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Authenticity as a leadership trait

Leadership – I can’t say I think about it very much.

I suffer from the school of “just get the job done”, rather than spending much time thinking about the more theoretical aspects of business. But the question of “leadership” was put to me recently by Duncan Hood at Canadian Business Magazine, and I was forced to think about what I value in leaders, and what traits I hope to instill myself.

As I thought about the people I admire, one of the key traits running through all of them was authenticity. People who were individuals, not carbon copies of the person or image they thought they should be to get ahead in life. My late Mother always liked people who would “show their face”, which to her meant being honest, frank, open, sincere; people who were not afraid to laugh at themselves…. If someone seemed less-than-authentic, she had a hard time trusting them.

Great guidance for business, politics and life.

Rogers Communications founder Ted Rogers was authentic. As are people like Murray Edwards, Stephen Harper, Mike Lazaridis, Jim Pattison and Joe Rotman. I can’t prove that their professional success is directly connected to that personal authenticity, but I guarantee you that the trust they built with others as a result of their authenticity was a key component in what took them to the top of the top.

It will invariably extend to the people they work with, as well. If the leader in the organization is sincere, frank and encourages open dialogue within the organization, great things are bound to happen: others will be frank and honest as well. And that builds trust. A team that trusts each other is far more likely to row in the same direction than the one who lives by the zero sum credo of: “if you are doing well, than I must be worse off as a result”.

A lack of sincerity is invariably a warning sign in business and politics. It comes up more often than you think; you just have to watch for it. I was in a meeting a couple of summers ago, and the fellow across the table took a position that the folks on our side knew he couldn’t possibly believe to be true. He was painting himself as someone who didn’t care about an outcome, even though his boss certainly did. He was either crazy or lying. That’s not to say that you don’t come across some wild-eyed crazy folks from time to time, but more often than not, a lack of sincerity is a great glimmer into what may well be a dishonest soul.

And no one wants to do business with someone with an honesty deficit.

CB Editor Hood also interviewed Vice-Admiral Paul Maddison for the piece, and it was interesting to see how similarly the Commander of the Royal Canadian Navy and I approached the topic:

After my lunch with Vice-Admiral Maddison, I had the opportunity to ask him about the qualities that great leaders have also. In his view, honesty, integrity, compassion and sincerity top the list. He is often called to lead men and women into dangerous situations, where trust is paramount. He builds that trust by being strong when he has to, but also by letting his more human side show through when the situation calls for it too.

So look for authenticity. The Navy lives by it. And it definitely worked for Ted: you could do far worse than create a $20 billion empire in the course of your business life, while staying true to yourself every step of the way.


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