Over at least the past 15 years, there has been a consistent stream of articles on what the best modern leadership looks like. Phrases such as ‘authenticity’, ‘servant leadership’, ‘having a strong moral compass’, and ‘practitioners of diversity and inclusion’ feature consistently.
As HR practitioners, we know this material and will try to find ways to apply that profile of the future modern leader within our own organisations, containing parts of identifiable best practices but also inevitably parts that are uniquely ‘us’. There are many challenges in succeeding with this.
Let’s take the term diversity. A good place to start is to ask how much diversity do we have within ourselves? How prepared are we to change to different circumstances in our jobs, and to the needs and demands of others around us?
Over the past decade I can recall a number of instances where I was very uncomfortable at work, due either to what that job entailed, or whom I was working with. I don’t think I would be alone here. The instinctive response is to externalise the problems you face and to find solutions from changes in others. Down the track we may look at our own performance – perhaps prompted by a close colleague. In a recent edition of the Harvard Business Review, Herminia Ibarra reported on why leaders struggle with authenticity, and how companies are training their emerging talent to cope with what this actually means.
As the world is rapidly changing, so the demands on us will change. Leaders will get pushed out of their comfort zones, and either resist or cover that discomfort, unless positively coached and prepared beforehand to take on such disorienting experiences.
Two extreme situations can occur. Leaders who are chameleons can usually make a good fist of their first 90 days in the job, but can bluster when they later stumble due to ignorance or inability. On the other hand, those who are true to themselves, will enunciate their doubts on taking on new challenges, winning initial support for their honesty.
But how do colleagues react? To the chameleons – there may be immediate respect and confidence that this is a great leader going places, who will take us along. Later it becomes clear that, behind their mask, there is a lack of critical substance and people can feel betrayed and lose that early confidence. For the honest self-doubters, the reverse can happen. People will appreciate the immediate honesty, but expect the new leader to pick up their game through hard work and will be disappointed if self-doubts are still being articulated in six months’ time.
So, for authenticity in leadership to prevail in a world of unfamiliar challenges, both the chameleon and self-doubter are required. We need leaders to be honest about what they know and what they don’t. Aspiring, authentic leaders are expected to show confidence about their new roles and where the group can be taken, but they also need to display honesty and to acquire skills and knowledge they don’t have. That will mean openness to feedback, taken on as learning experience, and not a career-threatening blunder.
So leadership training that goes deep into top talent is critical. Winning the confidence to enable leaders to come out from behind the mask is even more so.
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This article is an edited version. The full article was first published in the November 2015 issue of HRMonthly magazine as ‘Behind the mask’. AHRI members receive HRMonthly 11 times per year as part of their membership. Find out more about AHRI membership here.