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So, what is authentic leadership?

I’ve been reading Bill George’s True North, the follow-up to his book Authentic Leadership. So, what is an ‘authentic leader?’ According to George, an authentic leader has found his or her inner voice and remains true to it. This is Warren Bennis stuff, for anyone who’s read Bennis. And it’s no surprise True North is part of the ‘Warren Bennis Signature Series’ imprint. George echoes the Dean of Leadership (as the FT calls Bennis), when he says that true authentic leaders have often (but not always) been through an extremely tough experience that reveals their true nature to themselves – the death of a loved one, bankruptcy, overcoming serious illness.

Bennis observed that authentic leaders are often forged in the crucible of overcoming adversity, whether as a child or later in their career. This echoes Hemingway’s “The world breaks all of us. But some are strong at the broken places.” And it plays to the heroic, romantic leadership model, even if unintentionally.

We tend to have an archetype in our head of leaders as infallible, certain of where they are going, moving from success to success. Even George’s phrase ‘True North’ reinforces that image. But, great leaders – authentic leaders – often don’t feel that way when they are in the middle of achieving great things.

Anne Mulcahy, the CEO credited with rescuing Xerox from its downward spiral, is a case in point. The emotional roller coaster of trying to keep people at Xerox motivated and pull the company back from the brink was so draining that, at one point, Mulcahy described to George, she was on the way home, drained, and had to pull over to the side of the road. She sat there, temporarily unable to move, and said to herself, “I don’t know where to go. I don’t want to go home. There’s just no place to go.”

The boxer Jack Dempsey once supposedly said champions get up when they can’t. Dempsey would have said, Mulcahey ‘got up when she couldn’t’. And she is now widely praised as the woman who saved Xerox (a claim she would herself deny, as she credits a lot of people at Xerox with saving the company). That’s the test of an authentic leader, says George.

And, of course it applies to people at all levels, not just the top of an organisation. You lead your own life by refusing to be knocked out of shape and by getting up when you are knocked down.

The over-riding impression of an ‘authentic leader’ from True North is of a leader in George’s own image: he was a brilliant, empathetic leader at Medtronic (inventor of the pacemaker), which he grew by encouraging leadership at all levels, driven by the higher purpose of saving lives. The 125 leaders he profiled for his research into authentic leaders tend to be like that, too, kind of tough but fair benevolent teacher/leader figures.

Which raises the question: is an apparently autocratic, empathy-lite leader such as the UK’s Alan Sugar or Rupert Murdoch an authentic leader? Of course they are, in the sense that they are honest and true to themselves. What you see is what you get. But, I’m not sure either of them have been through the deep inner journey of enlightenment and understanding self and others that Bill George says is necessary to be an authentic leader.

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