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Authentic leadership – just for saints?

Authentic leadership is quite the thing. 

index9I see several discussions about the authentic leader and the impact of authentic leadership on business results.  Certainly it is a style emerging at the very forefront of leadership research and insights into successful team building.  Most contributors to the discussions I’ve seen wax lyrical on authentic leaders who personify “to thine own self be true”.  Of course it’s really important, no matter what sort of leadership seat you occupy, to be aware of and attuned to your own values, and use these as a compass to guide your work and decisions.

But is that really all there is to it?  For a Mahatma Gandhi, the answer might well be yes.  My nephew, aged 12, said he didn’t think Gandhi was all that – after all, he’d only made one film.  I chuckled at the time, but it made me think – how would Gandhi have led in an organisational context – the one in which most of us spend our careers? How would his style of leadership looked?

Being a freedom fighter is a critical role in oppressed regimes.  For that epitome of freedom fighters – Nelson Mandela, authentic leadership ultimately led to victory against repression, Presidency and status as a living saint, but does it translate smoothly to our western corporate world?

For most leaders, for most of the time, we can’t just work in a way that chimes with our own values.   Indeed, some writers have defined the manager who ignores organisational drivers to fulfil their own values as ‘defiant’.  I have worked with managers in more than one organisation, when delivering leadership coaching, who were referred to as “The Maverick”.  I was interested to discover that Nelson Mandela’s middle name is Rolihlahla, which means troublemaker.  Most troublemakers I’ve seen don’t last too long in our corporate world – even where they are specifically brought in to create trouble and break the status quo.

Leadership Paradox

Alongside their own personal values, effective leaders work in tune with their organisations’ values, drivers and needs.  And of course, that might not be easy.  There are times when we experience tensions between our values and organisational values.  The defiant manager doesn’t resolve the paradox, and neither does the ‘compliant’ manager because they simply sacrifice their own values to organisational values, policies and procedures – the type of leader who might say – I don’t think we should do this either, but THEY say we have to”.  For me, authentic leadership in corporate life is about leaders who can resolve any paradox between their own personal drives and their organisation’s needs.  And because it’s not always easy, it crops up frequently as a topic in my leadership coaching sessions and is reflected in the results of psychometric testing.

So is there anyone else out there who feels “to thine own self be true” is an oversimplification of authentic leadership?


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  1. On Leadership, Humility and Authentic Spiritual Leadership | Linked 2 Leadership

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