Real leaders just do it

The drive for 'authenticity' is spreading to business, and much of this advice is guff

by Richad Reeves, director of Intelligence Agency, an ideas consultancy; e-mail: richard@intelligenceagency.co.uk
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Simplicity is the new sophisticated. The search for 'real' food, organic clothes, decluttered lives is driving demand for magazines with titles like Simple Living or Real Simple (often featuring ads for expensive cars driven by relaxed-looking people) and for articles entitled 'Simplify your life in six easy steps!' Affluent westerners pay a fortune to discover the 'real' Peru in great personal discomfort.

In the spirit of 'keeping it real', people are encouraged to reveal their innermost selves, preferably to a sizeable TV audience. Chat shows, agony aunts, public displays of emotion - confessionals are public property now. While TV was once a vehicle for stories and fantasy, the ratings now go to the reality shows.

Business is far from immune to the reality drive. For many years, the more doubtful end of the human resources market has been urging organisations to devise strategies for persuading employees to bring 'their whole selves' to work. This was always a con; what companies meant was 'bring all your creative impulses and loving tendencies to work', not 'bring all your unresolved issues about father abandonment and theories of cat care to work'. It is easy to say that we don't want someone to hang up their true personality the minute they walk in the office door - but in the case of some personalities, it is of course exactly what we want.

With a kind of wearying inevitability, the authenticity movement is now morphing with the business leadership agenda.

As if the women and men charged with running large organisations didn't have enough to worry about, now they have to ensure that they are being authentic, too.

Two recent books give a flavour of the trend. Neil Crofts' Authentic: How to make a living by being yourself, suggests that businesses and business leaders need to discover and reveal their 'soul' in order to succeed.

And the associated website, www.authenticbusiness.co.uk, even offers 'authenticity coaching', which involves a 'coming out' session in which, presumably, the coachee is encouraged to reveal themselves to be, in fact, themselves.

And Authentic Leadership: Rediscovering the secrets to creating lasting value by Bill George, former chairman and CEO of Medtronic, stresses that only by embodying purpose, values, heart, relationships and self-discipline can leaders drive an organisation's success. The book, the blurb promises, 'offers inspiring lessons to all who want to lead with heart and with compassion for those they serve'.

It's tempting to dismiss all this stuff as utter guff. And as Oscar Wilde pointed out, the only way to be rid of temptation is to yield to it. So guff it surely is. Now, there is nothing wrong with people being nice to each other - and certainly nothing wrong with powerful people being nice. And by and large it is probably better for people to live as themselves rather than as manufactured proxies.

But the truth is that leadership requires tough decisions and unpopularity.

And above all, it means getting things done. The authentic leadership camp is a sub-genre of a whole school of leadership that is focused on the personal qualities of leaders themselves - inspirational, story-telling, big-picture, human and so on. In fact, successful leaders are the ones who spend less time worrying about their authenticity rating and more on actually engaging with the day-to-day work of their organisations.

As Larry Bossidy and Ram Charam argue in their book Executive: The discipline of getting things done, leaders are spending too much time strategising, philosophising and pontificating. 'People think of execution as the tactical side of the business,' they write, 'something leaders delegate while they focus on the perceived "bigger issues". This idea is completely wrong.'

The point is that strategy is not difficult - and that good enough strategies can in any case be rented from consultancy firms, or read about in a book.

Similarly, new policies or vision statements make not the slightest difference unless they actually drive changes in the organisation. All the value of a strategy or policy comes from the success of its implementation, the extent to which it actually influences the daily life of the organisation. If leaders need a motto, 'Just do it' would probably be the most appropriate.

Recent research in economics has suggested - perhaps not surprisingly - that an increase in the amount of time that people in an organisation spend in meetings discussing business issues depresses labour productivity. All of us - but leaders especially - need to spend a bit less time examining our own navel and more examining our sales pipeline.

In any case, the notion of authenticity in leadership is misplaced. Leaders are required to hide their true selves and true feelings all the time.

If a leader is absolutely terrified, genuinely uncertain about the wisdom of a recent decision they have just taken and wracked with doubt about the future, the last thing they should do with their employees is authentically share all these feelings. A degree of acting is required to lead successfully: think of Churchill or Roosevelt, who led their nations to victory by broadcasting, if not exactly lies, certainly a highly selective version of the truth, often keeping their real thoughts to themselves. Authentic leadership is not simply misleading; it is an oxymoron.

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