Leadership isn’t about the leader, it’s about the ship

(This is the first in several posts about authentic leadership)

How can I be an authentic leader?

This is probably the question I get asked more than any other on leadership development programmes.

How can I adopt all these leadership behaviours you’re telling me about, act motivated when I feel deflated, pretend to support positions and decisions I don’t agree with, and at the same time call myself an “authentic” leader?

The thing is, it’s the wrong question to ask because “authenticity” isn’t the point.

Leaders who worry about being “authentic” are putting themselves in the centre and forgetting that leadership isn’t about them: leadership is about influencing and inspiring other people (other people who are our social equals and who shouldn’t have to put up with our crap) to do something.

The day you become a leader, it becomes about them

Jack Welch

Or to put it in a potentially brilliant (or potentially confusing) way: leadership isn’t about the leader, it’s about the ship.

So “authentic” is only good if it helps us influence and inspire others, it’s not necessarily good in itself.

In Venn diagram form:

This means that Person A is a poor leader despite being authentic.

They are unprofessional, quite possibly self-indulgent, and as they mistakenly seem to think we have to put with aspects of their “authentic self” which are unhelpful to leadership.

They are probably mistakenly thinking they are the star of the show and that leadership is all about them.

This approach might have some success when leading a cult, especially when backed up with a high level of competence (Steve Jobs maybe?), but it’s at best clumsy and exclusive (Donald Trump maybe?), most usually it’s ineffective and disrespectful.

Person B is the opposite.

Their leadership persona is faking it. They may be a square soulless corporate robot who goes through the leadership motions but brings no energy or humanity to it, or they may be the opposite, someone trying desperately to be super-charming but it’s all an act that we – as fellow humans with evolved social skills – can see right through.

They are also a poor leader because despite using some textbook leadership behaviours, they are failing to influence or inspire anyone – which, if you remember, is the whole point of it.

People want to be led by people they can connect with, not by robots or fakes.

Person C is in the happy place – the well-rounded leader.

Person C is someone who is bringing the useful parts of themselves to their leadership role, and they have the self-control to recognise which traits are unhelpful and they are (mostly) choosing not to use them. In addition, they have adopted leadership behaviours that they know are effective and they are using them skillfully, even if they’re not part of their authentic self.

Notice also that Person C is bigger than the other two.

This is because Person C has grown, they’ve reached beyond their “authentic self” and had the courage to develop into something bigger and better.

But John, you say … this means hiding part of who they are, and using behaviours that are not really that natural … so is this fake?


Well yes. A bit.

Yes and no.

Unless you’re a prima donna rock star who doesn’t need to try to get on with other people, we all have multiple personalities and will seamlessly switch between them depending on circumstances.

We are not the same person with our partner as we are with our boss. We behave differently with our close family behind closed doors than we do when we go into an unfamiliar social environment, or when we go to a church (or equivalent) or to a work conference or whatever … they are all parts of who we are, we are just bringing the relevant, useful, helpful bits of ourselves to whatever the circumstances require.

Some of these are more “authentic” than others – in the sense that they are less managed, less considered – but we judge it more important to control our fickle surface behaviours because we care more about a greater thing in that moment.

It’s more important for us to build the relationship with the colleague at work than trample all over their ideas. It’s more important to boost your child’s self-confidence and nurture their creativity than impatiently critique their latest crappy drawing of a boat because we’re tired and it’s really not a very good drawing of a boat … we subvert the “honest” reaction and replace it with a more useful response that feeds into a deeper value.

And this is the point … authentic leadership isn’t about you being yourself, it’s about you stepping up to being the leader you aspire to be that reflects your deeper values.

What do you want to stand for?

Who do you want to be remembered as?

What do you want people to say about you when you’re not there?

When you have an idea how to answer those questions, the challenge is to consistently behave as that leader you aspire to be, whether or not that is how your authentic self is feeling in that moment.

For all practical purposes, leading well is as simple as remembering to remain others-centered instead of self-centered

Brigadier General John E. Michel (in Harvard Business Review)

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