Individuals make decisions that suit them best, in their personal lives. But, decisions made by people who have responsibilities in an organizational setting, such as those made by the CEO or the manager of a team, or the leader of a group, are different in a fundamental way. They introduce a social dimension. At its core, leadership is not a very complicated idea. It is about mobilizing and inspiring people to achieve a common goal.
“As a leader, your job is to steer and inspire.” ~ Jack Welch, former CEO of GE
Of course, how to determine the best direction, and how to mobilize and inspire followers, is no small matter. Some have conceived of leadership as primarily transactional – the person in charge uses rewards and punishments to appeal to the self-interest of followers. Another view sees leadership as transformational – the aim is to induce followers to transcend their narrow self-interest and pursue a set of higher purposes – perhaps achieving a mission or serving a cause. For transformational leadership, the ability to communicate effectively and to pursuade others is essential. If a leader is not perceived to be authentic, genuine, and trustworthy, others won’t follow.
Issues such as honesty, transparency, and authenticity do not arise in decisions made by individuals, but they become central when it comes to the decisions of leaders. When we are leading others, where does transparency end and deception begin? What is the boundary between authenticity and manipulation?
Leadership is about influencing outcomes, and when only the very highest levels of performance are acceptable, leaders need to convey high levels of confidence. But, business leaders gain nothing by showing uncertainty and indecision. They undermine their success by talking about the risk of failure. Your team won’t give it all if it hears you say the risk of failure all the time. They know you can’t win unless the leader believes you can.
The best leaders share a common feature – they are authentic. They are genuine and true to themselves. Authenticity generally means acting in accordance with our inner selves. We are authentic when we express what we truly feel. In the business world, we are taught to do our duty and to meet our responsibilities. Being steadfast and faithful trumped the desire to express one’s inner feelings. Only in recent years, leaders began to hold that the greater virtue is to act in accordance with our innermost feelings. Leaders should strive to be authentic.
Authenticity could breed doubt when leaders spend time worrying about which of their many and sometimes conflicting feelings are the authentic ones, rather than concentrating on doing their duty.
Although we love words like transparency and honesty and authenticity, the ultimate responsibility of a leader is to mobilize others to achieve a common purpose. And when they gude others to reach higher levels of performance, leaders may at times need to communicate less than their true feelings. They may withhold information that could be disheartening or lead to defeatism. Effective leadership calls for much more than remaining true to one’s inner beliefs, or being open and honest at all times. It means being sincere to a higher purpose and may call for something less than complete transparency.
Leaders mobilize others to achieve a common purpose, which means they do their work through the actions of other people. Leadership means shaping outcomes, which involves exercising control, of which we often have more – not less – than we imagine. Moreover, leaders often make decisions that are, almost by definition, more complex and consequential than routine decisions made by individuals.
For leaders, there are several implications for making winning decisions. First is to recognize that they may need to instill in others a level of confidence that might seem exaggerated, but a necessary for high performance. Terms like transparency and authenticity do not do justice to the challenges facing leaders. Ultimately, the duty of a leader is to inspire others, and for that, the ability to personify confidence is essential.
Leaders often act with an eye to how they are expected to behave. In other words, leaders decide how to decide. When in doubt as to the best course of action, leaders will tend to do what allows them to be seen as persistent, as courageous, and as steadfast.
It is not always easy to evaluate outcomes of the leaders’ decisions, much less to appraise objectively the means used to achieve them. It is so much simpler and often a more satisfying story to make attributions based on results. When they are good, we naturally infer the process was sound and the actions authentic.
From the perspective of an individual’s making routine decisions, leadership is not a series of discrete decisions, but calls for working through other people over long stretches of time. It is not transactional but transformational.