Does Anyone Know How to Get to the Moon?

By: Steven A. Murphy, Ph.D., Associate Dean (Research & External), Sprott School of Business, Carleton University, author, and facilitator of Excellence Canada’s Thought Leaders Roundtable

November 2011

At the Excellence Canada Thought Leaders Roundtable, recently convened in Toronto, 33 senior executives came together to discuss leadership in Canada.  The session led to both powerful insights into current practice and how firms might position themselves to lead for a more prosperous Canada.

One of the opening themes reflected the collective desire of the group to reestablish trust in Canada’s institutions (in all sectors).  There was an acknowledgement that trust would be central to gaining any sustained leadership position.  In the wake of corporate scandals, and living in an information age that barrages all of us with messages (some of which seem less than genuine), there was the belief that now, more than ever, we’re looking for humanity and authenticity in our leaders.

One participant expressed this sentiment in stating, “because there is nothing else that is actually sustainable anymore, because everything is changing too quickly.  I think people are drawn to authentic conversation.”  In a similar vein another participant placed the need for authenticity within the broader context of change within their organization:  “I think of leadership in the last five years and if you don’t know yourself you can’t be authentic, and everything else around you and everything about the people who are watching what you do – above and below - is changing as well.”

But what did participants think actually comprised authentic leadership?  An “authenticity that allows leaders to uphold values despite whims of external forces that might challenge integrity” linked the concept very tangibly for participants to core values and organizational mission.  As one participant stated, top executives must “…operate as essentially a chief visionary, by establishing a consistent focus on vision.”

So, given that authenticity encompassed vision and mission, a key question became how one communicates authentically?  A participant put the challenge this way: “People are looking to you to make sense of that [turbulence] in your organization.  The message may be different but the information needs to be put into focus and framed so that … they have the ability to develop themselves and engage the organization.”  Framing allows leaders to address different audiences in ways that resonate with them (to their audience), and in a manner that feels authentic (to both).  In paraphrasing a well-known leader, one participant reminded the group of the importance of continuous communication as a fundamental aspect of authentic leadership.  “Communicate. Communicate, communicate - until you feel nauseous you are just starting...” 

Likely wise words, but the group was also aware that in order for communications to be truly meaningful, a leader has to establish trust, and reestablish trust as a relational space that is ever changing.  One participant, in discussing ways to build this kind of trust, in an authentic fashion, believed it would entail “taking your past experience and sharing signs of growth you have seen in yourself – linked to vulnerability…your stories of yourself open yourself up and show others that you can grow and move forward and that makes it ok for them to do the same thing.”  So part of establishing trust for authentic leaders is showing vulnerability when and where appropriate in an effort to demonstrate their humanness.  As one participant noted, authenticity resonates with people and prompts us to “follow that person [or] I’ll listen to that person, or the conversation is influencing me because that’s authentic.”  There was a very tangible sense that we are very cognizant of the authentic in our lives because it is the exception, rather than the rule.

So why should organizations care?  Is this just another way of singing kumbaya?  What tangible outcomes are derived from authentic leadership?  Well, the first could be the costs associated with pretending to be something we’re not.  As one participant reflected on the daily choices of whether or not to act authentically, they poignantly stated that they possessed the tools to “… get through these [daily interactions] but maybe it is at a higher price to put on the show.”  So, first off, there was a sense that inauthenticity has a cost. 

Many of the executive participants did not stop there, however, and went on to express their views of how authenticity might impact organizational outcomes.  One participant stated that an organization led by authentic leaders would create “a higher level of engagement, which almost inevitably leads to better results, higher customer satisfaction, better growth and better bottom line at the end of the day.”  The participants were convinced of this authenticity-performance link, and one participant spoke specifically of this phenomena in senior leadership dynamics, “leadership teams that are truly effective are true to themselves and you get much more idea generation.”

So, then the core question becomes, ‘what is it about authentic organizations that allows them to be more engaged and creative?’  Participants had strong views that learning from (and even encouraging) failure was a core differentiator.  One participant spoke about how authentic leadership may lead to reframing failure.  “Typically, leaders who are true to themselves, know themselves and are honest with themselves tend to recognize failure more quickly than people who put on a front.”  The value proposition is in “recognizing the education and learning value of failure.  Failure in and of itself need not be a source of fear or doubt.  It can often be an enabler for long term success.”  And while many leaders may readily agree with such a proposition, all participants acknowledged that putting it into practice was harder said than done, and there was tremendous value seen in any culture that “embraces the reality that breakthrough ideas can come from anywhere.”

If we buy into notions of authentic leadership, what can people and organizations do to become more authentic?  As one participant noted, “How do I maintain authenticity in an organization that doesn’t necessarily value authenticity?”  Indeed, it may sometimes seem like there are only small islands of authenticity in a sea of disingenuous behaviour.  Or even if one embraces authenticity there is a harsh realization that “there are not too many programs that teach you how to develop your inner life.”  Indeed there are not, at least not one’s that systematically speak to the realities faced in the daily pressures of an executive life.

Despite the challenges in fostering, training and retaining a more authentic workforce there was still a sense that being more authentic “makes it possible for my people to succeed.”  However, being more authentic is a path that requires careful modeling, as employees look above them for cues of organizational behaviour and conduct.  Participants were quick to place authenticity within the context of their role as leaders.  One of the pitfalls of leadership is that “leaders get in trouble when they try to make everyone happy…” so accepting that acting authentically won’t resonate for all employees, or may have to be developed in stages, was seen to be a reality of our complex organizations and the ways in which we currently relate to one another.

The final message conveyed by the group was perhaps the most powerful.  It is the heartfelt notion that “human beings are at their best when they serve something greater than themselves.”  In an age looking for more authentic interaction, the notion of servant leaders has gained much traction.  This group went beyond traditional views of servant leadership and suggested that a leader must embody the vision of the organization and be prepared to take chances in acting authentically with the various stakeholder constituents that comprise any organization.

As a closing example of authenticity, and its cascading potential, one participant recalled a story where, “legend had it that there was a media group that were trying to interview some people in Houston at NASA headquarters.  There was so much secrecy and as they walked through the corridors, and there was no one around – everyone had been sequestered behind the concrete cinderblock walls.  The only person the journalists found was the janitor who was sweeping the floor.  They stuck the mic in front of this janitor and asked, ‘You’re the only one here so tell us what you do at NASA?’  They thought they would get at the tactical level and perhaps produce a public interest story.  Without blinking the custodian said, ‘My job is to take a man to the moon.’” 

What is your organization’s ‘moon’, and how will you help bring your people there?

Related Links: