In TomorrowToday we have two capstones in our approach to leadership, namely:
(1) Leadership is always context specific and,
(2) You lead out of who you are.
Context always defines leadership and a lot of the work we are invited to do as TomorrowToday involves helping our client frame their context. It is fundamental in exploring what it means to be a ‘futurefit’ leader or organisation. Context is multi-dimensional and includes the situation at hand, your geographical location, your sector, industry, and business. Context also extends all the way to the complexity of understanding the cultural nuances that impact your external and internal realities. Author and leadership commentator, Max De Pree said that, “the first responsibility of a leader is to define reality” – we believe that this undertaking starts with framing the context.
But, it is not about context that I want to write. It is about the second of our leadership principles, namely, that you ‘lead out of who you are’.
Another way to put this second principle is to label it, ‘authentic leadership’. In other words it is a leadership practice that emerges from who the person is – it is about being true to oneself. This is to work with the ‘purest’ (psychological) definition of understanding what ‘authentic’ means. It is the degree to which one is true to one’s own personality, spirit or character. From here conversation turns to the importance of the ‘character ethic’ in leadership as opposed to merely seeing leadership as a set of ‘skills to be mastered’ (as important as certain skill-set are to effective leadership).
This understanding of what we (TomorrowToday) mean by ‘authentic’ is important as there is a popular understanding of ‘authentic leadership’ as being an approach to leadership that focuses on the importance of honest relationships, being positive, truthful, ethical and open. It is a focus on the actions of the leader without an empirical link to the inner state or character of the leader. In this approach there is often (but not always) the unspoken assumption that such external attributes are entirely attainable regardless of the quality of the ‘inner life’. It is an emphasis that alludes to these characteristics being possible without paying attention to the interior work needed to produce such attributes.
The problem with this view on ‘authentic leadership’ is that it creates a dichotomy between the source and the results; between the character and the characteristics that in real life is simply not possible. The inner (life) always determines the outer (life); the quality of the soil determines the crop – and ultimately this correlation is always substantiated over the passage of time. Our understanding then of what it means to be ‘authentic’ is not to be confused with this popular contemporary interpretation of ‘authentic leadership’.
Authentic leadership holds that the character ethic involved in shaping leadership practice is all-important. In teaching (and learning) leadership it means paying intentional attention to the formation and development of character. It means guarding one’s soul and building robust habits that nurture and feed this soul-development. This is not to suggest that external skills linked to effective leadership should be neglected or ignored but rather it is to recognise and build a bridge between the internal and the external. This bridge is called, ‘integrity’. The word ‘integrity’ stems from the Latin adjective ‘integer’ or ‘integitas’ meaning whole or complete. In this context, integrity is the inner sense of ‘wholeness’ deriving from qualities such as honesty and consistency of character. In other words ‘integrity’ (a much overused and devalued word in today’s leadership / business conversation) is simply ‘living out what is within’.
Of course the corollary to this is that the surest indication of what is ‘within’ a person – the condition of their character, is to simply observe their actions and pay attention to their words. This causal link between one’s ‘fruits’ and one’s true character is well established across various religious / wisdom writings. It provides opportunity to ‘judge’ character by discernable outer actions and words.
What does this all mean for and have to do with the Trump presidency?
The dilemma I have had as I have watched Trump’s rise to the highest leadership office in America and arguably the world is, what does this mean for those (myself included) who extol the ‘character ethic’ as necessary for leadership?
The one comment that has stuck with me along this trail of devastation was something a distraught mother said in response to Trump’s success: “what do I now tell my daughter as to what it takes to be a leader and what means to respect herself as a women?” The implication is if someone like Trump can succeed given his discernable behaviour and words then why bother paying attention to the character ethic in leadership development?
I find this a haunting question. It is also a question to which I don’t yet have a fully articulated response but one that I suspect is desperately needed!
By my yardstick, Trump is an, ‘authentic leader’. He has been true to himself and it would seem has succeeded in spite of ignoring or neglecting some fundamental values and beliefs that I believe are necessary for leadership. The lazy or easy default response would be to simply excuse this away by pointing to the many despot dictators and leaders that litter history and point out that (authentic) leadership can emerge irrespective of the moral or ethical undertow. That of course is true. But, we are talking here about the most powerful democracy in the world, the benchmark of western values and the world’s most powerful country. We are talking here about the leadership position that is the Presidency of the United States.
‘Why bother with what matters most?’ I know will be a question posed in the leadership discussion and for the coup de gras…’just look at Trump’.
What would be your response?