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The Real McCoy: Bringing your Authentic Self to Leadership

What springs to mind when you think about the idea of authenticity? It may well feature in your top ten values because it seems to get to the heart of believing in what we do. We have a sense, on the good days at least, that what we do matters and for that reason we expect it to feel real. There’s evidence to suggest that authenticity is a quality we value increasingly when we are aware of its absence in certain aspects of our lives or when our trust in others has been undermined in some way – by politicians, say, or by an unscrupulous company we were unfortunate enough to book to fix a leaking roof.

It’s revealing to place the concept in different contexts and see what emerges. Perhaps you’re partial to a particular appellation contrôlée cheese or maybe you’re hankering after a bona fide Berber rug: we might say these products are the real deal, the genuine article. And when we think about people being authentic we’re saying the same thing: we associate it with sincerity, integrity – consistency between what someone says and how they act – being real.

There’s plenty of research suggesting that employees rate authenticity high up on their list of qualities they look for in a leader, not least because if it comes from the top there is a stronger chance that authenticity will filter out beyond the leadership zone. When it does, research outlined in the Harvard Business Review shows that ‘a majority of employees believe authenticity in the workplace leads to several benefits, including:

Better relationships with colleagues

Higher levels of trust

Greater productivity

A more positive working environment’.[1]

It strikes me that trust is absolutely key to why authenticity matters so much so let’s focus on this for a moment.

First, a little context. We live in times in which the extraordinary volume of information available to us is matched by the volume of doubt and mistrust it generates. Edelman’s 2021 Trust Barometer, published in January, makes fascinating if rather gloomy reading: collated from the responses of over 33,000 individuals in 28 countries, the annual index reveals ‘an epidemic of misinformation and widespread mistrust of societal institutions and leaders around the world’.[2] Trust in governments and in media organisations, both mainstream and social, has plummeted in recent years in the light of a potent combination of polarising algorithms, governments which deal in expediency over truth and, since 2020, the understandable fear and uncertainty prompted by an unpredictable virus. CEO Richard Edelman writes of ‘an environment of information bankruptcy’.[3]

Whilst all this may seem to confirm our reasons for pessimism, I mention it because, strikingly, in this climate of doubt the report indicates that there has been an increase in the trust people place in their employer. In fact, business has become the most trusted institution, with respondents placing trust in ‘my employer CEO’ at 63% and in ‘my employer direct’ at 76%.

If we think about this in the context of our schools, we can perhaps feel the impact on our own experience. Most of the school leaders I have met and spoken with during the pandemic have been painfully aware that their staff and students – and indeed students’ parents – have looked to them for reliable interpretations of events and assessment of risk in a quite unprecedented way. This says much for the perception of school leaders as both ethical and competent: fundamentally we are trusted. The weight of this responsibility has been anything but virtual and we will deal in another post with some of the more challenging consequences for leaders of being relied on in this way but for now let’s focus on the positive implications.

It suggests that our communities believe we will deal honestly with them, acknowledging difficulties rather than trying to dismiss them in glib soundbites. And the reality is that it hasn’t been by any means easy to provide unequivocal answers. What we can do, though, is be transparent. One headteacher I spoke with explained that she had taken her cues from Jacinda Ardern: ‘I admired the way she gave straight answers to questions and admitted that sometimes she didn’t have an answer and it helped me deal honestly and openly with staff and parents about our approach. It meant that when our plans had to change as events moved on most people stuck with us because they knew we were doing our best to act in good faith’.

Such honesty about when a solution is less than ideal is fundamental to authenticity. Having established a culture of trust makes it easier to be candid about the realities of a situation, whether that’s how to keep a meaningful Maths curriculum running when four of the team are ill or isolating or whether it’s being open about staffing implications if recruitment into year 7 is down again. Or about the implications of the latest rise in contributions to the teacher pensions scheme.

These are still, to be sure, difficult conversations to have, but what will keep your team batting for you is if you have built a reputation for integrity – when our colleagues come to know that what we say behind closed doors is consistent with the message we deliver in the 4 o’clock briefing, it’s possible to sustain a climate of goodwill and collaboration even when the toughest decisions have to be made.

In that well-known line about integrity, ‘doing the right thing when no one’s watching’, there’s a clue to the core of this critical attribute: seeing what’s right. Tony Dungy talks about ‘making the choice between what’s convenient and what’s right’.[4] And that means we have to be comfortable with the framework of values we’re operating by and have a clear sense of the purpose and priorities we have set for our school community. Integrity is central to the practice of compassionate leadership because it accepts that the very best we can do in difficult circumstances is to treat others with dignity and respect by being honest, courageous and kind.

Next time we will explore another critical aspect of authenticity in leadership – having the courage to reveal your true self (and why being vulnerable is not the same as letting it all hang out).

[1] Gavin, M. in, 2019 [2] Edelman Trust Barometer 2021 [3] Ibid [4] Dungy, T., Uncommon, Finding your path to significance, 2009

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