We live in an era in which increasingly, leaders who are authentic, and who translate this into shared value for their people, whether shareholders or stakeholders, employees, customers or constituents, are the ones who have true and lasting impact – ultimately making the world a better place to live in.
Striving for authenticity in leadership is the new kind of success to aspire to, and may well one day be the measure by which some aspects of performance are evaluated.
What makes an authentic leader stand out from other leadership styles? What do they do differently?
These are five counterintuitive habits displayed by truly authentic and enlightened leaders:
1. They surround themselves with advisors who can tell them why they are wrong.
When you hold a certain belief or unconsciously decide on something, you’ll have a tendency to focus on and favor information that supports your belief or decision, discarding anything that contradicts it. You do it without even realizing it. Psychologists call this confirmation bias.
While this is a fundamentally human foible to which neither the brilliant nor the principled are impervious, unchecked in a leader or decision-maker it could lead to damaging – even catastrophic consequences.
Studies of the 1986 Challenger Disaster that killed all astronauts on board suggest that confirmation bias inherent in the decision-making process led to the egregious error in declaring the space shuttle safe for launch. This was despite awareness of a known (and ultimately fatal) variable that was dismissed by decision-makers as it conflicted with their line of thinking.
“Confirmation bias is one of the most difficult biases to overcome,” says Professor Iris Bohnet, Academic Dean at Harvard Kennedy School and faculty chair of the executive program, Global Leadership and Public Policy for the 21st Century for the World Economic Forum’s Young Global Leaders [a program I have completed and from which the lessons in this post are drawn.]
Authentic leaders ask their advisors to always look for contradicting evidence and empower them to ‘speak truth to power.’ “[To avoid confirmation bias] Every important argument,” she explains, “should be accompanied by the reasons why it could be wrong.”
Warren Buffet counts on his vice-chairman, Berkshire Hathaway’s Charlie Munger, to point out flaws in his own reasoning. “If I talk it through [with him], it’s because deep down I know I might be doing something dumb, and he’ll tell me,” Buffet shared recently on CNBC.
2. They acknowledge that they are biased.
“Tendency is not always destiny, and knowing the tendencies and their antidotes can often help prevent trouble that would otherwise occur.” - Charlie Munger
If I’m quoting Warren Buffet, it would be remiss of me not to throw in a meme-worthy quote from his trusted advisor as well.
Leaders who are aware of their hidden biases or ‘blind spots’ as Mahzarin Banaji, a professor of Social Ethics at Harvard calls it in her book, Blindspot: Hidden Biases of Good People, can be consciously on guard to ensure it doesn’t carry them in directions they don’t want to go.
“Eternal vigilance is a personal ideal that reduces the likelihood that our unconscious prejudices are influential in the things we do and how we construct our lives.”
Based on this awareness, authentic leaders can then take the steps needed to counter the effects of their biases and stereotypical beliefs.
Professor Iris Bohnet provides an example of changes that can be introduced in a workplace environment to initiate this.
“When we evaluate job applicants or make promotion decisions, we cannot help but be influenced by stereotypical beliefs about what a typical or ideal kindergarten teacher or professor looks (or should look) like. In order to hire and promote the best people rather than those who conform with our stereotypes, we need to change our evaluation procedures and, for example, have musicians audition behind curtains as many orchestras do, evaluate job candidates comparatively to increase the accuracy of our judgments, and hire and promote in bundles to allow for diversity to emerge.”
As a side note, many of us don’t admit to our biases or prejudices because we don’t even know it’s there.
Take this test co-designed by Professor Mahzarin Banaji to see how you score on hidden biases (the results may surprise you.) Hidden Bias Test.
3. They recognize that in order to be great, they have to be bad.
Leaders behind some of the world’s most successful companies know that in order to build great products or companies they have to deliberately choose areas in which to be weak.
What’s more, it’s about being unapologetic about it.
No company can provide a product or service that is the cheapest, fastest and of the highest quality. If they aim for all three, they’ll end with an offering that is, at best, mediocre.
Professor Frei cites Apple and Zappos as examples of companies that are deliberately bad in certain areas, in order to offer a product or service that is ultimately excellent.
When Apple first introduced MacBook Air, it was light, thin, and beautifully designed. It was also the first high-end notebook not to have a built in CD or DVD player, it had limited memory and only average processing power. “But,” offers Carl Björkman, head of International Organizations and Government Affairs at the World Economic Forum, “The MacBook Air stood out from the crowded laptop market because it offered something entirely different and unique, and it could only offer that because it embraced its weaknesses and limitations.”
This leadership lesson extends beyond companies, but to leaders themselves, continues Carl. “Traditional management theory – as manifested in periodic appraisals and 360 reviews – typically dictates that we should work on our weaknesses or development areas. Whilst there is a certain baseline that must be met, it may be better to harness our unique strengths (which can be complemented by hiring others who excel at the things you are not good at).”
As a leader, admitting to and even embracing weakness requires a certain degree of emotional acuity and inner strength, a point that strikes a chord with Carl’s former colleague at the World Economic Forum, Anastassia Aubakirova.
“In Russia, we were brought up with an idea that leadership is first and foremost strength and power. The higher you get, the greater your fear to admit weakness. [I’ve now realized that] Leadership is empowerment of others sometimes through showing vulnerability. The only strength that can’t be compromised is the one towards your values. Vulnerability and uncertainty can become useful tools of true, authentic leadership if congruent with your principles and beliefs. Only through true empowerment of others can you build sustainable leadership which will last beyond your time.”
4. They use their time in the wilderness well.
Every leader has periods in their lives in which they find themselves “in the wilderness” – metaphorically speaking. Perhaps they’re out of favor (no one is infallible – everyone makes mistakes), out of office, stepped out of the limelight – or they just may be at a junction in which they find themselves lost, confused and without direction.
According to Harvard’s David Gergen, a professor of public leadership and former advisor to four U.S presidents, these periods in the wilderness offer opportunity for growth, development and even reinvention, likely leading you on the path to becoming who you’re meant to be – your most authentic self.
Adds Rain Newton-Smith, head of Emerging Markets at Oxford Economics, a student in Professor Gergen’s class, “The successful leaders used these times to learn new skills, forge new friendships and reinvent themselves. The more that you can use the difficult times in your life to dig deep and find new purpose or strength, the more resilient you will be. It is in these times that we learn the most, even if it doesn’t feel like it at the time.”
5. They strive to make their leadership last in their absence.
Typically, articles or books about leadership begin with some sort of definition of leadership. But, in keeping with the counterintuitive theme of this piece, I’m choosing rather to end with one. Professor Frances Frei offers this:
“Leadership is about making others better as a result of your presence and making it last in your absence.”
Making it last in your absence. That counterintuitive nugget may well be the hallmark – and the legacy – of a truly authentic leader.
This article originally appeared in Forbes magazine: