Just How Authentic Should a Leader Be?

By Heather Campbell

Ed-MilibandBy Heather Campbell >>

Recently the UK’s opposition leader, Ed Miliband, decided to wear his heart on his sleeve and suggest that, looks-wise, David Cameron has the vote-winning image. Was he wise to do so? And should other leaders follow suit?

My first response is that this is a sad situation for us all, and my toes curl for Ed and for us as voters as a result. Given what is required of him – or any party leader – to perform well in their role, it is shocking that someone on the international political stage felt the need to talk about his looks at all.

I’m sure Ed had something of a dilemma while he and his spin-doctors decided whether or not talking openly about his looks was appropriate. And it is something that I see echoed in the many dilemmas that business leaders face. They are not necessarily debating whether or not to talk about appearance, of course – but rather whether to share private thoughts, opinions and concerns about the many other challenges they face.

How can business leaders appropriately share their concerns, thoughts and opinions whilst still maintaining appropriate boundaries between themselves and those they lead?

Each of us, whether in leadership roles of not, has the right to set boundaries – boundaries that allow us to share what we wish of ourselves with others and to protect that which we prefer to keep private.

But in these days of Authentic Leadership and a push for openness in the workplace, how can leaders get this balance right? The opportunity to publish daily blogs to share their thinking, and to interact online directly with employees that they may never meet in person, means that leaders have an increasingly challenging tightrope to walk.

Based on research we have carried out, these are my top seven tips to help you decide on the best approach for you.

  1. Avoid confusing openness with authenticity. Being authentic doesn’t mean you have to let it all hang out and share every thought. The key is to be appropriately authentic. You can be authentic and still keep your concerns, thoughts and opinions private.
  2. Avoid mixing up being open about the business and being open about your own views. There is plenty of evidence to show that most leaders need to share more openly about what is really happening from a business perspective; this is not the same thing as sharing your own personal thoughts and areas of vulnerability.
  3. The people you lead know that you are fallible and will be open to your admitting to mistakes – as long as you do something to rectify the situation.Admitting to mistakes without taking any action to remedy the situation comes across as hollow.
  4. While people know that you are fallible, they don’t want to think that you lack confidence or a sense of direction. They want you to lead, and leaders need to know where they are headed. Lack of confidence is not an attractive trait in a leader – although avoid tripping into arrogance or being overly-opinionated.
  5. Keep your opinions about your boss and your peers to yourself, and never gossip about one team member with another. Gossipy leaders quickly lose credibility and your views will be shared with others in ways that you can’t control.
  6. If you have challenges in your personal life that are affecting your work, you don’t have to be stoic and strong. Chances are that you are letting it leak out anyway. Far better to acknowledge that personal life is impacting you than to become grumpy or withdrawn without people knowing why. But share as little as you need to share and then get on with business.
  7. If, like Ed, you suspect that certain attributes – physical or otherwise – may be standing between you and the people you lead, there is no harm in acknowledging that you think this may be the case and asking for feedback about your view. But only do this if it’s something you can actually take action to change. If not, all you do is find out what other people think and run the risk of putting everyone in an embarrassing situation.

Ultimately, Ed acknowledging that his looks don’t necessarily work to his advantage doesn’t change anything – far better that he had got on with the job of building his political standing, through working on policies that matter to people, than to risk alienating voters through sharing too much.

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