Risking Authenticity

Does this scenario seem familiar?

You find yourself in a situation where you have to speak up or risk living with a bad decision or no decision/action at all. However, you feel “if I say anything, it will go against the positions of others.” You sense that you might be labeled as not a team player, or too aggressive, or risk averse, or a negative person…

Great leaders have anchors that allow them to voice and stand behind their beliefs. However, they express their perspectives in a manner that is respectful of their audience, not personal, linked to their values, and in the service of their organizations. They seem to have a way of commanding respect, even when they voice an unpopular or a difficult message, because they have already done the pre-work of demonstrating their authenticity, ethics, servant leadership, and care to their organizations.  Importantly, they lead their lives and behave in ways that are consistent with their words. In short, they do what they say.

The leaders that preached non-violent resistance such as Gandhi, Mandela, and Martin Luther King, did so in the face of resistance from many of their own constituencies who thought that violence should be answered with violence. They were able to create a positive dialogue. They appealed to their followers to travel the higher road in the longer-term interest of their countries. Through their actions, such as choosing imprisonment, they demonstrated the sacrifices they were willing to make for their cause while not deviating from their strategy of non-violent resistance

A great business example is John Reed, the former Chairman of Citibank. In the late 70’s and early 80’s when he was an emerging leader in the consumer bank, he became a staunch supporter of electronic banking and ATMs (Citibank invented the ATM). However, many of his colleagues, including some of his supervisors, were opposed to it. They felt that it was a stretch to think that people would trust machines to conduct their banking. Furthermore, they pointed to the current data and customer experience that showed that customers were indeed slow to adopt. However, John never abandoned his fervent beliefs. He knew that it was only a question of time before customers would shift their habits and adopt a faster, more convenient manner of banking. He literally bet his career on it. At the time, he even informed his wife that he may be fired over this. Rather than becoming defensive and belligerent, John generated an intelligent and passionate dialogue and backed up his words with tremendous energy and passion to make sure the operational glitches were addressed. His leadership style finally caught the attention of the then Chairman, Walter Wriston, who threw his support behind John. The rest is history.

Leaders who waver and do not demonstrate authentic beliefs and actions may win the short-term political battles. However, experience shows that the greatest and most successful leaders are the ones with a backbone and a leadership style that is clearly in the service of a bigger organization/world. People like Steve Jobs, Sam Walton, Henry Ford, and Candace Lightner (the founder of MADD – Mothers Against Drunk Driving) had innumerable obstacles in their way, but they anchored their words and actions to unshakable beliefs, combined with persistence and great communication, to win over important stakeholders. Imagine how hard it was for Steve Jobs to convince the music industry to shift to a business model where albums were broken apart and sold one song at a time on iTunes for approximately $1 per song. Or for Candace Lightner, a housewife with no organizational experience or sponsorship, to take on powerful groups such as the liquor lobby or states that benefited from the liquor tax. Or for Henry Ford to convince the world of the wisdom of mass produced automobiles/the assembly line.

What are examples of leadership with a backbone that you can think of?  What price did they have to pay? What outcome was achieved?  What are some lessons learned?



About Kaveh Naficy
Kaveh is the leader of Heidrick and Struggles executive coaching practice in North America. Kaveh focuses on working with leaders placed to make transformational and creative changes in their organizations. Kaveh has a proven record of success in harnessing the strengths of these leaders to achieve accelerated business solutions. He is able to create significant insights through reflective thinking, presence, and disciplined follow-through. Executives who have worked with Kaveh say that his strengths are his deep insights into the realities of the current and future business world, accelerated scanning of the environment and competition; creative out of the box thinking, and leveraging the collective intelligence of their teams and creating the organizational culture to support and foster the appropriate organizational design and strategies. They also point their deep trust and personal connectivity with Kaveh, his coaching approach, and style.

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