The Advancing Leadership Blog

Authentic Leadership in the 21st Century

Authentic leadership has been defined in a number of ways since Bill George explored it in his 2003 book, Authentic Leadership: Rediscovering the Secrets to Creating Lasting Value. This month, TEC speaker Dõv Baron gives us his take on the topic. In addition to being an author, radio host, and one of Inc. Magazine’s Top 100 Leadership Speakers, Dõv is an expert on developing Authentic Leadership, helping corporations and organizations generate exponential growth and fierce loyalty.

TEC Canada: What is corporate culture and how does it relate to engagement and retention?

Dõv Baron: This is a question that is not asked enough, because people assume they know what it means. Let’s take ‘leadership’ out of it and look at the word ‘authentic’. What does it mean to be ‘authentic’?

If we asked TEC members “Are you authentic?” my guess is almost all would answer yes. There’s an analogy I like to use to explain this. Imagine you’re blindfolded in the shallow end of a pool, facing the edge. Are you at maximum depth? You would likely say yes. If I take the blindfold off and you’re still facing the edge, you will still say yes, because based on your view, you are. Then you turn around and see that there’s a deeper end.

It’s the same with authenticity. Your level of authenticity is always based on your perception of the world and of yourself – and this is always evolving.

TEC Canada: What is the main trait of an authentic leader?

Dõv Baron: HBR did some research with several thousand C-suite individuals, asking what the most important characteristic of a leader was. According to this research, it was self-knowledge. Authenticity has its basis in self-knowledge. So how authentic you are depends on how well you know yourself and how willing you are to continue to get to know yourself. With self-knowledge and awareness of your own strengths and weaknesses, you develop the emotional intelligence to accept that you don’t have to trade who you are – you don’t have to trade authenticity for approval. When you’re an authentic leader you don’t do that.

TEC Canada: There is an idea that authenticity means being absolutely transparent. Is there such a thing as being too transparent? As an example, what about a new manager who doesn’t really know what they’re doing – don’t they risk losing the respect of those answering to them by being transparent with that information?

Dõv Baron: That is a fascinating question. It comes up all the time and it’s totally age-related! I would never get that question from a millennial, but people over 35 always ask it, because we’ve been brought up to ‘never let them see you sweat’ or ‘see a chink in the armour’. Millennials (today’s up-and-coming leaders!) don’t respect that and they won’t be loyal to that. They want transparency.

So where’s the line?

Stop and ask yourself if you’re being transparent and vulnerable (very powerful), or just whining. For example, someone who says “I don’t know everything yet, but I’m prepared to learn, with your help” is very different from someone who says “You have to forgive me, I don’t know this yet” again and again. The first is vulnerability with accountability; the second is just wallowing with no accountability. Vulnerability and accountability must go hand in hand in authentic leadership.

TEC Canada: We are hearing more lately about authentic brands, people selling the personas of such “authentic” leaders as Richard Branson and Yvon Chouinard of Patagonia. What would you say to leaders who are uncomfortable curating their personality in this way?

Dõv Baron: Start waving goodbye. Millennials are already 25% of the workforce – soon to be 50%. If you don’t do authenticity and transparency, you will soon be unemployed or without employees.

Secondly, I think we’ve all got to wake up – even to the things we don’t like. It’s like reality TV – I don’t like it, but it’s the #1 genre of television because everyone wants to ‘see behind the curtain’. Nowadays if you have a company with a CEO who is hiding in the background, we’re not likely to trust you.

Leaders who are uncomfortable with the limelight say “I’m just not the gregarious, out there, Richard Branson type of personality. I’m more quiet and subdued”, and that’s ok because authenticity is not a performance. It doesn’t require you to be an extrovert. It just requires you to be you – to step forward and reveal what matters to you.

As a CEO, it’s not your job is not to have people like you. It’s your job to get people off the fence – either side is fine. That will only happen when you are vulnerable and transparent. For example, the leader of Chick-Fil-A openly stated that he disagrees with gay marriage and promotes a Christian agenda within his company. We may not agree with it, but that’s not the point. It caused many people to abandon the brand, but it caused many who agree with him to embrace it out of loyalty. Loyalty only comes when leaders are purpose-driven and authentic.

TEC Canada: What are the areas that most leaders have problems mastering in their journey to becoming more authentic?

Dõv Baron: One of the main things I help CEOs do is remove mental blocks based on cultural norms they’ve been conditioned to accept. Baby Boomers and even Gen-Xers find it counter-intuitive to think that authenticity and vulnerability are going to garner respect, because we’ve been conditioned to believe we should be separating ourselves and placing ourselves apart and above, like a deity in a corner office. It used to work because it was part of the culture, but that culture has changed. I work with some groups in the military and even they’re moving toward transparency – and believe me, there is no one more conditioned to hiding their feelings than the military!

TEC Canada: How does authenticity trickle down through the organization?

Dõv Baron: You may have a policy, but it will never be an authentic organization if the leader is not authentic – “Do as I say, not as I do” does not work. Richard Branson said that once HR identifies the top three candidates for a particular role in his company, the next step is to take them down to the pub for a drink and for open conversation about the things they like and don’t like about the organization. This is HR! Branson has lead with transparency and it has been carried throughout the organization.

In my book, Fiercely Loyal, I discuss how the world has changed and we are on the brink of a catastrophe in employment, because training and developing people is incredibly expensive. And if they leave within a year, which is not unusual, you don’t even get your ROI because that takes two. Building a fiercely loyal corporate culture based on authentic leadership results in people staying around for longer.

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity and length.


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