Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Authentic Leadership – Looking the Part Versus Living It

It is with a mix of gratitude, amusement, disappointment and sometimes downright anger that many of us look at today’s leaders, whether they be in the community, corporate world, government, church or any other organization of influence.

What appears to attract the most press are the ones who either let us down or infuriate us with stories of how they acted in their own best interests at the expense of someone else.

Today’s leader faces many great challenges – the challenges of the world are broad, deep and complex.

What makes the challenge of today’s leaders even more complex is how we define and establish our leaders.

Think about we seek in a leader.  At a minimum, we expect them to be charismatic, passion-filled, visionary, connected, value-rich, idea-abundant, brilliant in statesmanship, powerful in negotiating skills and plentiful in morality and ethics.  Some of us expect even more than this.

In fact, many of us inadvertently or deliberately expect our leaders to be perfect, try as we might to deny this.

We put all of our hopes in them.  We overload them with expectations that no mortal man can live up to and when they don’t live up to our expectations, we crucify them.

By defining leaders as being beyond the handicap of human frailty and weakness, we inadvertently change how leaders are selected, often at the expense of all of us.

Many of today’s leaders are more focused on looking like leaders than they are acting like leaders.  Handlers, spinmeisters and PR wizards often have more power than a leader’s strategic advisors.

Many leaders embrace this model because they sense this is what we want to see in a leader.  How many times have we heard leaders tell their followers what they want to hear and not what they need to hear?

This makes the followers temporarily happy and hope-filled and gets the leader elected or promoted to the position they seek.

It unfortunately produces a slippery slope of deferring the inevitable of not living up to expectations – either self-imposed or as perceived by others.  It also allows unqualified leaders to be placed in positions of influence because they are masters of the self-promotion game and not the art of leadership.

It also creates an incredible structural tension for the leaders themselves.  It is extremely difficult to maintain the facade promoted to the public when it is more closely aligned with what the public wants to see than with who the leader really is.

As authors such as Ken Blanchard and Owen Phelps note, when this happens the leader gets drawn into a world filled with pride or fear.  Pride becomes the overwhelming force when the act of self promotion becomes the primary action of the leader.  Fear kicks in when one has to focus on protecting the facade that was presented to the people, for fear that someone may discover that the leader is human with all of the weaknesses that humans also possess.

Ken Blanchard and Owen Phelps posit that when we are true, authentic servant leaders, we can focus more on serving others and not hiding behind a facade of false pretenses.  This model allows the leader to serve with humility and confidence in answering the needs of those they serve and lead. 

Such a model produces a much more authentic, productive result.

That being said, the art of looking more like a leader than being like one falls back on one key challenge.

In a world that rewards people who embrace this model and then punishes them when they almost inevitably fail to live up to the expectations of others, who owns responsibility for these leaders?

Is it the fault of the people who erect a facade in order to obscure who they really are or is it the fault of the people who prefer to vote for a facade than someone who is truly authentic and transparent, even if the news is bad?

We all own the responsibility of choosing the type of leaders who attains a position of influence over us. 

Perhaps we should be less disappointed in the leaders that the system produces and be more cognizant of the type of system that causes leaders to have to be something other than that which they are.

We need to embrace a dialog built around transparency and authenticity and then perhaps we will find more opportunity to select strong leaders whom we can collaborate with to produce a better result.

In service and servanthood.


For my Musings-in-a-Minute version of “Authentic Leadership – Looking the Part Versus Living It”, please click here.

1 comment:

  1. I agree with your assessment of how we choose our leaders and how they are more a facade. The question I would have to ponder though is how do we change things? If you look at history, this seems to be how leaders have always been pushed forth. Kings were placed as leaders because of who they were born to, religious leaders generally seemed to have been promoted if they made friends with who was ast in power, etc. So how do we, as a society, force change when most people fear change and would rater know that their leaders are inauthentic, but look good.
    Great article though and leaves more to consider.