Like a consumer brand, a leader in essence makes a promise to his followers. The Sixer on a Tuesday night, the Venture Expo Leader, the NMC member. The promise is about values, beliefs, style and maybe about tasks too.
When a brand departs from its promise or when it does things that are not authentic, their followers reject them. People and leaders in particular, have a personal brand identity to manage. Departing from core and stated beliefs can backfire.
What are your core beliefs? Its quite amazing how many of us can’t answer that question when asked.
Start with some basics principles. Are you a fair-minded person? (easy to say, but it can make life very difficult sometimes). Do you value equality? Do you value loyalty? Do you value it over anything else? Would you ever break the law for a friend? Could you ever be bribed? Do you have a view on key social, cultural and economic issues?
TELL A STORY
Building your personal brand is also about the journey you have taken to get to where you are today. What experiences have you had? Successes and disasters? Things you are proud of (and maybe some that you are not proud of at all). The best way to chart your personal journey is with stories. Have some stories clear in your head that help to define your personal approach to life and how you deal with challenges, success, other people.
A good way to do this is to create a simple matrix that sets out different scenarios across the top (for example; team work, individual success, leadership experience, mistakes) and then different aspects of your life down the side (work/school/college, family life, friends, scouts, hobbies, etc). Just make sure each box in the matrix has a story that illustrates (for example) how you worked well as part of a team in college, scouts etc.
This approach means you will have a ‘brand manual’ to hand that helps you to articulate your views, value and stories that illustrate these values in action.
Authenticity in leadership is an all too precious commodity today because the pressures to compromise values for a short-term gain can be pretty strong. The trouble is that those around you who consider you to be a good leader will be watching. Weak leaders a bit like fake brands, quickly loose the respect of their supporters and followers.
AN INTEGRAL REQUIREMENT
However, a set of values and beliefs alone (and lots of stories to help illustrate and articulate them) are still not quite enough. A leader must strive at all times to have integrity. It is the quality that is perhaps most important for anyone in a leadership role.
In essence, a person with integrity will get more freedom over time to make decisions that are unpopular, because they will be trusted not just to do things right, but to DO THE RIGHT THING.
Personal integrity is a very difficult commodity to manage. One lapse can cause irreparable damage to your credentials, even after many years of building a reputation – this happens in Scouting just as it does in business and public life.
A leader can have shortcomings, but if they have integrity then they can be trusted – and trust from those you lead is essential if your stay as a leader is to be tenable and memorable.
Knowing what you stand for is important. Having some stories that articulate your values is really helpful. Integrity however is the one thing no leader can live without.
A leader without integrity is no longer a leader, merely the unworthy occupant of an appointed (or elected) position.