If you want to lead anything, get real!

It seems that, every day, leadership makes the headlines.  Only yesterday, the news that Britain's top bosses enjoyed a 10% pay increase in 2011 - 12, way above UK employees, will rightly lead to more controversy about bosses rewarding themselves for mediocre performance.

This is not an inspiring backdrop if one wants to consider what makes an effective leader, in business or elsewhere.  For the elsewhere bit, look at Westminster and Holyrood, and inspiration is hard to find.  It's no surprise that in many organisations, we hear much talk about 'authentic leadership.'  So much talk that the term is becoming a bit passé, yesterday's news.

So what does make a leader effective?  The obvious starting point for me is that effective leaders have followers.  Senior managers may have staff, but leaders have people following them.  With this starting point, just how many of our FTSE 100 Chief Executives can genuinely claim to be leading anything?  If anyone is following, it may simply be in hope that the CEO slips up, and gives someone behind them the chance to pick up the crown, with guaranteed pay rises no matter how poor the organisation's performance.

A model for real leaders

You may now be asking yourself "how can I lead so that people will want to follow me?"  I gained an insight into this when I came across a model, outlining what it was that makes a presenter effective.  You know, those times when presenters have to stand up in front of an audience and present to them - usually with the help of 'PowerPoint' slides (as someone once said, "the trouble with PowerPoint is that it's powerless, and pointless!"  But that's another story.)  The diagram had four quadrants, measuring two things.  These were how skilled the presenter was, and how real the presenter was.  Obviously, the more skilled the presenter is at presenting, the better.  But it was also important to have presenters who were themselves, rather than putting on an act - in other words, being real.

This presentation matrix struck me as entirely applicable to leadership.  So here is the model, applied to leadership.

Based on “The matrix of authentic presenting” 2012, www.teachyourself.com

The four quadrants deal with how other people would describe a manager operating from each position.  So an unskilled, acting manager might be described by other people as discomforting, awkward and embarrassing.  A bit like David Brent from the office a few years ago, management to make people cringe.  A skilled, acting manager could expect others to view them as polished, slick, or even a charlatan (or worse!)  By contrast, an unskilled manager who is nonetheless being real might attract words like undiplomatic, naïve and inconsistent.  So far, would you trust any of these people?  I doubt it, so what chance that you would choose to follow them with any enthusiasm?

I don't know about you, but if I'm to follow anyone, they would need to be charismatic, genuine and engaging.  That means being real and being skilled are essential if you aspire to leadership in the real sense of the word.

Developing leaders

It takes a skilled person being real to genuinely lead others.  What a shame then that so much leadership development focuses on skills, and glosses over the importance of being real.  Make no mistake, it takes some serious leadership development work to help someone develop the self belief and confidence to 'be real.'  Particularly when most organisations expect people to regularly put an act on at work, like pretending to be enthusiastic about a change when you're not.  Even more so when it's clear that the number one fear of senior managers is the fear of being 'found out.'  Imposter syndrome is rife, with managers believing deep down that they don't measure up to the hype.  It's no wonder they choose to put a mask on, and act.

The mask won't save you though.  You still feel like a fraud, and you still won't have any followers.

With so many people acting out at work, expecting someone to suddenly become 'real' is a big ask.  It's easier to put on a few surface skills, and hope that people don't see through the slick, polished surface, and conclude that we have a true charlatan at work.  This approach simply won't attract followership - what is the old saying about you can't fool all of the people all of the time?

Be a manager if you want to, but if you want to lead instead, it's time to get real.  But what does this involve?  Watch this space…