In this thought-provoking article, Keith cuts across many of the myths of modern leadership to suggest one attitude and one action that truly authentic and savvy leaders need to take more seriously than they do. He is concerned that chasing after the leadership “gurus” is part of the reason that there is a global leadership crisis, and suggests that humbly embarking on a journey may be the best response by those leaders that want to go the distance.

Leadership in a changing world is a complex task. It is certainly not for the faint-hearted and in the high pressure, media saturated context in which leaders lead, those not up to the task will be exposed.
Against this backdrop one has a chorus of ‘gurus’ proposing easy answers and quick fixes to the challenges faced by those in leadership. Whilst some of this may be helpful, I suspect the majority is not. Savvy leadership in today’s environment requires that a contemplative intentionality serves as the undertow to the leader’s actions and activity that sit at the surface. It is the work necessary to create such an undertow that is all too often glaringly lacking or sadly neglected. I want to suggest one essential attitude and one essential action that leaders need to cultivate if they are to develop authentic or savvy leadership.

The one essential attitude of the savvy leader

In his book Good to Great Jim Collins explores what it takes to be an effective leader. His research reveals a certain type or brand of leadership that has seemingly proved to be effective across a range of corporate environments. The term he gives to such leadership is, ‘Level 5’ leadership. Collins maintains that Level 5 leadership comprises of two main ingredients: ‘professional will’ and ‘humility’. While ‘professional will’ is easy to understand and has been the focus of copious leadership writings, ‘humility’ sits uneasily in the leadership lexicon. Not much has been said on the subject of humility in the course of corporate leadership discussions and if it is mentioned, then the ‘how to’ scribes have been conspicuous by their silence on the subject. In fact if one is to explore and engage with the subject of humility, then consultation with those who write in the area of spirituality is needed.
Furthermore, besides the deafening silence on the subject within leadership texts, I have encountered a real unease and discomfort on the part of those in leadership to engage with such a concept. The squirming that takes place when the subject is broached is as though the CEO has suddenly acquired a scratchy shirt that covers an itchy rash! It is foreign to what they know. So much of what they have been taught; of what they have come to believe; and what they have practiced, has stood in stark contrast to the message of ‘humility in leadership’. This is further compounded when doing it their way has brought success.
As conversations around humility falter, in part because it represents such unfamiliar territory and in part because it encounters a leadership world transfixed by a ‘how to’ mentality, a different approach is required.
In his book Deep Survival Laurence Gonzales explores why, in the face of great adventure challenges, some live and others die. It is compelling reading and captures some epic survival stories. In his research Gonzales uncovers an intriguing thread which, in the face of the challenges encountered, seems contrary to what you would expect to find. In many of the cases studied, Gonzales discovered that the ‘expert’ is not always the one who survives. It would seem that the reason for this is that the expert is often closed to new (and often life-saving) information. To make sense of this, Gonzales likens it to the Zen teaching (I bet that at the mere mention of ‘Zen’ you can you feel that itch getting worse!) which is – that in much the same way that it is impossible to add anything more to a glass that is already full, so is it impossible to ‘add too’ a mind that doesn’t feel that there is anything else to learn. It is indicative of the attitude that says, “I already knowâ€?. When that attitude exists it represents a blockade against new information and experimentation. Before we dismiss the ‘expert’ and distance ourselves from such an obvious pitfall, it is worth noting that researchers point out that most of us only tend to accept and absorb new information that confirms our existing mental models of the world – the way we understand things to work. In this sense we are invariable all our own ‘worse expert’! Leaders who find themselves at the top of the pile invariably exhibit this tendency and ironically often pride themselves in their, “I already knowâ€? attitude.
The antithesis of this is what Gonzales refers to as the quality of, ‘openness’. Survival instructors often refer to that quality of openness as “humility�.
And so the link is made!
Humility can be explained in terms of openness. Open to new ideas, new information, new ways of doing things…open to learning and a commitment to being a Learner! Side by side with this attitude is accepting that it is never a shortage of teachers that inhibits our learning but only our lack of openness to the teachers that surround us every day. Suddenly ‘humility’ takes on a more tangible form and is now something we can converse about and explore in the daily reality and context of leadership. What a thrill to encounter and engage with senior leaders who are figuratively marked by a big red letter ‘L’ – usually indicating a ‘learner driver’ but in this case the signal of a ‘learner leader’.
I have a good friend who leads a leadership school that grooms leaders from throughout Asia Pacific who feels that ‘openness’ is a poor substitute for the richness and depth that is ‘humility’. And I for one would agree with him. However, in spite of its shortcomings, it is a good platform on which to build in a corporate leadership world blinded to its own need for such a quality and alarmingly impoverished in its understanding of an attitude that is essential to savvy leadership. It is a core characteristic that has been eroded over time by a false understanding of what leadership is and how it should be practiced.
A Financial Director within the Massmart Group told me of a recent experience he, and several colleagues had on a trip to the United States where they spent time looking at the Wal-Mart set-up. At the conclusion of their two week visit they got to spend some time with Lee Scott, CEO of Wal-Mart. Scott walked into the room and his opening comment was a question as to what they thought Wal-Mart could improve on now that they had seen something of the business. “I was stunned,â€? said the Financial Director. “Here was the CEO of the biggest company in the world, asking us what he could learn!â€? Nor would it seem that Scott would accept the respectful silence that greeted his question…he really did want to learn from them as to how his company could improve as so pressed them for some suggestions.
Now that is openness!

The one essential action of the savvy leader

Actions stem from attitudes – we all know and understand that reality and therefore accept the importance of cultivating sound attitudes. Our attitudes are also something for which we can always take full responsibility but that is best left for another discussion on another day! But what then is the one essential action that savvy leaders need to embrace as they exercise their leadership? Well for those wanting something that they can immediately run out and ‘do’ – you will be disappointed with what I am about to suggest. The ‘action’ of which I speak, is really more of an ‘active process’ – the commitment to a journey, but one which involves some very concrete actions to be taken.
The action is that of undertaking a journey. It is a journey towards realising your ‘true self’ as you explore and exercise leadership. At this point I can almost hear some of you say with some exasperation: “First ‘humility’ and now talk of ‘true self’!� (and now that shirt is really itchy!). But I am serious and so allow me to explain what I am getting at here. This ‘action’ step – or rather steps, is no abstract, no hypothetical concept but is rather a tangible undertaking that marks authentic leadership.
Authentic leadership is more about the ‘character ethic’ than it is about being driven by an extrovert, charismatic personality. This is a leadership shift that is currently happening and is one further fuelled by the findings and research of Collins and others. What it means is that ‘leadership skills’ will take a backseat to ‘character development’ in the art of grooming and growing savvy leaders. It means that ‘process’ will pre-empt ‘content’ and ‘programmes’ in creating the environment where leadership can be nurtured and developed.
An action that underpins this seismic shift is the leader’s willingness to embark on this journey. Journeys are not conceptual things or the matter of theoretical discussions for if they remain such, they are not journeys. Journeys are marked by action, movement, hard work, endurance, energy and ever present possibility of getting lost. The essential journey for the savvy leader is one towards his or her ‘true self’. It is grounded by asking the basic question “Who am I?� – not, as some abstract exercise, but with all the attention and urgency of real life. Reclaiming and embracing ‘who I am’ – it is a commitment to living an undivided life where there is an ease and flow to how our inner world and our outer worlds engage and relate. In his book A Hidden Wholeness Parker Palmer likens this reality to that of a Mobuis strip in which there seems to be no ‘outside’ and no ‘inside’ – where the two apparent sides keep merging with one another. He points out that all of the great spiritual traditions alert us to the awakening that we co-create the reality in which we live. Certainly this was the heartbeat of Stephen Covey’s message in The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People as he drew on Victor Frankl and others in articulating this powerful principle.
Palmer suggests that two questions are embedded in this entwined collaboration between the inner and outer self. The first is: ‘What are we sending from within ourselves out into the world and what impact is it having out there? And the second is: ‘What is the world sending back at us and what impact is it having in here? The journey that takes us in an exploration of these questions is the road to authentic leadership. The ‘doing’ part of the journey becomes, at some point, a ‘being’ – hard to explain but knowable by all who encounter such a life.
Who then are to be our ‘instructors’ – our teachers, in this action initiated journey? I would like to suggest that when the topic is ‘true self’ – that children are our best source for learning. Who hasn’t experienced the magical encounter with children unspoilt by the growing-up process! This is the subject of my book, ‘Everything I know about leadership I learnt from the kids’ and of course the wonderful thing about such learning is that it is not hard to find – if only we are open to it!
Keith Coats is the founder of, a consultancy that aims to assist leaders around the world to become “savvy leaders�. Keith can be contacted at .

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