Leadership and authenticity don’t always go hand in hand.
Politicians and authenticity even less so.
With great power comes great responsibility, and along with that, often quite a bit of suspicion from the people that leaders have power over.
The term “power over” itself is problematic. Better and more helpful is “care for,” but people don’t often feel “cared for” or even like a priority for their leaders. Suspicion and distrust can fester.
Kim Scott, former chief executive coach at Dropbox, says: “To some degree, the minute you assume the role of boss you’ll be fighting preconceptions.”
People are already predisposed not to trust you, and leaders don’t help themselves when they don’t allow themselves to be authentic.
The pressure to be perfect
Perhaps it’s an obsession with perfection – not wanting to show any weakness or chinks in the armour.
There’s a heavy weight of responsibility to deliver results.
Yet it’s impossible to be authentic when you place yourself under relentless pressure to be perfect. It’s not realistic, it’s not human, and others can’t relate.
With such a heavy focus on not getting caught out and having all the answers, leaders allow themselves less space to listen, understand and learn.
One of the things that set Barack Obama apart as a leader, irrespective of his politics, was his willingness to listen and respond to his audiences, even when under immense pressure.
The following clip is a masterclass in vulnerable, authentic leadership.
The tendency to judge
Responsibility must also be taken by all of us. We have to reassess how we judge not just our leaders but each other.
If we want greater authenticity and leaders that we can relate to, then we must allow space for them to be imperfect.
We must allow more space for all of us to be imperfect, though this is rarely the case.
We only have to look at the unforgiving way that public figures are treated in the media to understand why they may feel uneasy about letting their guard down and being themselves.
Also, look at the way some of us treat each other on social media.
Anyone that puts themselves out there and shows a little of themselves to the world is vulnerable to what can be pretty vicious and sometimes downright nasty attacks.
Research professor Brené Brown is brilliant in likening this to an arena: “If you’re not in the arena also getting your ass kicked, I’m not interested in your feedback.”
Imperfect is authentic
Back in March, New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern gave a national address about lockdown in a sweatshirt from home.
Free from worrying about flattering camera angles, delivering a word perfect script, or endless retakes, she just talks to us. It’s simple, authentic and thoroughly refreshing.
The key currency between any leader and the people they lead is trust. And authenticity is essential to trust.
Jacinda Ardern puts a huge deposit in her trust account with the people of New Zealand with this address for two key reasons - high levels of intimacy and low levels of self-orientation.
If Jacinda, as with many politicians, had been obsessed with 'demonstrating' her own reliability and credibility, the focus would have been entirely self-orientated.
This is a charge often levelled at politicians, the idea that “they don’t care about us, they just care about furthering their own interests.”
Jacinda’s reliability and credibility are essential, but instead of demonstrating them, she trusts that they’re there and focuses on the needs of her audience – providing reassurance and hope.
As for intimacy, this is all about how you deliver your message and how you make your audience feel.
Here, Jacinda isn’t focused on being anything that she isn’t or creating a facade of perfection. Her guard is down, she’s showing her full self and focusing on how she can help people.
Now that’s true leadership.
Leadership now and beyond
A few months ago, I wrote about how the coronavirus crisis and enforced remote working environment is forcing us to show more of ourselves.
Our communication over various mediums from home means there’s really no escape from showing who we really are.
The boxes we appear in on our video conference calls are serving as windows into our true selves – just like Jacinda Ardern in this video.
This authenticity is incredibly powerful and, crisis or no crisis, we need more of it – especially from our leaders.