Change Whisperer – Gail Severini, Symphini Change Management Inc.

Stepping up to “authentic” leadership
October 5, 2012, 2:29 am
Filed under: - Leadership, - Personal Reflections | Tags: ,

Here’s my own struggle with the word “authenticity”:  If it means “genuine”, or “true”, then it does not automatically imply any specific values (i.e., the values of the entity pre-exist). Most references to authenticity in leadership material presume that any pre-existing values that will manifest are good.

I am less impressed with our human race. It seems to me that greed and self-preservation are more base drivers than most of us want to admit. We don’t have far to look around the economic landscape of the last 10 years to find leaders who were very “authentic” (i.e., true to themselves), but whose greed caused great destruction.

My own world view is that goodness and selfishness co-exist within each of us. We take actions every day that manifest the choice—some conscious, some not—between those values of goodness and selfishness. What is “authentic” in that moment can vary.

It seems to me that the notion of “authenticity” implies that the work of choosing is natural and inevitable―what is “inevitable” is much less reliable than what we consciously choose.

Furthermore, the notion of “authenticity” changes and reduces the work of choosing. It implies that the work consists of just “listening to your inner voice”. However, we all have experienced conflicting advice from the inner voice. It’s how you choose that determines your actions.

I believe we each need to be more conscious and more deliberate about “how we choose”. Lying underneath the choice are guidelines and parameters we each use to analyse our options. These are values. Some are explicit to us and some may actually be more opaque, less explored.

These values are the key and the work is the engine. We need to MAKE these values authentic.

There is work involved here to be a better leader. For example:

  • Firstly, one must know oneself: What do you stand for? What is important to you? Where do you draw the line between what you will and will not do?
  • Secondly, one must align with or shape the organization’s values. If the organization prioritizes quarterly returns and you value job creation, get ready to face some personally tough decisions.
  • Thirdly, the values we choose as individuals manifest themselves in leadership choices―they have to or they cause us personal conflict.  We should be conscious and deliberate about the values, choices and consequences.

In “Fixing the Game”, author Roger Martin makes a very compelling case that the current focus on “the expectations market” (stock market pricing), at the cost of almost anything else, is forcing leaders to lead inauthentic lives (out of sync with their own values). The answer, he argues, is to “turn executives from the useless, vapid task of managing expectations to the psychologically rewarding business of creating value.” This idea resonates with me.

I have come to really appreciate the values of servant leadership. A good friend introduced me to Peter Block’s “Stewardship” and now it’s hard to look back.

Seems to me that we need a few great leaders to step up and figure out how to change “the system” to make this happen.

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9 Comments so far
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A courageous post Gail. Indeed, the notion of “authentic” often seems fluid – having its shape defined by the social container holding it rather than by its inherent character. In one view, the notion of “authentic” might be understood by juxtaposing it to duplicitous. In this context, to be authentic is to be who we really are, rather than who we wish to appear to be.

As for the task facing great leaders, the dilemma is that “the system” is a reflection of who we are. To rise to a better system requires us to rise to be more than we are. Indeed, evolution is occurring before our eyes. We are rising. But, the process is not quick.

For example, as the U.S. enters this political season we still thrash under the burden of competing “parties”. The foundation of the political parties is differing relative value systems. But value systems, taken in concert, are philosophies. Problems are not solved by philosophies. They are solved by appropriate solutions. Parties themselves are irrelevant and anchronistic. No one should every “vote the party”, or criticize someone because he/she did not “vote the party”. This is silly. The issue is whether we have divined optimal solutions to problems, or not. To the pursuit of solutions we may certainly bring differing value systems; however, it is the adequacy of the solution, and not “the party” which is the arbiter of a good solution.

So, why do we do this? Why do we still talk “party”? The reason is simple: we still think in terms of “us” versus “them” – those we call “our group” versus those we call “the other group” (often, aka, “the enemy”). Evolution built “us versus them” thinking and we have not – as a group – moved beyond it yet. The good new is: we are moving in that direction.

So, we will build better systems. We will build them when we have allowed ourselves to evolve to be more than we currently are. Some day we will collectively think: “This is our planet – the only habitable one within a very large neighborhood. What are we doing to allow it to continue to flourish?” Some day we will strive to contribute rather than compete to “win” (aka, beat someone else).

What we can hope is that those who authentically represent a viable collective future will lead, rather than those who authentically represent a divisive past.

Comment by limbiczen

John, your post exemplifies authentic leadership thinking. Thanks for sharing.

So many of your comments really resonated with me:

– “As for the task facing great leaders, the dilemma is that “the system” is a reflection of who we are”. And, I submit, it is not always the best of ‘us’. We should consider why we, as leaders of our own lives, tolerate that.

– The notion that “we still think in terms of “us” versus “them”” – is stark and it might be tempting to say “not me”. I often observe a tendency toward “either / or” thinking that may fall into the same camp. Let’s do some work on that.

– I hold on to the idea that “Some day we will strive to contribute rather than compete to “win””.


Comment by Gail Severini ©

I agree with Limbiczen that your post is courageous, and also believe that your message is welcome to increasingly more people now than even 5 years ago.

Perhaps wishfully thinking, I never-the-less sense the approach of the ‘tipping point’ for the leadership development movement, with a focus on service and self-knowledge.

As organizations engage in more leadership development, (regardless of their motive), the resulting self-reflection will cause more and more of us to clarify our own values, and perhaps begin to ask Drucker’s famous questions: “What needs to be done? and What can and should I do about it?”

The system will remain a reflection of who we are, but as we evolve, that becomes a good thing.

Comment by Michael Darmody

I also agree with Michael – that a tipping point is coming. The question is, what specifically is driving us toward that tipping point? I’d really enjoy hearing your answer Michael (or Gail).

My own sense is that we (at least here in North America) are moving away from the industrial revolution centricity on assembly lines and toward information lines. In an assembly line the human participants are relatively fungible – easily replaceable by an equivalent “cog in the wheel”. In contrast, in information lines the roles of perspective and applicability drive a greater emphasis on trust and “information I can rely on for this situation”. This moves us away from fungibility. Thus leadership becomes more interested in relationship (over command) and that drives an importance of authenticity. Or, at least, this is the way I see it.

What about you?

Comment by limbiczen

Thank so much Michael and John. Michael, I share your “wishful thinking” and I think we have some critical mass of demographics on our side (temporarily at least) as we Boomers move into our 50s-70s that is a natural time for more deliberate (legacy) choices – more meat in that than sharing on a comments section can accommodate.

To your point “as we evolve” – were you thinking as individuals, as a demographic or as a “community”? I read this yesterday (my son’s Grade 12 homework!) and found it a catalyst for thinking more globally

John, I definitely agree with your perspective on the momentum of the information age and would add that our reactions (as both consumers and influencers) to the repeated greedy (if not outright illegal) choices of some business executives is adding pressure. It amazes me that this never seems to get real traction (another mammoth topic).

There is no question in my mind that Servant Leadership aligns with my own values and is my direction – it may also be the direction of Western economies. However, yesterday’s read (tho 1996 seems more valid today) reminded me that my “norm” is not everyone’s – I am thinking in “Western” terms. My knowledge of the value systems of others is not deep to predict whether this could be global. Something else to think about.

Comment by Gail Severini ©

I recently saw a chart:
Then: Command – “Jump!”
Question – “How high?”
Now: Command – “Jump!”
Question – “Why?”
John, this is what I believe is (partially) driving us toward the tipping point, from a management perspective. The internet has and continues to raise awareness and knowledge levels globally, prompting employees to say “yeah! Why is that?” You’re quite correct that the “anti-fungible” employee is the norm today.

Gail, as for evolution, I meant both individually and collectively as societies. This may seem too “woo woo” to some, but it strikes me that we’re experiencing major shifts in several fields of knowledge that are accelerating consciousness, and smashing current worldviews.

For that last 10 years I’ve been a fascinated student of three fields: leadership development, quantum and neuroscience, and metaphysics/mythology/spirituality. The convergence, intersection and overlap of discoveries within these fields is astounding. Margaret Wheatley muses over the similarity of magnetic fields and chaos to organizational culture. Bruce Lipton proved that the behaviour of a cell is influenced primarily not by the nucleus, but by adaptation to environmental forces, and then asks how that might inform organizational development.

While all this is ‘out there’ for the average business leader or board member, research increasingly shows strong correlation between profitability and strong, adaptive cultures. So even if better leadership practices are only the result of myopic boards and shareholders insisting on them for greedy reasons, those practices will eventually serve to enlighten everyone anyway. There are some universal truths that cross all cultures. Self-knowledge clarifies personal values, which then allows comparison to others’ values, yielding shared values. Gail mentions actualization. I think this collective actualization is what’s about to tip.

Comment by Michael Darmody

Gail – I couldn’t agree more on the three points you raise on becoming a better leader. Knowing oneself and what you stand for is the critical cornerstone of delivering value to your organization and your people as a leader. What you may find once you take the time to know yourself is that you’re actually in the wrong position to be a leader – most leaders can’t lead in all situations (I for instance would be a lousy basketball coach), but rather can excel once they put themselves in a role and position that is aligned with who they are. Passion is the side effect of alignment of identity and role, and without it it’s virtually impossible to lead.

I recently went through the journey of finally identifying who I am, what I stand for, and what is important to me which you can read in my post “Why are you Here… and What are you going to DO about it?”

Thanks for sharing!

Comment by Tim Empringham

Tim, that is an amazing post! I recommend it to all. It is courageous and insightful. And by sharing your journey you have illuminated steps that the rest of us can consider. Thank you for that gift.

You allude to a critical point that I think takes a while for most of us to realize – the answers come from within, it is a process of extraction. We often approach career planning as a tactical market exercise (as in what are you good at and how does that map to what the market is buying). Actualization is not about that. It is about drawing out one’s passion and aligning one’s strengths and commitments behind it – making it happen. Your word “disrupter” is powerful and sets a clear trajectory. Well done and more power to you on your journey.

I don’t know what my word is, you have given me something to think about, but I have captured my current thinking under the “About Us” section.

Thanks for commenting!

Comment by Gail Severini ©

Some great points Gail highlighting that great leaders are both authentic and have the right value set; the latter being their moral compass. Jim Collins sets out a good exposition of this in defining level 5 leaders in his seminal work, “Good to Great”. Great leaders are driven by a value set; they make selfless decisions for the greater good, whereas many “leaders” make selfish decisions for personal gain or furtherance. The latter are the majority. The majority is the system. Hence you have encapsulated the problem in your final sentence, “Seems to me that we need a few great leaders to step up and figure out how to change “the system” to make this happen”. The system and those who are part of it staunchly defend the status quo and to quote a famous Italian philosopher, “It ought to be remembered that there is nothing more difficult to take in hand, more perilous to conduct, or more uncertain in its success, than to take the lead in the introduction of a new order of things”. What is needed is the moral courage as defined by Bobby Kennedy, “…the one essential, vital quality for those who seek to change a world that yields most painfully to change”.

Comment by Steve Bannister

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