Seeking authentic leadership

What is authentic leadership? It may be hard to describe, but you can sure smell it when it’s faked.  Increasingly, it’s a […]

What is authentic leadership? It may be hard to describe, but you can sure smell it when it’s faked.  Increasingly, it’s a quality that we’re looking for in our corporate and political leaders.

It’s a fair bet that when you ask someone what characteristics they want to see in their leaders AUTHENTICITY is near the top. This goes for all leaders – men and women – whether in politics, corporates, public sector or community and service associations. Other key attributes suggested by leadership specialists are emotional intelligence, communication skills, confidence, a positive attitude, intuition, delegation skills and someone who is approachable.

A decline in trust

Last week the 2018 Edelman Trust Barometer, which measures public trust in our main institutions reported that Australians’ trust in government at an all-time low.  Trust in business and the media also declined with Australia being in the bottom third of 28 countries surveyed.

Why is trust in government so low? Maybe Australians are sick and tired of the political dramas of recent years. The still-unfolding citizenship saga, party infighting and the infamous postal survey on marriage equality have taken their toll.

It’s left us hungry for authentic leadership, in both our political and corporate institutions.

We seek people who stand for something, who have values that they back up with actions; people who walk their talk.

Authentic leadership in political leaders

Can there be such a thing as an honest politician? While some may see this as a rhetorical question, wrapped around an oxymoron, your answer provides an insight to what you value in your own leadership behaviour.

Australians are known for their laid-back approach to politics. Not having had civil wars where we have had to fight for the right to vote or bloody battles over democracy will do that to a nation.

Despite the entreaty by political satirist P. J. O’Rourke to ‘Don’t vote; it just encourages the bastards’, we are a compliant lot. We obey our compulsory voting laws, regularly trot off to elections and obligingly number the boxes on voting forms in the hope that we will elect politicians who inspire us and do the right thing as leaders of our Councils, State Governments and our nation.

On first impressions, we are often prepared to give political candidates a ‘fair go’.

We assume people will be honest. That they will act with integrity.

After all, they are running for public office, so aren’t they holding themselves up to a higher standard than the rest of us?

And even if once elected, they are not perfect, we generally cut our politicians a lot of slack. We might not like it, but when we are told an election promise is being dropped because it is ‘non-core’ or ‘there will be no carbon tax’ or ‘no higher taxes’ we sigh and sort of expect it. If they do something wrong or stuff up, as long as they take responsibility and apologise, we (mostly) forgive them.

Don’t cross the line

However, there is a line in the sand of what Australians will and will not accept from our leaders.

When faced with dishonest, lying and hypocritical behaviour our ‘bull-shit radar’ goes up.

We can smell when someone is being deceptive, and we don’t like it. As a result, that person loses respect, and may even become an object of ridicule. If they are a politician, it becomes very hard for them to survive or get re-elected. If they are a manager, they risk losing the loyalty of employees.

Unfortunately, we can all point to examples of leaders in organisations and from both sides of politics where integrity, trustworthiness and honesty have been discarded for expediency or self-interest.

3 things we want in our leaders

Think of an authentic leader you admire (past or present) in political life, corporate Australia or the public service. What were their qualities that demonstrated integrity? I suggest that there are three essential aspects of someone’s character that makes them an authentic leader:

  • Authentic leaders have clear values. They are principled.
  • Authentic leaders stand for something and have standards about what is right and wrong. They are ethical.
  • Authentic leaders use their values to guide their actions – that is, the decisions they make, the way they behave and how they engage with others. They are consistent

Authentic leaders ‘walk their talk’; even when no one is watching. Because that’s who they are.   

We need more, authentic leaders

In a time of declining trust and increasing disappointment in Australian politics and business, it’s time we had more leaders that display integrity through their actions.

The Harvard Business Review has said that ‘Authenticity has become the gold standard for leadership.’ Thankfully, there are people meeting that standard. For inspiration, check out Victor Perton’s Australian Leadership Project which has a mission to “Celebrate, Understand and Improve Australian leadership” and includes hundreds of interviews with Australian Leaders.

Perhaps you may be lucky enough to work with, or be represented by, an authentic leader? What is it that inspires you about their values, behaviour and action?

Ruth McGowan OAM is an experienced political campaigner at a local and federal level and is a passionate supporter of authentic community leaders standing for public office. She works as a consultant in local government and is a gender equity advocate. Ruth is currently writing a book to assist candidates to Get Elected to public office. 

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