CXO Priorities

Is authentic leadership really the key ingredient for successful culture change?

The word ‘authentic’ is thrown around a lot with employees and leaders alike being told that they need to be ‘more authentic’. When talking about posting on social media, for example, businesses are told to be authentic. But what does this mean? And how can it affect culture change within a business? Steve Hearsum, who is an author, the Founder of Edge + Stretch and trains change management practitioners and business leaders at global companies, explores these questions.

I work with many clients who feel the need to change their culture, and the first problem here is that most fail to define what ‘it’ actually is, nor do they understand the implications of culture change in a couple of key respects. First off, thingification is endemic in organisations, and ‘management speak’ is dripping with abstractions and nominalisations (verbs solidified into abstract nouns) e.g.: organisation, management and leadership? All abstractions. We try and ‘land the change’, ‘drive change’ etc, as if it were an object we can shove around.

Then there is culture, and the whole construct of ‘culture change’ is a fallacy as it assumes culture is both homogeneous and a thing. It isn’t. “Culture is the way we do things around here,” suggested Kennedy & Deal (1982). More specifically, it is the sum of our current behaviours, which are inherently malleable and changeable. So in effect, culture is not a thing, it is rather a pattern, and changing culture is, suggests Glenda Eoyang, an ‘accumulation of thousands of tiny tweaks, not one massive push’.

So, if you want to change culture, you need to change the conversation, and whilst your interventions may be well-aimed, there is never a guarantee as to how they will come out. That is in no small part why the idea of ‘destroying’ culture is inherently absurd: it can only evolve. Now, can leaders have a positive impact to dampen patterns of blaming behaviour? Absolutely. Is authentic leadership the answer? Ummm…

The problem with authentic leadership

A dictionary will typically tell you that authenticity is something or someone who has the quality of being real or true. Organisations adopt slogans like ‘bring your whole self to work’, and leaders are encouraged to be ‘authentic’. The idea is that we can, apparently, be ourselves fully and that is a ‘good thing’. Really? Truly? You want the version of me that is hungover? Or that has had a terrible night’s sleep and is feeling grumpy? You want me to bring my full range of personal values which, whilst they may not prevent me being effective in my role, may equally clash with others? You want me bring both the light and shadow of my personality and the bits of me that are still a work in progress?

Clearly the answer to all these is no. So, what exactly is the level of authenticity that is useful? My view is that what matters is a combination of:

• Awareness – of myself, my self-narrative, my learning edges, my strengths and my shadow; of others; of my impact on others
• Critical reflection – the capacity to notice what is going on in and around me and a willingness to make sense of it
• Reflexivity – the ability to notice your own beliefs, judgments and practices and what influences these, plus the willingness to experiment based on these
• Realness – and yes, if you like, realness, if what you mean here is an acceptance that culture work is inherently messy and there are no guaranteed answers or silver bullets

The question then arises: what does it require to become a leader who can do and be all these things?

The ‘work proper’

The term ‘work proper’ was coined by the late Brendan Reddy and Chuck Phillips of NTL in their Group Process Consultation (GPC) model. In Brendan Reddy’s book Intervention Skills (1994), work proper is what happens after you have done the contracting: it is the stuff that has to be wrestled with if there is to be progress, movement, change etc. Absent that, all you get is better sameness.

The implication for leaders is that they need to move beyond the performative learning that is typical of much leadership development these days, where learners show up to consume the knowledge and expertise of consultants and trainers offering their prescriptions for what ‘good’ or ‘great’ leadership looks, sounds and feels like. The problem is that ‘learning in the world of leadership is about the application of judgement, knowledge and skills in real situations’, suggested Richard Hale, who specialises in action research and practice-based leadership development. Crucially, in conversation with me he noted that: “Being a successful leader involves working with particular situations with your unique personality, where a degree of judgement is required… The results of doing leadership are not always predictable. All of the above points may sit uncomfortably if you are looking for a formula for becoming a better leader.”

Notice the implications here: even if you have a sense of who you are, you are ‘authentic’ – however you may define that – you are still going to be working in a context, namely culture change, where predictability and control are illusory. The need is for capabilities such as:

• Getting comfortable with not knowing – and working with the shame and anxiety that may arise
• Courage – to act in the face of not knowing
• Getting comfortable with nuance and ambivalence – organisational cultures are awash with this
• Experimentation – culture work is inherently experimental, and some will fail. So you need to test and learn
• Leadership practice – working on how you show up, to better understand the impact you have
• Dialogue and sense making skills – culture work is ultimately all about sensing and responding to patterns and stories

And so on.

But, but, but authenticity!

Becoming more authentic is, therefore, down to whether you are up for engaging in the useful discomfort that all deep personal learning may entail. Without that, you are probably not being authentic, or working with the reality of who you are or the realness of your context. To be clear, this work is not always easy, and it can be deeply revealing, rewarding, messy, uncomfortable, revelatory, joyous and more. If you are open to the possibility of all of these, you are probably in touch with some of your authentic realness and better placed to deal with cultural issues such as blaming or bullying behaviours. Without that? Not so much.

Steve Hearsum is an experienced consultant, supervisor and developer of change practitioners, the founder of Edge + Stretch and the author of No Silver Bullet: Bursting the bubble of the organisational quick fix (out now).

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