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Genuine, transparent, and helpful: It’s time for a new generation of leaders to take charge

September 29, 2022, 3:31 PM UTC
Genuine leaders don't expect perfection–but they insist on openness. They know that if they don't have the right data, they can't make the right decision.
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After 30 years of Baby Boomer leadership, we are in the midst of a transfer of leadership from Baby Boomers to Gen X, Millennial, and Gen Z emerging leaders. It can’t happen too soon.

The first two decades of the 21st century have been characterized by a seemingly endless parade of crises. Issues arising from the 9/11 terror attacks, the bankruptcy of unethical companies like Enron and WorldCom, responses to the COVID-19 pandemic, racial inequities brought to light by George Floyd’s murder, and discrimination against women, BIPOC, immigrants, and LGBTQ+ individuals can all be traced back to failed leadership.

For 30 years, many Baby Boomers have led their organizations using a command-and-control style. Their priorities have been power, charisma, and ever-increasing compensation. That generation of leaders has left us with myriad problems from massive income inequality, undercompensated frontline workers (who are leading the Great Resignation), rampant inflation, supply chain shortages, and more.

In measuring themselves by their stock price, they have left many formerly great companies depleted by years of underinvestment in people, research, and capital equipment in order to make stock buybacks.

In the recent past, leadership was typified by the smartest person in the room. At the time, sizzle meant more than substance. There may be no better representative of this flawed approach than Jeff Skilling, who led Enron into bankruptcy. The demise of General Electric during Jeff Immelt’s 16 years as CEO from the world’s most valuable company to three smaller businesses is a close second.

The transformation we need at the top is far more than a generational change. It portends an entirely new purpose for business and an even more important change in the orientation of our leaders.

Command-and-control executives tended to look at their employees as a cost rather than an asset, as they discarded decades of loyalty-building with massive layoffs for which they collected millions in bonuses, depleting their organizations instead of building them up. Today’s emerging leaders recognize that there is no more important asset than their people and that their job is to build vital organizations that flourish through crises as well as growth periods.

In our new book, True North: Emerging Leader Edition, co-author Zach Clayton and I issue a clarion call to emerging leaders. It’s time for authentic, purpose-driven, and values-centered leaders to step up and lead our organizations. Today’s employees won’t follow someone until they know the leader is willing to put the needs of their people above their own self-interest.

Authentic leadership is a direct departure from the command-and-control style that characterizes many Baby Boomers. As Ralph Lauren CEO Patrice Louvet says, “We have gone from leaders who expect everyone to serve them to servant leaders who see their role as serving the people they lead and represent. Our job as leaders is to create the conditions for our people to thrive and realize their full potential.”

I first started talking publicly about the concept of this evolved leader in 2003 with Authentic Leadership. At the height of the “charismatic leader” era, the thought of getting rid of the false personas and the masks that hid who they really were scared some leaders. In the years that followed, authentic leadership grew in acclaim and blossomed into what has become the gold standard for today’s leaders.

The one indispensable value required of authentic leaders is integrity. You simply won’t find a behavior more important than telling the truth. Successful organizations require integrity and the common basis that truth provides. In essence, eradicating honesty from an organization is like removing oxygen from the room. If you do either, you aren’t likely to survive.

Transparency has grown tremendously in importance with the emergence of the 24-hour news cycle, social media, and introduction of the citizen journalism. Leaders can no longer “spin” their way out of problems: whatever they intend to keep secret will eventually become public.

Many Baby Boomer leaders think they can keep stakeholders, including middle management, in the dark. Instead of leaning into transparency, they share information on a “need-to-know” basis while they manipulate the numbers behind the scene.

In contrast, authentic leaders understand the value of transparency and inspire others by imparting the complete picture and expecting their teammates to do the same. In dealing with their subordinates, they don’t expect perfection–but they insist on openness. Otherwise, leaders never have the complete facts they need to make decisions.

Finally, leaders earn trust by building authentic relationships with their teammates while admitting their mistakes and exposing their vulnerabilities. Even the best leaders have weaknesses–and a willingness to admit those flaws is a strength and an endearing quality.

It’s no surprise that the proliferation of authentic leadership is coinciding with the arrival of emerging leaders. Gen X, Millennials, and Gen Z leaders have very different expectations, beliefs, values, and goals than their predecessors. Unlike command-and-control leaders who spurned every opportunity to shed light on the things that made them tick, emerging leaders can’t imagine not sharing the unique qualities and experiences that make them who they are.

For these emerging leaders, what is bound to be a fruitful and meaningful journey is just beginning–and not a moment too soon for organizations to cope with the crises we face.

Bill George is the author of True North: Emerging Leader Edition, an executive fellow at Harvard Business School, and a former chair and CEO of Medtronic.

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