Authentic Leadership for the Post-Trump Post-Brexit Age

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In Hans Christian Andersen’s short tale The Emperor’s New Clothes, two weavers claim they will create the best suit of clothes from an incredible fabric but there’s a catch in that the fabric is invisible to anyone who is stupid or incompetent. The swindlers successfully fool the emperor’s ministers, the people, and of course the Emperor himself who parades naked through the city. Throughout the Brexit referendum and the US presidential election a critical aspect of leadership was missing and that was authenticity. As they stand before us right now Donald Trump and the Brexiteers appear quite naked. So what does authentic leadership look like and what future direction does political and organisational leadership need to take?

Authentic leadership is a style of leadership that builds legitimacy based on an ethical foundation, and honest relationships with people whose input and diverse opinions are valued. We can say there are four pillars to authentic leadership: knowing yourself, being genuine, being fair-minded and doing the right thing. The result is leadership that is based on a secure identity, tolerance, decency and a sense of common purpose.

Against the pillars of authentic leadership Donald Trump fails all four. When the New York Times stated that “authenticity is Mr Trump’s brand” what they may have meant was the Trump brand is authentic, in that he successfully plays a role and he’s stuck to the brand values of that role for years. But authenticity is definitely not Trump’s brand. As the Trump inner circle is filled with lobbyists, family members and questionable characters it becomes clear that Trump’s leadership will be based on anything but an ethical foundation.

It’s widely acknowledged that Hilary Clinton struggled with authenticity, and with hindsight it’s easy to see that a lack of authentic leadership in the Democratic Party led to the ultimately flawed choice of Clinton as presidential candidate. Simply because someone is next in line is evidently not a strong reason to select a candidate.

In the UK, Prime Minister David Cameron spectacularly failed the authentic leadership test by calling a mis-judged Brexit referendum, not to serve the best interest of the country but as a risky gamble conceived as a gimmick to silence UKIP and right wing elements of the Conservative party. In doing so he played into the hands of the English nationalists.

The aftermath of the referendum saw the victorious Brexit leadership all quit as they backtracked on headline campaign promises and confirmed that they had no plan. If their objective was to win, they won a battle. If their objective was longterm leadership, they will fail. And now Theresa May has to push through some kind of Brexit plan (as yet to be revealed) that, as a Remain supporter, she cannot in principle agree with.

Trump and Brexit may have won a battle but a lack of authentic leadership leaves them critically exposed to future failure. In fact what the Trump and Brexit results attest to is a crisis of leadership. Across politics there is “a huge, untapped, unexplored kamikaze scream of “ANYTHING BUT THIS”. In this post-truth world, the ultimate leadership challenge for Trump and the Brexiteers will be that the truth will out.

The impending challenges of the 21st century will be too complex for the mind of Donald Trump to solve. They will require genuine, fair-minded and ethical approaches developed from fact-based consensus. Qualities such as intelligence, fair-play, humility and honesty will be key. This will require a huge change of mindset from politicians. More than ever, voters will not only need to believe in their leaders, they will need to know that leaders are operating for the common good. This is not being naive; the leadership qualities that will be needed to get us through this century will very different from the qualities that got us through the last century. Business as usual will become untenable as the accelerating impact of climate change in an increasingly VUCA world will demand major changes in leadership mindset.

Likewise in business organisations a similar change in leadership mindset will be needed. The vertical command-and-control approach which led to the financial crash and other corporate scandals, is becoming increasingly out-dated as more collaborative management models such as the Results Only Work Environment or Teal Management are shown not only to be more productive, agile and effective but also more closely aligned with global challenges. Crucially, an authentic leadership style which adopts a wider purpose including social and environmental wellbeing within more horizontal structures also aligns with Millennials’ mindset and their world view.

As a leader will you want to be surrounded by “Yes-men” or will you want to encourage constructive debate from a gender-balanced range of expert advisors? As an organisation will you want leaders who are playing the short- or the long-game? Narcissists or altruists?

Of course in “The Emperor’s New Clothes” it?s a child who eventually exposes the Emperor by crying out “But he hasn’t got anything on!” In the US and the UK, the lack of authenticity around Trump and Brexit will eventually be called out most likely by younger rather than older people. The Trump presidency won’t last forever and whatever compromised form Brexit eventually takes, the UK will emerge into some kind of post-Brexit future.

Authentic leadership is not the kind of infallible, all-knowing The Apprentice-style leadership that’s been encouraged since the late 20th century and that’s great for TV ratings. Instead, authentic leadership is to be visionary, inspirational, creative and innovative. It is to create a cult of ‘all of us’ not ‘me’. It encourages risk, and in doing so it must embrace failure. A shift from celebrity leadership to servant leadership will position politics and organisations to face into the future not into the past; to tackle the known and as yet unknown challenges that lie ahead in the 21st century.

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The future of good work.

I recently attended two events on good work and leadership with some of the best experts in the field. At a publicity event for his new book Together is Better, author, speaker and top TED Talker-er Simon Sinek spoke about his brand of servant leadership and a few days later I was at the Royal Society of Arts (RSA) to hear Chief Executive Matthew Taylor give his annual lecture, this year on the theme of ‘Good Work For All’, alongside a panel of eminent guests. This article is in the form of a report which covers the most interesting themes that stood out from the two events along with some context of my own.

The consensus was that in many ways the future of work is already here, the challenge for business and leadership is to catch up with the technology and the unequivocal evidence on working best practices from the fields of psychology and neuroscience. The benefits for businesses that are early adopters are that they will take first mover advantages in productivity, effectiveness, recruitment and retention.

Matthew Taylor outlined the starting pain point as the well-documented productivity issue in the UK relative to other major economies. In the time that a British worker makes £1, a German worker makes £1.35. Layered on top of this is the high cost to business and to society caused by stress in the workplace. According to the UK government Health and Safety Executive, stress is the number one cause of absence from work accounting for 37% of all work related ill health cases and 45% of all working days lost due to ill health. However things don’t need to be this way; as Simon Sinek commented, “The way we’re doing business is old fashioned and outdated.”

So what does good work look like? 

As we move from the manufacturing age into the information age, and as the 3rd industrial revolution gets underway, Matthew Taylor described good work as “fair and decent with scope for fulfilment and development.” The world of work is changing fast with globalisation, de-industrialisation, automation and technology all having a disruptive effect on traditional jobs and working practices. The challenge is to improve the quality of work in this era of rapid change.

Speaking on the RSA panel Peter Cheese Chief Executive of the CIPD was bullish about the need for a radical “shift in mindset” necessary to keep up with the pace of change and in line with established research on effectiveness at work; he called for a “move towards evidence-based management.” Matthew Taylor advocated a “shift from focus on pay and conditions to meaning” while work and health researcher Professor Dame Carol Black made the point that “we should be talking about good work and good workplaces” where businesses take a holistic approach to “total worker health and not just health and safety.” Other key elements of good work were described by the panellists as engagement, community, safety, trust and autonomy.

Creating a productive environment

There’s huge scope for improving productivity by applying evidence-based insights from positive psychology and neuroscience. Speaking on the RSA panel Sandra Sands – she’s the new editor of the Today programme on BBC Radio 4 – discussed “creating an environment in which people feel safe to fail” citing the evidence that a benign workplace improves productivity.

Continuing to deliver a progressive message, Peter Cheese stressed the importance of recognising the disconnect between hours worked and output. He encouraged greater use of empowered flexible working based on trust and autonomy as a response to “the scourge of presentee-ism” and the clear evidence that working long hours is not good for businesses or people. He also questioned how productivity should be defined in the knowledge economy of intellectual capital. In knowledge based and creative industries in particular, businesses need to be increasingly aware that the relationship between hours worked and productivity is not linear. This reflected Matthew Taylor’s view that a “shift away from a Protestant work ethic” will benefit productivity, mental wellbeing and the bottom line.

The future of good leadership

Matthew Taylor’s view was that bad work is the result of weak leadership and management, and the UK’s productivity issue is a result of a historic lack of investment in training. On leadership Simon Sinek had also been clear that “companies need to invest in soft skills as well as hard skills.” From a leadership perspective the general view was that there’s a huge opportunity to improve the quality of work by improving the quality of leadership; at senior level the task is to enable engagement by instilling authentic principles and purpose into corporate culture from the top down. This needs to be servant-leadership from Simon Sinek’s perspective that “real leadership does not equate to rank or authority, the real leader is in service.” Peter Cheese picked up the empowerment message with a call to shift from rules to principles; instead of controlling “bad robots” with rules, empower people with principles. Empowerment and engagement were also picked up on the RSA panel by Carolyn Fairbairn, Director General of the CBI who spoke in positive terms about encouraging businesses to appoint employee representatives to the board.

At management level the call was for a step-change in management training based on evidence-based best-practice to equip managers to counter under-employment (ineffective use of the workforce) and very often simply to equip people to step up into a management role. For people at all levels Simon Sinek spoke passionately on self-leadership giving the advice that “you have to be the leader you wished you had” with encouragement to mentor or teach someone as the best way to learn.

The question of measurement was tackled by Carol Black who asked “Who is paying attention and how are they measuring health and wellbeing?” Her suggestion was for a member of the board to be charged with reporting back on measures of health and wellbeing in the way that other figures are reported back to the board.

Good work for all

It was great to see the topics of good work and leadership approached from different angles with Simon Sinek coming from the millennials’ perspective and the RSA event providing insight into the latest thinking from eminent captains of industry and top government advisors. In his position as Chief Executive of the CIPD Peter Cheese stood out; I was encouraged to hear such a clear message of progressive and disruptive thinking from this organisation along with a sense of urgency that the changes are happening now and businesses need to adapt now.

How well positioned is your business for the changes that are coming down the line and what jumped out for you? How can you install a culture of “Good Work for All’ in your organisation?

You can watch a video of the RSA ‘Good Work For All’ event here and Matthew Taylor’s review into Modern Employment Practices for the UK government will be released in summer 2017.

Simon Sinek’s viral interview on Millennials in the Workplace is here and his Ted Talks on ‘How Great Leaders Inspire Action’ (the 3rd most viewed Ted Talk ever) and ‘Why Good Leaders Make you Feel Safe’ are here and here.

This article was first published on LinkedIn