As corporate leaders, working in ever more competitive markets, and pressured to constantly return ‘above trend’ growth and positive like-for-likes, we often lose our way and, in the process, our integrity. Some might say we lose our souls. We then forget to run our operations and manage our people by proven and ethical (boring?) strategies of sticking to our core products, serving genuine customers at fair prices, knowing the detail of our operations and checking every day that people are ok.
We come to believe that we have to be superhuman and in total control. How absurd. The pressure then becomes almost unbearable, as we exercise more and more energy and effort on pretending to something we so clearly are not – infallible.
Go into most corporations and listen to all the business speak conversations transacted between managers who are all desperately pretending to be calm, in control, knowing all the answers, great bosses, successful etc etc. The pressure is enormous.
But the alternative feels truly scary, since it will involve admitting that we are not in control and that we cannot guarantee to hit the targets we have been set. Being ourselves, rather than pretending to be something that others want us to be, seems to involve falling back on faith, trust and instinct. We know that we are actually at our best, our greatest, our most influential and powerful, when we come from this place of authenticity. But it feels like a cop out.
How should we behave if we stop pretending? What will we do instead of just trying to impress people all the time? What if we are simply not good enough? What if we get found out? What if we fail, looking foolish and naive and letting people down in the process? Scary stuff indeed. These are understandable questions for us, but we need to ensure we do not allow them to turn into crippling self doubt.
So how do we do this? We do this by going back to good old fashioned purpose, vision and values – for ourselves as leaders and for our organizations.
Purpose, vision and values
We need to work out who we really are – uncovering our core (some might say our ‘soul’). When we communicate from this place of real honesty, then we are trustworthy and we inspire others. Our core does not try and get other people to do things, or worse, to be something they are not. Our core simply lays out the mission, sees who turns up, and creates the adventure. And what results will come, will come. Leaders build missions and environments where people choose to try to do the extraordinary.
And when I communicate from my core, you may well give me a glimpse of your core. Once this channel is open, and we are communicating core to core, life (and business) works. No pretence and no nonsense. The incredible thing about communicating from our core (being authentic) is that attain that truly magical combination of attributes – humility and confidence. The good news is that we know how to do this stuff, but somehow along the way we have forgotten.
Authenticity demands leadership
Lots of us are capable of opening core-to-core channels with other individual human beings, but leaders need structures to move a whole community. Leaders need to be conscious that it is what they focus their attention on that actually dictates the behaviour of others. If we focus on trying to ‘get’ our employees to ‘be’ like we want them to be – bright, compliant, energetic, responsible, communicative, dedicated, enthusiastic, right, successful etc – then we inevitably stand in judgement over them, and set up that destructive dynamic where they will try and please us.
When people feel judged (as foolish, naïve, failures, wrong, inferior, not good enough, not up to the job, having lost the confidence of the manager, about to be sacked or at best not ever to be considered for extra responsibility or promotion) they defend themselves and are motivated to survive and stay safe, as opposed to being motivated to take responsibility. Since we humans are hard wired to survive, rather than being hard wired to flourish, when we commune together under a judgemental manager, we collude to survive. We stay in our comfort zones and create a corporate comfort zone – in fact a culture.
If however we focus on how our people ‘are’ and work with them to be at their very best, then we have the capacity to achieve extraordinary things. This all demands leadership. Since unconscious and habitual behaviours are coming from pretence at the moment, leaders have to break the cycle with feedback, making this conscious and giving awareness to people so that they have a chance to choose a conscious strategy. It’s all part of focusing on people and not pushing for results - trusting that if we do the right things the best possible results will come.
Authenticity its the only solution
Leaders who are pretending to be polished, competent and perfect, have real difficulty in handling behaviour that does not conform. However, rarely does true authenticity come in a beautiful package. It can often be awkward, clumsy and over emotional. Who we really are as human beings is both beautiful and ugly; both perfect and flawed. And if leaders are only prepared to sit with the beautiful and perfect, sending strong signals that the ugly and flawed bits are unacceptable, then people will go back to pretending again.
If we are really going to encourage people to be honest, say it how it is for them, come close to who they really are, then we need to accept that it will not be comfortable. Great leaders understand this and work with what’s in front of them. They open the core to core channel, and then exploit them in pursuit of the purpose.