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LeaderTalk: Being A Leader Doesn’t Require A Title; Having a Title Doesn’t Make You One!

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“Being a leader is like being a lady. If you have to remind people you are, you aren’t.”

That’s one of my favourite quote from the Iron Lady, former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. It reinforces that leadership is not about titles or photo ops or posturing. True leadership is about authenticity, standing up for principles, even (maybe especially) in the face of strong opposition.

Unfortunately, much of today’s psychobabble about leadership focuses of the peripherals of leadership and not the crux. A lot of the training and development in organisations focuses on learning about things. People learn what to think, not howto think. They learn what to do, not how to be. They learn what to achieve, not how to achieve. They learn all about things, but very little about the nature of things. This approach produces only superficial, short-term results. With sufficient stress, all the old patterns usually return.

Many definitions of leadership also tend to be externalized. Many of the definitions focus on the outer manifestations of leadership—such as vision, judgment, creativity, drive, charisma, podium presence, etc.—rather than getting to the essence of leadership itself.

And this pattern of externalisation continues at the organizational level. People often receive recognition for their external mastery. Success is most often measured in terms of revenue, profit, new product breakthroughs, cost containment, market share, and many other familiar metrics. Clearly there’s value in achieving and measuring external results. But that’s not the real issue. The more relevant issues are (1) What produces the external results?, and (2) What enables the sustaining of good external results?

The answer to the first question is leadership.

The answer to the second question is great leadership, the authentic variety.

Leadership demands the expression of an authentic self. Try to lead like someone else—say, Jack Welch, Richard Branson, or Michael Dell—and you will fail. People will not follow a leader who invests little in his/her leadership behaviours. People want to be led by someone “real.” This is partly a reaction to the turbulent times we live in. It is also a response to the public’s widespread disenchantment with politicians and businesspeople. We all suspect that we’re being duped.

Our growing dissatisfaction with sleek, ersatz, airbrushed leadership is what makes authenticity such a desirable quality today—a quality that, unfortunately, is rare and in short supply. Leaders and followers both associate authenticity with sincerity, honesty, and integrity. It’s the real thing—the attribute that uniquely defines great leaders.

Authentic leadership is a product of honesty. Honesty about putting the needs of others ahead of your own. Honesty in communicating information, both positive and negative. Honesty in accepting—welcoming—viewpoints different from yours. Honesty in relationship with self and the other, self-reflection, self-awareness, listening, empathy and genuine feedback. Honesty in integrating the values you profess with the behaviors you exhibit and actions that you take (sounds a lot like “integrity,” doesn’t it?).

Authentic leadership is also a product of clarity. Clarity in what you stand for, and what you will not stand for. Clarity in your navigation through the sea of limitless choices, using the “True North” of your values to keep you constantly on the right path and enabling you to make the necessary course corrections when you temporarily stray.

Do you as a leader have clarity and ask yourselves the ‘tough questions’. In pre-Revolutionary Russia a priest was confronted by a soldier as he walked down a road. Aiming his rifle at the priest, the soldier demanded: “Who are you? Where are you going? Why are you going there?” Unfazed by the sudden interrogation, the priest replied with a question of his own: “How much do they pay you?” Somewhat surprised, the soldier answered, “Twenty-five kopecks a month.” After a thoughtful pause, the priest said, “I have a proposal for you. I’ll pay you 50 kopecks a month if you’ll stop me here every day and challenge me to respond to those same three questions.

None of us has a soldier confronting us each day with life’s tough questions. But we can honestly ask the questions of ourselves. If we choose to, we can issue our own self-challenges to push ourselves not only to do better, but to be better.

What is authentic leadership?

It’s funny that something so basic as being yourself starts to become harder as you gain responsibility and scope. But the truth is, being authentic as a leader has to be consciously worked at. There are too many examples of how other people lead. There are no examples of what’s authentic to you until you get there. So, you have to search for it.

I create touch-points that remind me of myself — who I am and where I am strongest. When I speak or do talks, I tend to start with a personal story because there’s no way to tell a personal story without being myself. When I’m out of my depths on something, or need time to think before a decision, I make sure to say so, so that my team knows I don’t always have the answers. Authenticity requires touchstones to remind yourself and the people around you that you’re human. It is about rejecting the trappings of leadership in favour of self-reliance and leading by example. It’s demonstrating through your actions that you practice the same values and behaviours you expect from your team.

Ultimately, authenticity is a leadership skill like any other — and skills can always be developed (or weakened) over time, depending on your conscious efforts. To ensure you’re able to lead your team as well as they deserve, it’s critical you remain focused, self-aware and always choosing consciously to be authentic.

Remember, “a boss has the title, a leader has people”.

About Author:
Kriti Makhija
Chief Financial and Compliance Officer, Genesis BCW
Advisory Board Member, Nasscom Community
- Views expressed are personal

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