Leadership - Get Real?


Last week, I have had the privilege of telephone coaching some great managers from all over the World, but all working for the same large Pharma company. I always find I benefit as much from my interactions with my coachees as I hope, they benefit from my coaching. On this occasion, I was introduced to a new 2x2 matrix I had not seen before. It is by Joseph Pine and relates to the customer experience of organisations.

I always process new ideas and ask myself does this work ‘in the real world' andhow can I apply it?. So whilst I can absolutely see this model being useful and applicable at the organisational level, to me the starting point was much closer to home and it was in respect of the leaders of those organisations that I feel it most applies. Is what you see real? Are our leaders and are we as leaders in our own right being authentic?

Much has been written recently on authentic leadership like it is the latest thing. It is not the latest thing in leadership it is the only thing and has been described clearly since the invention of the written word. Be it Sun Tsu or Lao Tsu; or as Pine himself quotes: Shakespeare"to your own self be true" or in more recent times Kipling or Eisenhower "Leadership is plain you", the list is endless. Each writer refers to being real not fake. Being you and not putting on an act. People judge us not on what we say, nor what we feel or think, but on what we do. This is perhaps best described in Pines's 2x2 Matrix as: Real/Real. Where the leader is true to themselves and on the other axis They are what they say they are.

The Authentic or Real /Real box is easy to fill with great leaders. For me, politics aside and it is always subjective but, the likes of Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela, Aung San Suu Kyi, Gandhi or Malala Yousafzai fit easily. Many leaders in business I have worked with would also be easy to place in this box. Would Steve Jobs or Richard Branson be here?

“I prefer to surround myself with people who reveal their imperfection, rather than people who fake their perfection.”

Charles F. Glassman

More interesting perhaps, is what goes on in the other boxes. At this point I must declare that I have also being following the US Presidential nominations with interest and foreboding. It came to mind straight away when looking at the matrix. Where would one place Donald Trump or Hilary Clinton? Real/ Real? Fake/Real, Real/Fake or worse still Fake/Fake!

Past Presidents also make for interesting discussion Where would you place JFK, Clinton W, Bush Snr/Jnr, Nixon or Obama? How about other Heads of State: Blair, Brown, Cameron, Merkel, Putin. I had a lot of fun filling in the boxes but won’t be publishing my views here! (I watched the Netflix documentary ‘Making a Murderer’)

“life is too short for fake butter or fake people.”

Karen Salmansohn

Closer to home. Have any of us been there? As a coach I see many people in leadership roles who feel like fakes. They are struggling in their head with who they really are and wondering how they got into the position they are in. Fearing that they will be caught out, that they will be exposed as not having all the answers or that something in their past will come back and bite them.

On reflection, I think we may visit all the boxes, be it pretending to be a great leader in childhood games through to that promotion into a leadership role where we feel a fraud because we don’t know yet quite what is required of us. I remember working with some 6th formers some years ago and asking the Captain of the 1st XV how he became Captain and what his responsibilities were? The only thing he was told was “Smith you are the best player.You’re Captain!” Did he know what to do how to act or what success looks like. No he found himself in the Fake /Real box. Not really a proper captain but doing his best and being true to himself.

As a young Royal Marine Officer straight out of training, I was given a troop of 32 young men to lead, most of whom, despite being a similar age were battle hardened veterans of the Falklands War. How much of a fake did I feel? Despite a year of perhaps the best leadership training in the World I still did not feel I was what I said I was - a leader.

Later in my career I, visited the other box -the Real/ Fake box. Some might recognize this as a ‘Mid life crisis’, where you find yourself deeply unhappy and not feeling true to self. Yes, perhaps you are successful. Yes, you have most, if not all you want but something is missing. For me I knew something had to change but felt trapped. For many of us it is an event or catalyst that helps you move forward. The change for me was the death of my father and the realization that I had subconsciously been following his path to success and not my own. Finally, and I know it sounds dreadful, I found myself no longer burdened by thinking 'would Dad approve' of this career choice or that decision. At the ripe old age of 35, I at last grew into my own skin and felt Real/Real for the first time. I recognized my strengths and more importantly my failings and finally followed my own course. Today I am happy I have found my own true north, I am following my own path and comfortable with the decisions and actions I take and it feels fantastic.

Every week I meet leaders in the same position. They know something is not right and they feel they need to change. Whether it is fear of exposure or the perception that they cannot show weakness or something else, you can sense that they are driving themselves or worse others to the edge. What is most concerning is that the more senior the leader, the worse it appears to be. I call this the psychosis of leadership. The higher up the tree the more exposed you feel and the harder to admit you are human and don’t have all the answers. So to all of you type A, achievement driven, 'too big to fail' bosses out there – get real!

If you do, you will be happier and more comfortable in yourself and you will be more believable and approachable to the rest of us mere mortals. Your congruence and confidence will shine through and we will follow you, not out of sheer curiosity, not because we have to, but because we want to.

“Share your weaknesses. Share your hard moments. Share your real side. It'll either scare away every fake person in your life or it will inspire them to finally let go of that mirage called "perfection," which will open the doors to the most important relationships you'll ever be a part of.”

Dan Pearce

So as the week begins why not switch off the mobile, close the laptop and take a stock check? Where do I sit currently in the matrix? Where do I want to be and how do I get there?

If you have not already got a coach, or a confidant you can share the burdens of office with consider getting one. Don't leave it to the point the coach should be a counsellor! Have a good week being real!

Gordon Mackenzie MBA FCIPD

Most training providers will give you a theory of leadership; many will give you examples of leadership from history, very few actually give you access to leadership. At Performance First, we insist on high mileage in terms of experience. We want you to learn from our mistakes, to inspire you, coach you and help to bring leadership alive and make it real for you and transform the lives of the people and organisations you lead.


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