“I can’t think of a lower moment than this.” You may remember these words as the sign-off to a notorious LinkedIn post last year by a CEO who had used the site to announce layoffs at his company.
Explaining his decision over 23 short paragraphs, he described the announcement as the “most vulnerable thing I’ll ever share”. The words were accompanied by a selfie of him… crying.
For some people, the ‘crying CEO’, as he was immediately dubbed after going viral, had bravely encapsulated the emotional turmoil business leadership can bring. For others, he was a narcissist turning other people’s misfortune into online content.
Regardless of your opinion, though, a legitimate question emerged from the debate: what is an authentic leader?
As director of the advanced management and leadership programme at the University of Oxford’s Saïd Business School, my research focuses on transformation and what it takes to be a successful leader in the 21st century given the challenges at hand.
From pandemic lockdowns to rapid inflation; the climate crisis to ever more complicated geopolitics; political instability to technological advances; it’s clear we are living in a disruptive era when the pace of change is constantly accelerating. So what does it take to lead in such times?
What I see is a craving for authentic leaders who collaborate across internal and external boundaries. To me, authenticity means putting humanity at the heart of their approach and taking people on a journey with them.
But how does this work in practice? Here are four key paradigm shifts which I see emerging.
1. Authentic leaders are using their organisations to serve others
Among the leaders I talk to, one thing runs in common. They have looked at the world and they see their organisations not as an end in itself, but as a vehicle to make a positive impact. They care about the world and addressing its problems, from inequality to climate change.
But they also recognise that capitalism, for all its faults, can create an incredible means for the world to function and enable positive results. It’s about leaders having the awareness to look outside their business bubble at the broader picture to ask things like: what do I care about? How can my business have a role in impacting those things in a positive and constructive way?
That is what is changing among today’s leaders and, frankly, it’s necessary. The world is calling out leaders, companies and governments to serve something greater than themselves.
Of course, they must not forget their duty to shareholders and the requirement to deliver profitable growth, which remain essential business goals. It’s about also understanding their overall footprint – their impact on people and society – is far greater than that.
It means leaders being true to themselves and that authenticity in turn provides their organisation with a focus: why does this company exist and who does it exist for?
2. Authentic leaders are talking less and listening more
Think about how the corner office traditionally communicates with employees. It’s often one-way and static. There’s now a big shift away from that, where the best leaders listen more than they speak.
At a basic human level, everyone knows what it’s like to feel heard by another person and how that changes our behaviour. It can help anger and sadness subside, and enable us to start seeing things differently. So when employees are being listened to by their leaders, it can only help how an organisation operates.
The response to the Covid pandemic actually facilitated this in many companies. I spoke to one CEO whose organisation developed check-in procedures to find out how people were getting on. It was because, amid working from home, they had no idea if people were enjoying this new way of working, perhaps because of increased leisure time, or going through huge difficulties because one of their family members was seriously ill with the virus.
So, in order to function as effective leaders during the pandemic, it meant they had to take genuine interest in people and their lives. There was something humanising about that, and listening became a really important skill which many leaders strengthened, or were forced to discover.
Following the great resignation and current difficult labour markets, it is now clear for all to see which leaders shone and were able to keep their staff.
3. Authentic leaders don’t have all the answers
As I allude to above, the pace of change and disruption in the business world is phenomenal. Stable operating models no longer apply as they did in the 20th century, so organisations need to continually adapt and evolve.
It no longer cuts it, therefore, for leaders to act as the ‘big cheese’ and as if they have all the answers. That’s not authentic because it isn’t possible.
It is more acceptable than it ever has been to admit: “I don’t know.”
In my work, I increasingly hear leaders use phrases like “sitting with not knowing” and “everything is impermanent”. That spiritual language is starting to become present in the leadership lexicon, and it’s powerful because it helps them to detach from their egos.
Initially, that’s a difficult process because of how most of them will have risen through organisations into leadership roles. They are alphas – and alphas always have answers.
But being able to accept not having all the answers means leaders can prepare for difficult conversations, and how they are going to lead people through challenging circumstances.
The openness to this kind of conversation is fascinating. I have even used guided meditations with senior leaders from some of the world’s largest companies, going deep to reflect where they are in the company – and they go with me. This shows there is a paradigm of moving out of the rational and into the intuitive.
4. Authentic leaders know that future solutions emerge from this place of not knowing
To address the challenges of the 21st century, we need leadership mindsets that transcend the challenges of today to find solutions. This involves taking problems, and the limited and fixed thinking patterns associated with them, and reinterpreting them as opportunities to move forward in a positive way.
For example, many of us are angst-ridden about plastic in the ocean. We may see a documentary and think: “That could be my water bottle.” But angst doesn’t provide solutions. This is why I find David Katz, who I interviewed for my Leadership 2050 podcast series, a fascinating example of a modern leader.
Katz saw plastic in the ocean as a business opportunity. His company, Plastic Bank, pays people in poverty-hit coastal communities around the world to collect plastic waste from beaches. This is handed in, recycled and then processed into new raw materials which are sold to manufacturers, with Hugo Boss among its clients.
So, Katz repurposed a major problem into an innovative business model that helps some of the least well off while also contributing to a circular economy. As he told me: the collectors win, the environment wins, the manufacturers win, the brands win and the consumer wins.
Can business leadership get any more authentic than that?
Dr Andrew White is director of the Advanced Management and Leadership Programme at the Saïd Business School at the University of Oxford, and host of the Leadership 2050 podcast series.