When it comes to authentic leadership, are you ready to nail your colours to the wall?
After the piercing tone of 2016 (a year where the “Oh-my-god-what-now?”-o-meter consistently registered well above fever-pitch panic), have we got any indications yet what note 2017 will strike? Have we any glimmers of the picture ahead from the first colours of the year? A sniff of its flavour?
In one sense, I think we have. 2016 was a year of drastic cast changes when it came to leadership. This year, we’re going to see what kind of performance these new leading lights will pull off (and what kind of impact that will have on those already in their starring roles – and those who would usurp them).
Will 2017 provide a clearer idea of what it means to lead during these restless teenage years of this new century?
Whatever you think of them, you do have to kind of take your hat off to them for giving it a go. Who in their right mind would want to rule this world?
This age of transparency means there’s no where left to hide. This age of anxiety makes it almost impossible to keep some of the people happy just some of the time. And the age of post-truth means, even if you haven’t started the fire, you’ll still be choked by the smoke.
And the only advice any one can really give you? Be authentic.
Corporate or organisational leadership looks a breeze in comparison. There are still places to hide – behind the bean-counters, legal, HR, in your corner office; you may believe if you’re keeping just some of the people happy just some of the time you’re doing just great; and the only people whose scrutiny can really burn you is that of the shareholders.
Imagine if internal newsletters were able to operate like tabloids. Frenzied, sensational, pun-peppered headlines. Vicious slurs on people’s personal appearance or exposés on the seamier aspects of their private lives. Wild speculation around the corporate strategy. They’d get read then, that’s for sure.
Of course, only the naive would believe this doesn’t happen anyway – it just doesn’t go into print (though it can be found in an awful lot of emails). The company grapevine can be as twisted as any red top, and it’s an unwise leader who doesn’t pay attention to it.
Especially now. For employers, the age of transparency is already here – not only via Glassdoor but through individuals’ social media feeds too (example: #BoredAtWork) – but, admittedly, you do have to look for it.
It will, inevitably, get easier to find.
We’re all broadcasters now. We live in glass houses. And people have new means with which to get to grips with the power of protest.
We want to know. We demand to know. For today’s business leader, however much you run, whoever else you send before the crowd, sooner or later, you’re going to have to come out and say something – and you better damn make sure it feels authentic.
That word. The Alpha goal of the modern leader: authenticity. You can’t escape it. And, actually, if you look around, you can see, albeit in very different – indeed, polarised – styles, it is being modelled around us in those we are choosing (or allowing) to lead (whether for good or for ill is up to you to decide).
We have to start with Trump, of course (he wouldn’t have it any other way, would he?). This is the point. He poses as the classic ‘Red-Type’ leader – blunt, assertive, dynamic, able to cut-through, fast-paced, a force of nature – but combines this with the real master stroke in his leadership style with what I’d call Authentic Mutability.
The dynamism springs from this too. It’s that boss that can leap from one thing to another, can arrest on an idea in a flash and drop it just as quickly (the idea being that, in spite of being a grasshopper, they can see when to jump onto the better solution and let go of established ones).
At their best, they can accelerate and implement radical change – and I think this is the hope at the heart of the Trump experiment. The gamble is that, whereas in business very often the best solution is the quickest (or, at least, can be perceived that way if it means you hit your figures), can you apply that same approach to changing a nation and not create equal amounts of destruction in your wake?
Have you the luxury to change your mind? The option to divest your interests? Can you afford to only think in the short-term, to skim over the details?
But, do you know what, the power of Trump’s authentic mutability leads me to believe that, if, after a time in the White House, he turned around and said, “Listen folks, do you know what, this job just isn’t for me, but at least I gave it a shot,” we wouldn’t be all that surprised, and would probably forgive him (including the anti-Trump camp, out of relief if nothing else).
I’m not so sure Theresa May’s Authentic Reticence would ever allow her that forgiveness.
Everything about May says reticence. There’s nothing ‘cut loose’ about her. She looks almost trapped in her own body (I wanted someone to send her a masseuse after watching her latest Brexit speech – she holds her shoulders painfully high).
May displays many traits of the ‘Blue-Type’ leader – considered, detail-obsessed, methodical, introverted. She doesn’t exactly shout ‘people-person’ does she? There is a lot of appeal in the cautious in uncertain times. A steady hand. The biggest thing May has going for her is that no one, whatever they think of her, believes she takes a devil-may-care approach.
The difficulty for this type of leader is displaying authentic emotions. You might have a steady hand, but do you have a steadfast heart? May, like many leaders, runs the risk of lacking all credibility if the values she espouses doesn’t match the policy. And, in direct opposition to Trump, if she falls when there’s a need for speed.
Though we may have quite a good grasp on their characters, it’s not so easy to see the vision from either May or Trump. Not so with Barack Obama and his Authentic Optimism.
The typologists would place Obama in the ‘Yellow-Type’ section of the spectrum: visionary, full of ideas and possibilities, a person who enjoys connecting with people. Neither bullish nor data-driven, this type of leader has a light touch and genuine warmth. They’re good at showing what it means to be in a position of power – and to be a human being – at the same time.
They don’t go low, but sometimes we wonder if they go too high, translating as slightly detached from reality in all their positivity (helpless people can find it hard to swallow talk of hope). This happens a lot in business where you have a leader who is full of the joys and bouncing along the corridors of power while the workforce are gritting (or privately bearing) their teeth.
When everyone else is miserable, a sunny soul can became insufferable (possibly slightly insulting – how can you be so blind?).
The final colour on the leadership wheel is green – the empathetic, naturally democratic, values-driven, supportive leader. Step forward Jeremy Corbyn.
Corbyn – and, indeed, this type of boss – is something of a rarity, and the most notable aspect of this type of leader is how much those close to them want to protect them. Usually people want it to be the other way around, but, because this type likes to get in a little deeper with people, and because they refuse to display the more conventionally applauded combative leadership characteristics, they don’t just have employees, they create disciples.
Refusal is a key word, and, as such, for me, Corbyn owns Authentic Resistance. Even when he is conforming, he looks strait-jacketed in a suit; strait-jacketed into towing the party line. He only appears to be comfortable in his own skin at rallies or on marches (I bet he knows exactly what shoes to wear).
The struggle for these leaders is, while they might be great bosses, they’re not always great leaders. They might keep the team happy, but, after a while, people realise that although they’re being looked after, they’re not actually being developed or pushed (and people are more often than not grateful for a bit of pushing if done in the right way and for the right reason – a belief in them).
This approach can leave everyone being seen as under-performing, and therefore vulnerable – even when the motivations behind it can be rather noble.
For our political leaders, the curtain has not just been drawn but torn down. All reverence lost. We’re staring them right in the face now, like Oliver Cromwell, warts and all (whether we like it or not).
For the business leaders of tomorrow, they’d do well to ask themselves if they could bear the same kind of scrutiny. Soon enough, there may not be a choice. As history continually points out, we all get found out sooner or later. You can’t pretend to be authentic, so you better work out what you’re really about and get your story straight.
Whatever mistakes you might make along the way, keeping it real could be your salvation.