“Being a leader is like being a lady. If you have to remind people you are, you aren’t.”
That’s my favorite quote from the Iron Lady, former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher who died this week. She understood 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.
To her fervent admirers, battling Maggie was an iconic national heroine who ended Britain’s post-World War II cycle of decline. Her angry critics saw her as a pugnacious destroyer of industry. But no one doubted her nitty-gritty resolve.
Unfortunately, much of today’s psychobabble about leadership has the wrong focus. A lot of the training and development in our corporations focuses on learning about things. People learn what to think, not how to 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.
Popular 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.
This external pattern continues at the organizational level. People often receive recognition for their external mastery. Success is 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.
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 integrating the values you profess with the behaviors you exhibit (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.
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 fifty 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? We can take a cue from another Margaret Thatcher quote. On the surface, it seems to be about politics and economics. But it underscores the importance of rejecting the trappings of leadership in favor of self-reliance on principle: “The problem with socialism is that eventually you run out of other people’s money.”
Follow Dr. Duncan on Twitter @DoctorDuncan
(This post by Dr. Duncan originally appeared in Forbes magazine.)