I have been banging on about the lack of leadership in Australia for over a decade. In the lead up to the 2010 Federal Election I had a letter read on “60 Minutes” supporting Mark Latham’s urge to voters to donkey vote (or intentionally ensure that their vote was informal) because he articulated the reason, that being disillusionment with the dearth of quality political leadership.
I cannot support the avenues that Mr Latham has since taken to play a role in Australian politics. While it is perhaps understandable to consider joining a “protest party”, one needs to be careful about what is the main message that that party protests and is seen by the electorate to protest. It is, of course, unrealistic to find ourselves totally aligned with any political party on all of the issues that concern us, but we all have issues which are clear-cut based on our value system, and I have no compunction in stating that xenophobia should be one of those issues for all of us.
Not pre-judging people by the way they look or for their lifestyle is not political correctness. It is just common human decency.
The leadership void is not confined to Australia. Globally there is a backlash against contemporary leadership by the elites in our societies.
It is unsurprising, then, that leadership is a topic that is attracting much discussion in business circles and it is a key buzz word – or “hot button topic” – amongst an industry which picks up on these themes and profits from consulting to bring these values into corporations and other institutions.
I read a great deal of socio-economic material daily and I have business television running in the background throughout the day as well as much of the night (OK, I confess, I enjoy falling asleep to the clear and sure voices of Alix Steel and David Westin, or, if retiring earlier, Tom Keene and Francine Lacqua).
Through this I pick up on the themes, buzz words and phrases that come into fashion and then are dropped almost as quickly as they appear.
Being a natural contrarian with an aversion to being a part of the herd I am sensitive to societal fashions and fads. Consciously or subconsciously incorporating these trends into my own behaviour does not make me feel cool, confident or included. Instead I gain confidence when I detect and intentionally eschew these trends. At quieter times I admit to myself that the nature of human societies is such that nobody who lives with at least one other person is immune from influence by others.
Perhaps nowadays it is in part an intellectual snobbishness to reject trends and thus a personal flaw. It is also, though, my own expression of the dissatisfaction with the media-saturated, now especially social media, environment that many of us are feeling and expressing in private and increasingly in public. For me a big attraction of spending time overseas is the break from the continual political and other messaging to which we are subjected and have become increasingly desensitised.
How discouraging that so many among our young generations so value the role that “social influencers” play in society that they consider it the most attractive career choice.
Obviously the title of this post is a none too subtle poke at this phenomenon in institutional and workplace management. However, that these trends occur is not the main point of the post. Neither is this post really about the industry that has sprung up around promoting these trends and instituting them in organisations – the consultants, the authors, the TED talks, the internet/social media gurus.
I actually really like one of the buzz words in the title of this post, and if you have read much of my material, and are equally sensitive to detecting their use, then you will probably know what it is that current buzz word I like.
Authentic or authenticity.
Authenticity in the Workplace
The Oxford dictionary defines authentic as the quality of being genuine or true.
That is entirely consistent with my understanding of the word as I have used it through my adult life. It is a simple concept and I would expect that almost everybody raised with English as their first language would have a similarly crystal clear understanding of what the value authentic means. Similarly, everybody knows how that applies to human behaviour.
That does not mean, however, that everyone knows what it means to be authentic in their own behaviour. Does it mean to be true to your own nature and to reflect that in purity with your own actions, or does it mean to be true to a set of behaviours that you perceive to be ideal (or pure) in circumstantial context within your society.
With the first interpretation one can not avoid being subjective in analysing whether they are behaving in a manner entirely consistent with their own nature. Moreover, we, ourselves, are the only ones who can really know what is our own true nature, and we all are imperfect at analysing it, some of us being quite self unaware. Additionally we can never really know what others perceive of our true nature and how consistent we are to it in our actions, and what each other individual perceives of that will be contingent on their own patterning from innate and experiential factors.
So there is already an enormous amount of subjectivity and we have only discussed the least subjective interpretation. But I do not wish to get bogged down. Suffice to say that the latter interpretation requires one to accurately perceive what is ideal behaviour in all contexts, with all of the subjectivity that involves, and then there is the subjectivity of others perceiving what they consider to be the ideal contextual behaviours and constantly assessing whether your perception of that is accurate and that you implement that behaviour faithfully.
In reality, in organisations the meaning of an authentic person encompasses both interpretations.
The widespread application of the latter interpretation, involving conforming to ideal behaviours, and especially the pressure that some feel to do so and the energy that they must thus expend, is responsible for the backlash against “political correctness”.
With that out of the way I can finally move on to the point of this post!
How Authenticity is Acquired
Authenticity can not be taught or coached into anybody – a person either acquires it through the complex interactions of their genes and the circumstantial events in the very early period of one’s life, or they do not.
The most decent authentic human being on Earth can emerge from the slums of Mumbai having spent their childhood rummaging with hundreds of other children through moving piles of garbage as bulldozers push them towards the extremities of the dump pile.
And the most despicable scoundrel can have been raised under conditions which many consider to be the preserve of the elite and super wealthy with all of the privilege and excesses, and sometimes hidden barrenness, that entails.
Executives and managers within organisations can gather together in groups to be told about these buzz words, and they can be taught what is authentic behaviour, but if they have never before displayed it in their life then an authentic snowball in hell has a longer half-life than authentic behaviour does in that individual.
The reader will note from my writing that I not only like the word “authentic” but that I have intentionally been using it widely in my writing. I have to admit that this is in part due to the co-option of the term for business and corporate management agendas, and I have concerns on whether this will bastardise, taint or weaken its meaning. And so I have been setting about reinforcing what it really is to be authentic.
Why I feel this is necessary gets to the very heart of this post.
Authenticity in Contemporary Leaders and Institutions
The value of honesty is very similar to the value of authenticity, and in many uses it can be considered a synonym, in our honesty to ourselves and to other people and to wider society.
Society is acutely aware that business and political leaders are nowadays highly trained in communication – e.g. in mannerisms including hand gestures during television interviews – but it is patent that what is being communicated by them supports an agenda and is what they want others to perceive which may or may not not be related to the truth or even what they themselves really believe to be the truth.
In other words, unless the leader has the acting skills of Morgan Freeman, people immediately recognise it for what it is – spin – aka balony, bulldust, hogwash, or plain old crapola.
That goes equally to audiences for the messages delivered by political leaders and business leaders, and it flows down the organisational hierarchy. In other words, if nobody believes that the leader authentically or truly or genuinely believes what they are saying, then they sure are not going to believe their subordinates are going to be any more authentic in this regard.
So is it any wonder that people would question whether organisations authentically value authenticity?
Perhaps the 2019 Edelman Trust Barometer results (https://www.edelman.com.au/research/trust-barometer-2019, accessed 24/11/2019) showing a high degree of trust in “our employers” contradicts this assertion. However, examination of the internals of the data suggest that the relative trust in the employer has a lot to do with just how distrusting of the system and other institutions, including businesses, are the majority of Australians, and their other anxieties and insecurities are likely influencing people to want to believe in their own employer which has a large impact on their own life and security (“What Australians Expect of Their Employers”, https://aicd.companydirectors.com.au/membership/company-director-magazine/2019-back-editions/march/edelman-trust, accessed 24/11/2019).
Authenticity Versus Psychopathy
Over the last decade there has been a base of literature developing that suggests that psychopathy is more prevalent, at perhaps three times the rate, amongst executive ranks than in wider society (Lipman V, 2013, “The Disturbing Link Between Psychopathy and Leadership”, https://www.forbes.com/sites/victorlipman/2013/04/25/the-disturbing-link-between-psychopathy-and-leadership/#6e0eb4c94104, accessed 24/11/2019).
Psychopathy is traditionally a personality disorder characterised by persistent antisocial behaviour, impaired empathy and remorse, and bold, disinhibited and egotistical traits. It is sometimes considered a synonym of sociopathy (Psychopathy, Wikipedia, https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Psychopathy, accessed 24/11/2019).
A study of Australian business executives found that almost 6% could be considered to be psychopathic, while another 10.5% were dysfunctional and displayed psychopathic tendencies (Saft J 2019, “As psychopath CEOs destroy value, nice ones create it, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-markets-saft-idUSKBN19C2Y0, accessed 24/11/2019). So in a group of six Australian white-collar managers, chances are that at least one will be a psychopath or at least will display psychopathic behaviours.
These are the executives that are meant to institute the cultural agenda within an organisation as it works its way down from the leadership team. So if authenticity is highly subjective, do a group of people shown to have a significantly higher prevalence of psychopathy than broader society – i.e. the people that structurally work under them – truly have the skill to assess who is acting authentically and who is not?
The obvious answer is that as a group, no, they do not.
It is for this very reason that I would suggest that automation of a lot of human resources tasks will be a productive development. However, the executives will certainly not like handing over control of this function and it is very much in the nature of this group to resist this progress – that would be behaviour authentic to the group as a whole!
I would suggest at the very least that Artificial Intelligence could be used to scrub from applications any indications of gender or ethnicity or any other other factors associated with societal biases or prejudices, references to schools should be removed, and universities too – though some might suggest that a ranking be applied to give an indication of the quality of education received. This should be a relatively straight-forward start which should not be difficult to implement.
While many employees would be sceptical that ideals such as authenticity would be actively promoted with their organisation, as a top-down initiative from leadership teams to the rest of the organisation, because of these inherent flaws, that does not mean that people are not disappointed when the contradictions become apparent.
What upsets people most is the perception of an executive or management club, which used to be referred to as a “boys club” but is less so now even if it is still 60-40 at best (i.e. the highest representation of women), and a lot of these factors – the jargon and the spin – only serves as reinforcement. These groups watch the same TED talks, speak the same management spin vocabulary, and share the inside jokes that follow. Often the egotistical nature of individuals within the management group – remember these are not necessarily as socially intelligent or aware individuals – leads them to highlight this divide with their behaviours.
Nothing that I am saying is meant to take anything away from Ted Talk presentations by Brene Brown or Simon Sinek and others. In fact, all of this serves to underline just how important it really is to authentically promote authenticity and other management ideals within organisations.
It is just the old proverb in action that if I was going to promote authenticity in an organisation I would not start from this point.
To authentically take this on – rather than just provide lip service and be seen to be doing it while being ready to pounce on the next big idea that comes along – will take a major commitment by any and all organisations. And it will take a great deal of thought and system implementation to make progress at removing roadblocks for selecting for authenticity in employees, and one important measure will likely involve quotas to ensure diversity (I am currently working on a post on this topic).
Moreover, we live in a society where people feel more and more anxious, like they are on a hamster wheel, with increasing focus on the process so that it is the ends in itself rather than being the means to the end (again, another post on this is in preparation).
The answer absolutely does lie in promoting authentic individuals upwards towards leadership roles. However, authentic leadership is required to ensure that authentic people are accurately identified and promoted.
I have a view that the ideal leader in very many situations is the reluctant one. Many years ago I read the First Inaugural speech by President Washington (In “Speeches That Changed the World”, 1999, Compiled by Owen Collins, Westminster John Knox Press, pp160-165) and I was awestruck by his humility and his integrity – or yes, his authenticity (maybe I have overused the term above so I will start using some synonyms more from here).
In the speech he spoke of his desire to quietly toil away on his own land in retirement, but that his compatriots pleaded with him to sacrifice his own desires for the greater good.
On the one hand, I was summoned by my country, whose voice I can never hear but with veneration and love, from a retreat which I had chosen with the fondest predilection, and, in my flattering hopes, with an immutable decision, as the asylum of my declining years – a retreat which was rendered every day more necessary as well as more dear to me by the addition of habit to inclination, and of frequent interruptions in my health to the gradual waste committed on it by my time.
He also rejected all financial benefits from taking up the position, as he did in his prior military role.
When I was first honored with a call into the service of my country, then on the eve of an arduous struggle for its liberties, the light in which I contemplated my duty required that I should renounce every pecuniary compensation. From this resolution I have in no instance departed; and being still under the impressions which produced it, I must decline as inapplicable to myself any share in the personal emoluments which may be indispensably included in a permanent provision for the executive department…
(I recommend the reader to track down and read the entire speech.)
Washington was confident that he was as good as any to do the job but was not overconfident. He took on the role without any thought of self-interest, in fact it was the opposite – he was acutely aware of what he was sacrificing, and even though he felt that there were others that could do the job, and that he had already sacrificed, he recognised that his society would gain confidence from his stepping into the role so he did.
I do not pretend that I am not cynical, but I struggle to think of leaders at the elite level who I am confident are not acting as their primary driving force self-interest, whether it be for financial gain or status. If I examine Australian politics I think John Hewson may be the last political leader that I would feel confident in saying that he was acting selflessly, and he fell short of the Prime Ministership.
I do not suggest, here, that leaders do not make sacrifices. No, please do not take that easy option of arguing on the tangent rather than the exact point. I am saying that all recent political and business leaders that I can recall have have entered the position perceiving that they will gain more from their position than they are sacrificing. Even though on one hand Malcolm Turnbull could be considered to have sacrificed financially by entering politics, or at least not seeking financial advantage in his position, I think all consider that Turnbull is not known for humility and thus perceived significant status benefits from being Prime Minister.
To add my subjective assessment on the authenticity of all Australian Prime Ministers in my living memory would detract from this essay, so I will not, but to continue with the person I consider to be the best leader Australia never had in my life time is instructive. (I do, however, find it difficult to leave this statement without saying that he was beaten by a very good Prime Minister, who together with Hawke provided what I consider to be the best Australian political leadership in my lifetime.)
I believe that the primary reason that John Hewson failed, even though he perceived himself to be acting for the greater good over self-interest, and I agree, is that people who are inclined to act for the greater good tend to be more honest and authentic, and those people can be outmanoeuvred by crafty people as they are more trusting in the sincerity behind actions.
The wily reporter Mr Willisee knew that Hewson’s honesty would mean that his inclination would be to explain the example he was presented with so that the everyday viewer watching the television would receive the full picture. Of course Hewson’s inexperience did not help here, and giving the honest and precise answer – on the tax applied to a birthday cake – allowed Willisee to turn the tables and suggest that the everyday person would be confused. Mr Willisee did not bother highlighting that not understanding the physics behind how images appear on one’s television set does not prevent the viewer from enjoying its entertainment value.
Honest political campaigns remained out of vogue until the most recent Federal election, but given what happened, again, we can be certain that transparent honesty will not feature in strategies for political campaigns in Australia for a very, very long time.
For authentic and honest people, the wiliness and strategy that comes hand in hand with political manipulation does not come naturally, and must be actively learned, while those who have a lesser degree of authenticity have a greater predilection for being disingenuous or devious.
Thus authenticity is a natural and powerful disadvantage to political astuteness and positioning throughout society, including in workplaces. The one exception is during crises when less authentic people are not attracted to the trappings of power and influence because these benefits are outweighed by the amount of effort and work that must necessarily go towards working for the greater good. However, these periods are aberrations and are not the normal state of things, not yet anyhow.
Authenticity as a Detriment to Career Progression
This truth about groups of human beings is one of the reasons for the popularity of the longest-running reality television program, Survivor, as viewers examine players – with wide-ranging abilities and strategies for social politics, and behaving in ways that most players say they never do in their “real lives” – who seek to outplay, outwit and outlast all others to achieve a significant financial prize.
I was immediately attracted to the concept and to the television show. But I quickly realised that I do not possess the skills to be good at playing the game, because while I possessed some skills that are necessary to do well – to read situations to understand the politics involved – I knew from my life experiences that I lack the skill of deception and am a very poor lyer which would prevent me from being a contender for the title of “sole survivor”.
I would suggest that all of my friends and many of my foes would rapidly admit that the authenticity piece – encompassing integrity and honesty – absolutely is right in my wheelhouse.
Nowadays I would also say that this value was at times a detriment to my career as a scientist, because the truth is that career management in science is more akin to the game of Survivor than it is to being a meritocracy. And it took me a very long time to realise that, even longer to accept it, and I barely had the opportunity to even attempt to do something about it by the point at which I had run out of time.
If “outplay” is a measure of competency at doing science, then to outwit and outlast are far more important ingredients for a prolonged career in research science. What’s more, I am in little doubt that sociopathy is even more prevalent in academic leadership than it is amongst executives.
The rubber really hits the road, however, when we begin to think about the highest profile case of recent times of corporate leadership not living up to societal expectations.
Australian Bank Executives, Authenticity and Culture
Question: Has recent leadership of the major Australian Banks been authentic?
If one considers the initial interpretation of authenticity then we need to ask what is the true nature of these senior bankers, and were their actions consistent their true nature.
I think many in society would say that the banking system does select for true scoundrels, and these senior bankers acted consistently with that nature.
Certainly our political leaders have no compunction in suggesting just that now. Of course, just like in Survivor, politically astute actors never underestimate the value of diversion or a shield to their own obvious shortcomings or ambitions.
Nonetheless, if we accepted that to be a scoundrel is their nature, and everyone now agrees that they acted true to that nature, then clearly recent Australian bank leaders have been authentic.
So is this really the behaviour we want to encourage in corporate Australia? Of course not.
So authenticity in leadership most definitely is about about being true to one’s nature, but it is crystal clear the character of that nature should be of a very high standard based on societal values.
Now to have reached the apex of Australian corporate structures – remember, Ian Narev was the highest paid business executive in Australia – these people were not plucked from obscurity. No, they are a product of the system – they were not just for the system, they were of the system.
So it is hardly surprising that many are highlighting just how difficult it will be to change corporate culture within Australian banks. And given how ex-Treasury head Ken Henry behaved in his testimony, it is clear that this culture is widespread in the elite economic leadership of the Country.
Here is the thing. I do not believe that there are many parents out there, even today, who teach toddlers to not share. In all the time that I have spent at playgroups with my children, and in playgrounds and at kids’ christmas parties, I have not once heard a parent say “no little Johnny, or Janie, those toys (or food or whatever) are all yours and you should keep it all for yourself”. Similarly I have never heard a parent tell a child that two wrongs can most certainly be a right as long as it is all right for you!
What I have come to realise is that most of us from our earliest times are taught what is ideal behaviour for the society in which we live, and co-operation and generosity is universal in human societies.
At some point in a person’s development, however, we begin to understand that not everyone behaves in an ideal manner. And we notice that, whether it is when they are driving or while at sporting events, even our own parents do not always behave in a manner consistent with those lofty ideals that they espoused when we were younger, and most likely they still encourage them from us.
We all learn, some earlier than others, that those who “get ahead” often compromise on these ideals. And gradually we become desensitised to those little compromises and deviations from the ideal that we all make.
So let’s imagine one day you join an organisation, and maybe that is an Australian bank, perhaps in the insurance arm which has developed a culture of selling some policies which are essentially worthless as they are almost impossible to claim on, and delaying on legitimate claims by terminally ill patients thereby decreasing the probability that the claimant will live long enough for an automatic policy reset to occur so that the estate can claim under the death benefit. These are all issues that were raised during the Royal Commission with the terribly sad stories attached.
After a while you realise what is occurring and you have a moral dilemma on whether you will continue on with the employer or leave. Now this is a large organisation, one of the best-known companies and one of the largest listed on the Australian Stock Exchange, and you enjoy a good remuneration and other benefits which make you feel secure. You decide to stay.
After a while you move into an area that is selling the worthless policies which is an open if infrequently discussed secret. You’ve already made compromises in staying with the employer because you realised that what the business is doing is not consistent with your morals when you joined. You have told yourself that others are doing it – and they seem like good people, so it cannot be that bad what you are doing, right? – and anyhow, what good would you be doing in making a moral stance by leaving, especially when that would decrease the security of your own family? Afterall, the experience has already taught you that there are unfortunates in our society and you really would not want to fall into the have-not category. But you are not an executive anyhow – it’s they who are making the decisions and must take the majority of responsibility for the actions of the organisation.
You notice a creep in how you feel at work, and you have a few drinks most nights with your partner to take the edge off, and are a bit more snappy with the children, but you generally feel (mostly) proud when you explain your career progression in your social circles.
Then you get a tap on the shoulder and are promoted to be a manager in the claims department. The claims department is quite separate from the sales department, so you were not all that familiar with how things worked there, but it became clear in the first few weeks that upper management is forcing on you and your subordinates a go slow on claims by seriously and terminally ill people. You manage people who have to deal with claimants on the phone and it’s a high stress position. But they are well paid, relative to remuneration from other employers, to compensate them for the stress and you all share in a generous bonus pool which is related, either explicitly or implicitly, to how well the flow of claims is slowed.
You realise that sleeping well is a thing of the past and it takes a little more alcohol to take the edge off these days. But you rationalise in the same ways as earlier – and if you did not do the job then somebody else would only be too keen to step up and take it on, and you have those school fees and the mortgage to pay. Honestly, would it really be any different for those claimants regardless of whether you are in that position or somebody else? Your employer is just going to keep on doing the same thing anyhow.
I have no experience of working in a bank or for an insurer, but the actual progression for the human beings who were the employees who carried out the actions which were detailed in the Royal Commission had to be something along those lines. At least it would have been for the ones who possessed some sort of moral compass when they joined the organisation – the completely inauthentic psychopaths, the scoundrels, did not have the empathy and compassion to give a second thought right from the start.
What concerns me most when the Royal Commission is discussed is that there does not seem to be enough accountability directed towards the lower levels. Sure the highest levels should pay a price – a real price – not a golden parachute out. Anybody involved with treating others so despicably really should receive a punitive action which makes them reflect on the poor decisions that they too made.
It is simply not good enough to say it was the company that made them do it – it was many human beings doing bad things to other vulnerable human beings.
Moreover, the authentic whistleblowers should absolutely be venerated and celebrated!
Nobody is Perfect: Some are Closer Than Others
Not everyone is unfortunate enough to enter such a toxic environment and needs to make a moral decision between staying in a job or leaving.
Nonetheless, that we all make compromises and deviations from the ideal behaviour through our lives is not in question. As the saying goes, nobody is perfect.
The question clearly is how many compromises were made and how wide is the deviation from what is the ideal behaviour according to broad societal values and expectations.
The fewer the compromises and the less the deviation from that ideal, the stronger the “moral compass”, and the more authentic the person.
These are the people who should be selected to lead multi-skilled and disciplinary teams, and these are the people that need to be curated through organisations using systems that are not biased by the compromises that already exist within organisations.
Dedicated to my parents Jan and George. You were the inspiration for my first compass without which I would not be the man I became. Thank you.
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© Copyright Brett Edgerton 2019