Authentic Leadership : The CEO Challenge – being, not just doing

While CEOs know they impact on the organisation they lead, many may not realise just how profound that impact is. They set the tone for management and staff in terms of their engagement, openness, optimism and discretionary effort. The value of this should not be underestimated – particularly in this challenging business climate. When CEO is being truly effective they can get up to 70 percent improvement in the performance of their people through increased engagement and effort.
What’s becoming increasingly evident is that this level of success depends less on what an organisational leader might do or say but how they model the behaviour they want. The health, well-being and sustainable success of CEO and their organisation relies much more heavily on who the CEO is being rather than what he or she is doing.
The CEO who is true to himself or herself and whose leadership is real will see significant benefits; for those whose leadership is out of sync with who they are, the costs – both personal and organisational – are high. And it seems lot of local businesses could be paying the price.
A 2007 study conducted by the University of Auckland Business School of nearly 1000 New Zealand businesses, found only 37.4 percent of respondents judged their leaders as regularly displaying “authentic leadership” behaviours.
The study report, ‘More Right than Real: the shape of authentic leadership in New Zealand’, defined these behaviours as encompassing self awareness, balanced information processing, moral and ethical perspective and relational transparency. It notes that authentic leadership is about “owning one’s personal experiences (values, thoughts, emotions and beliefs), and acting in accordance with your true self”.
By making the connection between low levels of authentic leadership and its negative impact on workforce morale, engagement, creativity and innovation, the survey also identifies real opportunity for CEOs to further unlock their potential and the potential of their organisation.
While the surgeon uses scalpel to ply their trade (and there may be occasions when leaders would like to do the same!), the CEO toolkit encompasses every aspect of self and all this needs to be applied congruently in the context of the business and its people. The more CEO can be true to their own value sets and to lead with heart as well as mind, the more commitment and trust they will encourage, the more they will connect with and inspire those who work for them and the more fulfilment and success will result.
Sometimes the path to being appointed as leader requires strong achievement orientation – but being successful in that lead role also requires you to utilise some of your softer more feminine traits such as receptiveness and flexibility. Take the situation with client we will call Barry. The biggest challenge in the business he was leading was lack of ownership by his management team in terms of driving their business growth strategy.
On reflection, it became evident to him that this lack of buy-in was because some senior managers had concerns about the way the strategy would be applied, but had not felt comfortable voicing those concerns to Barry. Once he realised those concerns needed to be taken into account, he revisited the issue, making it clear his original approach had not been ideal and that he now wanted to hear their views – particularly those at variance with his own. These he listened to with both ears wide open.
Ultimately the adjustments made to the strategy implementation were useful but minor. However the impact on senior managers’ commitment and ownership of the strategy was significant. Barry has subsequently adopted more open and receptive style of communication in all dealings with his team. He recognised, to his great relief, that being the CEO did not always involve being the teacher, it sometimes involved being the student.
It’s important to note that operating with authenticity does not mean being infallible, it means being human. It’s about recognising where things are working and where things have gone wrong, acknowledging what’s happened and doing what needs to be done to rectify the situation.
Developing truer, more authentic leadership requires patience, courage and commitment. There is no one-size-fits-all for excellence in leadership – your leadership style will be unique to you. It is less about building new capability, as uncovering and bringing out more of the capability that’s already there.
Many leadership development initiatives work from an outside-in perspective – what competencies do we need and let’s build those. Developing authentic leadership, however, occurs from the inside out. In order to get the best for and from others and the organisation, you must first know and understand how to get the best for and from yourself.
So how can you go about further developing and harnessing your true leadership? Here are some of the key phases towards lightening the leadership load:

1 Self-awareness and management

Further understand your own values, preferences, strengths and weaknesses, both from your own and others’ perspectives. This awareness, at behavioural, mental and emotional level, provides strong foundation for you to get the best from yourself and is also necessary for the emotional self management so essential to CEO success.

2 Commitment to leadership development

Be prepared to build on and further utilise your strengths, be aware of your weaknesses and grow as leader. Sustainable business growth occurs largely as result of growing the people that make up the organisation. CEO has the opportunity to be powerful exemplar of that – being open and committed to your own development builds leadership credibility.

3 Relationship awareness and development

A large part of the CEO’s role is about inspiring people, both inside and outside the organisation. This involves genuinely caring for and understanding those people, relating effectively with them, supporting them, tapping into their motivation and asking lot of them in ways that achieve win/win solutions and results for them and the organisation.

4 Business vision, values and purpose

When CEOs are engaging both heart and mind, managers and staff find it more compelling to connect with them and contribute to, or buy into, the vision, values and purpose of the business. As the CEO develops great leadership team, plays to the strengths of that team and models the appropriate values and behaviours, team members become more engaged and deliver more of the discretionary attitude and performance required to lead staff satisfaction and business success. Conversely vision, values or team charters are worthless as wall hangings if not lived by executives.

5 Feedback loop

Authentic leaders know their success as CEO requires ongoing honest (not sugar-coated) feedback. They encourage and elicit timely feedback in terms of their leadership performance and behaviours, and look for input in regard to any key business decisions. Being genuinely open to this input and feedback positively impacts managers and the culture of the organisation by encouraging honesty and trust, and reducing the need for the behind-the-scenes agendas and dynamics that can be so debilitating to organisational cohesion.
In difficult economic environment we are presented with significant leadership challenge – one where the commitment required is justified by the rewards available. CEOs who continually strive for personal mastery are essential – essential to business growth, essential as role models for aspiring leaders, and essential to our wider business community.
It’s worth asking: who are you being as leader? Are you comfortable that you are being true to yourself? If you wake in sweat in the middle of the night, is it because of market conditions, or is it related to feeling that you are not o

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