Updated: Mar 25, 2020
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.
This article was first published on LinkedIn Pulse: Authentic Leadership for the Post-Trump, Post-Brexit Age.