The current toxic and populist environment may lead someone to the conclusion that "soft" leadership is a thing of the past. Clearly, a harsher tone, a general disregard of facts and a barrage of unsubstantiated and even harmful statements seem to be the new norm of individuals in extremely powerful leadership positions. However, I don't think this trend and its impact on leadership are sustainable. I am still a strong believer that authentic leadership makes all the difference in the world.
Authentic leadership has 3 parts. Part 1 is all about the strengths of capabilities shaped by diverse experiences and a process of continuous learning. It is all about competence and maybe more specifically about a person's fundamental trait in diagnostic and strategic thinking and the ability to operate with a high level of conviction and confidence. When I was in my early twenties, I had the opportunity to work in the cruise line industry traveling the world. One day our massive ship stranded on a sandbank and we were stuck for days. Many different operations were tried to get the ship off the sandbank without success. Then a Norwegian captain was flown in. He took a few minutes to survey the situation, talked to some of the engineers and proceeded to issue several commands and the 70,000 ton-vessel simply slipped of the sandbank. He thanked everyone on the bridge and was gone by helicopter. He spent less than an hour on the ship. When I think about competence in a leader, I think about the Norwegian captain. He instilled confidence by knowing exactly what to do. Part 1, basically, is all about substance!
Authentic leadership Part 2 deals with a leader's ability to make a meaningful connection. There is a multi-dimensional aspect to this - both vertical and horizontal. From a vertical perspective an authentic leader has the ability to motivate, delegate and direct and at the same time from a horizontal perspective the ability to collaborate, negotiate and generate trust. I have observed many leaders who are good at one but not the other. Early in my career, I worked for a hard-charging and very demanding boss. He was really good in delegating and directing work efforts. It was extremely motivating to work for him, since I felt accountable and proud about meeting his high expectations. However, he was unable to collaborate with his peers. He viewed them as threats. This insecurity ultimately resulted in a situation where trust eroded. Despite his strengths in vertical leadership he simply lacked the critical horizontal traits.
Lastly and maybe most importantly given current trends, Part 3 is all about ethics. A person's competence without character is nothing. Unwavering ethical behavior, a strong sense of integrity, respect and caring are all "must-have" leadership traits. Caring, in particular, combined with an open mind and genuine interest in the well-being of others, truly differentiates authentic leaders. My mentor, Tom Murrin, who had an amazing career in business, government and academia, embodied all three parts of authentic leadership - but his relentless focus on character and ethics set him apart. He inspired me on so many levels. He genuinely cared about anyone he would be in contact with. He cared about your story. He was interested in who you were. He would have a conversation with the janitor about some obscure fact and months later read an article about it, cut it out and send it to him with a big "smiley" face on it. Hundreds of clippings would leave his office every day. He was an extraordinary man who cared - a truly authentic leader.
Sometimes we are too quick in labeling someone as a strong or authentic leader without really questioning the rational. Substance, ability to connect and strong ethics make up authentic leadership. This is rare and you don't come across it all too often. In these tumultuous times, let's hope authentic leadership will make a strong comeback!