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Greatest leaders are authentic and honest

In business we often see success and failure as two polar opposites. Business promotes not on the basis of leaders who can succeed but those who don't fail, those who take a safe approach. However, success needs failure. That sounds very Zen but organisational and individual boundaries both need to be explored in order to allow for innovation and creativity. Leaders who are able to take chances and sometimes fail — and own it — are more inclined to be accepted as being honest by followers and colleagues alike; their integrity shows through to others because essentially they have the scars to prove it.

In part one of this series I talked about David McLeod and his four tenets of an engaged organisation and at that time I emphasised the importance integrity plays in an engaged workspace. McLeod when talking about integrity refers to the ‘say-do' gap, and claims that it needs to be as small as is humanly possible.

It seems leaders are judged not only on their successes but by how they relate to others. It's odd; the most successful people I know have had both tremendous failures and incredible successes. Sir John Swan, who has had both tremendous success and failure, once told me that as a young man he believed everyone had their own gift and he himself had been told by one of his professors that his was building relationships. The benefits, as he says, are obvious.

“It was not a handicap but an advantage in many ways because once you realise you had to humble yourself to the base of knowledge, that other people were your resource, then you had to be prepared to absorb what they said to you, what they did, and find out how they did it,” Sir John said.

From a leadership perspective successful relationships stem from truly valuing what other people bring to the table.

Leadership: it's not about always being right

The other aspect of success management, the failure one, is important for a different reason. From a leadership/organisational perspective a leader's tolerance for failure or risk if we want to be more correct, colours how he/ she will respond to it. Having a healthy respect for failure, but being unafraid to take ownership for the outcome can be lonesome territory for leaders and wannabe leaders alike. However this rooted honesty makes individual mentoring possible. Winston Churchill once said: “Courage is going from failure to failure, without losing enthusiasm.”

I love that quote not only because of what it says about leadership but what it also indirectly intimates about the necessity of passion and determination in ultimately being successful. The key may be realising, even in moments of personal weakness, leaders can inspire others. People aspire to be like others because they see traits they want to emulate. They see the absolute best of themselves in those they want to be like.

Trust is engendered by someone wanting to be more like you! At its essence engagement is about the trust between leadership and the individuals they lead — the dyadic relationship based on shared values. Trust is a value statement, its perceiving quality in an individual and because of that it's another facet of integrity but a very important one.

To be seen as trustworthy leaders need to be seen as being as vulnerable as the people they lead, something Jim Collins refers to as Level 5 leadership. The hierarchal stages of Collins Level-5 relate to individual capability, team skills, managerial competence, and traditionally conceived leadership along with an additional layer of attributes.

Level 5 leaders possess the “extra dimension” of a paradoxical blend of personal humility and professional will along with a quiet, burning drive for accomplishment. This extra leadership dimension may just be what Bill George, a leading author on leadership, is referring to when he talks about being an authentic leader. George claims that authentic leadership is what actually drives engagement down through an organisation from the senior level all the way to the front line, and keeps it in focus. It's about connecting with people on a very real level, or perhaps as today's millennials might say, connecting “seriously”. At the end of the day when it comes to relationships, trust starts and finishes with honesty — it starts with being authentic.

Yes, but why?

It appears the differences between engaged leadership and more traditional and expectant forms is pretty clear. There really is a reason that small start-up companies are so much fun to work for. It's the same reason that makes you jump out of bed and work crazy hours. It's the same reason that makes you put up with lousy pay and do it all with a smile on your face. ?

You are engaged by the work you do and you believe it worthy of your devotion — you are engaged by the people who lead you and you have plugged yourself in and identified passionately not only with the work but with the people you do it with. Remember Rob Markey's reference to advocacy? It may have explained the concept of a plugged-in employee best when he described it as the ability to achieve extraordinary things against a purpose with meaning.

It's the same reason Elon Musk interviews everyone he hires — he cares single-mindedly about the ‘what', the ‘why' and the ‘how', and it permeates everything else and everyone else in the organisation. To him its personal, it's also the same reason Jim Collins says he wants the right people on his bus; they have to be as passionate about the vision as he is. Collins quote from Good to Great sums it up beautifully: “When [what you are deeply passionate about, what you can be best in the world at and what drives your economic engine] come together, not only does your work move toward greatness, but so does your life.”

Three ‘P's: personal, passion and people, it really is as simple as that.

Caring leadership makes for good business decisions, but not just from an ethical interpersonal perspective, it works from a purely business bottom line one as well. There has been a propensity in corporate culture, at least since the turn of the 21st century, to reduce employees to widgets that get plugged into situations rather than real flesh and blood people with aspirations, passion and knowledge.

However the era of slash-and-burn employment for corporations may be over, at least for those organisations who plan to continue to be successful in a future reinventing itself every six months.

Effective leaders need to understand that in an emerging age of instantaneous information and feedback the most important resource organisations have aren't brick and mortar or even capital, they are information, expertise, and intelligent employees' tacit knowledge. Those organisations that don't place the proper value on what their employees bring to the corporate table risk the prospect of being left behind in the race to leverage the last real opportunity to obtain the ultimate competitive advantage.

Andre Labonte is a technologist; he has an MA in Leading Innovation and Change from York St John University and has lectured change management, innovation and leadership at the Bermuda College. Andre is a member of the Association of Change Management Professionals and can be contacted at

Meticulous about hiring: Billionaire Elon Musk like to interview everyone he hires himself

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Published November 03, 2015 at 8:00 am (Updated November 02, 2015 at 8:22 pm)

Greatest leaders are authentic and honest

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