I can get myself into hot water at times.
What’s my failing (well, one of them)? I’m sometimes a bit too genuinely myself, a bit too fulsomely me. Driven by a desire to be ‘real’ and a hope that being informal and open will help people find me an approachable antidote to formal hierarchy, I sometimes over-step the boundaries of accepted (or rather, anticipated) behaviour. When I get ‘being open and frank’ right people say I’m easy to know, unguarded, even courageous. When I get it wrong I realise ‘open and frank’ has landed as a little tactless.
The balance between authenticity and congruence on the one side, and behavioural flexibility and political sensitivity on the other, is an important art. I say ‘art’, for it’s far too nuanced and interpretive to be a science. When I get it wrong it’s consistently on the too authentic side.
What of people that get it wrong on the other side of the continuum? These are the social chameleons, the smooth charlatans, the inauthentic micro-politicians (for that matter, the inauthentic macro-politicians) who tell people what they want to hear whilst simultaneously saying nothing at all. It might seem that these players last longer and climb higher than their sometimes-maverick yet usually congruent counterparts because they make less attackable mistakes. These are the leaders who make errors of omission rather than errors of commission – fearful of being criticised, they obfuscate and delay rather than lead.
How do you spot the inauthentic leaders among us? It’s not easy – the prosperous ones, after all, have built a career on the successful deployment of social skill and the maintenance of a positive (and never over-heated) profile. There are tell-tale signs though. For senior leaders, corporate comms is a good place to start. Is it really your leader’s voice beneath their twitter avatar or in the page 1 sidebar of the staff newsletter? Or is it massaged? By the way, the previous chief executive of NHS England, David Nicholson, always tweeted his clear and open views (much, I imagine, to the distress of his comms team).
However, I have a feeling that the time of the smooth charlatan is coming to an end. It’s in the zeitgeist. For example, UKIP may have won the recent European elections (admittedly with less than 10% of eligible voters casting a UKIP vote) but I don’t think it’s their policies that are attracting people – they surely do not attract me! I don’t think it’s their (potentially xenophobic) pledge to “end support for multiculturalism” or their dangerous desire for the legalisation of handguns that underpins the UKIP vote. The clever analysts attribute the recent success to the ‘normal authentic bloke’ phenomenon of Nigel Farage (of course, whether this authentic image is real, or the paradoxical presentation of a master chameleon, only time will tell). Several commentators see this Farage-normal-bloke-attraction as a direct result of citizen antipathy towards the managed (in)congruence of modern-day politicians. The Nick Clegg ‘I’m sorry’ video is another indicator in the same vein.
And what of the rest of us? Well, I’d encourage leaders to be more authentic, more congruent, and especially more emotionally engaged. Too many leaders put on a façade at work. Trouble is, not only do these pseudo-disguises fail to act as the hoped-for armour, but they are also pretty much transparent.
Think back to the best leader you’ve ever worked with. What comes to mind? I bet it’s a story of a very real human being inspiring you with emotion, belief and care whilst pushing you with hard-driving passion and straight-talking honesty too. I bet they weren’t a mono-emotional technocrat or a smooth-façaded autoleader.
All our programmes at the NHS Leadership Academy encourage people to be emotionally engaged and congruent leaders. That would be good advice in any business, but it’s vital in healthcare where our staff’s daily reality is at least as much emotional labour as it is manual or cognitive work.
Authors Goffee and Jones gave good advice in their 2006 book Why should anyone be led by you? Its core message, actually it’s only message, is: ‘Be yourself. More. With skill.’ Come to think of it, since I’ve given you the message, you might as well save yourself the £13 for the hardback. See, there it is again, me offering unnecessary indiscretion in the vane hope I might entertain! Will I not learn?