Chapter 4: Be Yourself Better: Why Passion And Conviction Are Essential To Inspiring Leaders
Authenticity in leadership is crucial. It builds trust. Without trust, you cannot be an inspiring leader. But how do you show more of who you are and what you believe in, in a way that engages and motivates? Follow these 10 steps to help you articulate your personal purpose and values, be more authentic and passionate with your followers, and generate more trust.
On the night before the big conference, my CEO rejected his speech.
Not good. Really, really, not good.
My team had spent weeks writing the speech with little input from him, receiving helpful but second-hand guidance from his chief of staff. They had also received advice from an editorial committee drawn together from across the organization. Our CEO had been too busy to give them time. Even with all the help from people who knew him well, the writers had had to intuit what should be in his speech, which was to be delivered at a major conference on customer care. More than 500 people would be in the audience, all of whom had paid to be there, and the event would be filmed for broadcast on the organizer’s website and reported on by the media.
As speeches go, it was a pretty good one. It was witty, snappy and well researched. My CEO thought so too. The only problem was, it wasn’t ‘his’. It wasn’t the way he spoke and it didn’t say the key things about the organization that he wanted to say, the things he was most passionate about. Because he didn’t ‘own’ it and believe it, he would not be able to deliver it with conviction and would not be authentic, he said.
(It would have been nice if he had at least found the time to look at it the day before and given us 24 hours to respond. The night before was cutting it fine.)
‘What to do?’ he asked.
‘Well, what do you want to say?’
‘I want to talk about service recovery and use that to illustrate points about our customer care ethos,’ he said. (Now that would have been really nice to know.)
‘Okay,’ I said, ‘then let me teach you the countdown technique. Think of the movie High Noon – where vengeful criminals are on the way to town directly from the jail you put them in. They want to kill you at the appointed hour of 12 o’clock. The clock is ticking away the seconds that will lead to this catastrophic moment. Using the countdown method is a sure-fire way to grab the audience’s attention.’
‘Sounds great, but what story will we tell?’
Just a few months before, the company had been involved in a high-profile service breakdown, due to circumstances way beyond its control. Staff from all over the organization had joined hands to aid customers and ensure they were not inconvenienced for too long. It had been a mammoth effort that drew on the natural desire of our staff to be of good service, our ability to be highly responsive to customers because of our detailed knowledge of them, and an ability to call on suppliers who were wedded to our customer ethos. Things had got back to normal very quickly and had resulted in a flood of grateful letters of praise from hundreds of customers.
My CEO had been intimately involved in the recovery programme, and needed little in the way of speechwriting to recall exactly what had happened. This was it. We had the story and it perfectly illustrated what he wanted to say.
Now we just needed some prompts to enable him to recall the key moments of the episode in the right sequence. We produced a few slides simply showing stages in the countdown to the disaster, describing all the factors that had converged to create the catastrophe. Then one slide to illustrate the big bang moment. And a few more slides filled with customer quotes that enabled him to talk to the key points he wanted to make about service recovery and customer care. He was happy. He could make heroes out of our staff. Better still, he seemed keen to get out there.
I was unable to attend the conference and waited nervously for news of his performance. When, finally, a member of staff called, the news was overwhelmingly positive. Our CEO had been a star! He had paced the stage with passion and conviction and had told the story brilliantly. Questions from the floor had been almost reverent and eventually had to be cut short with many hands still raised.
Instinctively, my CEO had realized a great truth about leadership. If you don’t believe what you’re saying, you won’t convince anyone. If what you’re saying doesn’t come from your own passions and beliefs, you will be inauthentic and unconvincing. Worse, people may see your lack of conviction, realize the falsity of your words and mistrust your motives. And if you lose people’s trust, you cannot lead them. Nor can you influence them.
Instead of taking the easy route and obediently reading what he had been given, my CEO decided not to put his leadership at risk like that. In the end, he had simply told a story he cared about and did not read a perfectly crafted speech. The story he told was the insider’s background to a well-publicized service breakdown, so he was revealing the secrets about what had really happened to an audience who already knew all about the incident. He cared passionately about customers and glowed with pride at the customer comments, and naturally spoke highly of how all the staff had pulled together, without much urging, to stage a magnificent recovery. He told the story his way, in his words, from the heart. Although what he said was not perfectly scripted, it was hugely impactful.
Authenticity in leadership is crucial.
At its most simple it’s about being true to yourself and true to others. If you’re going to get your messages across and influence the way people behave, then there has to be trust in you as an individual and in what you say. When trust in you goes, cynicism takes its place. It is incredibly difficult to influence cynical people or people who are sceptical about your motives.
Followers want someone they can believe in. Followers respond best to leaders who have a strong strategic focus with a clear vision of where they should be going, leaders who speak plainly and truthfully and, when necessary, courageously and with principles. They especially like leaders who stand up for them and defend them to the hilt. Leaders with a strong set of values built on honesty and openness and respect for other people are the most inspirational of all. They are predictable and they are human. Followers want leaders to be accessible, with genuine humility and even, occasionally, vulnerability. They want to be trusted and in turn to trust their leader.
One of the keys to being trusted is visibility. There are so many ways today that you can make yourself more visible, whether you run a small team or a global organization. You can convey your personality on a global webinar as well as you can in face-to-face sessions. People notice whether you’re willing to engage on the things that really matter, no matter how difficult. If you don’t show up, they won’t believe in your courage, and they won’t trust that you have the conviction to do the right thing.
When you show up, you’re going to have to learn how to be yourself better. People cannot trust you if they don’t know who you are and what you believe in. You have to have the confidence to be you and deliver your personal brand with conviction. Whether you like it or not, you will have a brand. People will talk about you when you’re not in the room, and what they say about you is your brand. The question is, what will they be saying? How can you influence what they say?
The first thing to remember is that a brand is what a brand does. What you believe will show through. A beautiful piece of writing attributed to Lao Tse, a philosopher of ancient China and the author of the Tao Te Ching, says the following:
‘Watch your thoughts, they become words;
Watch your words, they become actions;
Watch your actions, they become habits;
Watch your habits, they become your character; and
Watch your character, it becomes your destiny.’
Whether you like it or not, your personal values and the things you believe important will show through in your actions and in the things you focus on. That’s what people will see and that’s what will communicate your brand. To help you, you need to articulate those values to yourself and take the time to write them out and consider them. Better that you do that and use them deliberately, for they will out, often in ways that you are likely to be completely unaware of.
Recently, I had the privilege of interviewing Ron Dennis, the Executive Chairman of the McLaren group, which encompasses McLaren racing, McLaren Applied Technologies and McLaren Automotive. I saw an example of what I am talking about at work.
Waiting to see him in the reception of the McLaren Technology Centre in Woking in the UK, I was happily observing the Formula One cars on display. A colleague of his, who had received me, asked me if I could tell from the line-up of cars when Ron Dennis had taken over as leader of the McLaren Formula One team.
It transpired that you could see it, because from that moment on the cars were always more aesthetic in their design. Ron, he said, was fixated with aesthetics. I was then regaled with several stories about how Ron paid close attention to detail and often personally oversaw those things that he believed required his eye for aesthetics. The whole organization knew that this was something he cared about deeply, even obsessively, and that he paid careful attention to the tiniest of details.
A little later, during my interview with him, I asked Ron about the values of McLaren. He spoke about innovation, creativity and a commitment to excellence. He said the group had one goal: to win. He never mentioned aesthetics.
Treading carefully, I asked him what a member of staff would have to do to really annoy him. ‘Oh,’ he said vehemently, ‘that’s really easy. It would be to do with aesthetics.’
Even though this was not expressed in the corporate values, it was clearly something that was driven into the organization as a powerful value that dictated how his followers behaved. They took their signals from Ron’s behaviours and what he focused on.
When you are using your authenticity knowingly and to positive benefit, it brings real business benefits. When leaders are truly authentic, they are able to build strong relationships and trust. If those relationships are about mutual benefit, then you will be able to deal with conflict and difficult situations when the going gets tough. You will be able to build teams that are high-performance collectives, engaged and able to deliver their full potential. You will be in touch with yourself and your people, more in tune with what is happening and therefore able to make better-informed decisions, drawing on the creativity of everyone around you. You will be able to inspire them to great achievements.
If you really want to achieve something, you have to have an emotional connection with what you have set out to do. Don’t be afraid of exposing yourself by being more emotional. All communication involves risk, and it is natural to fear that your authentic self will be rejected. The trouble is, being inauthentic is the greater risk. Authenticity is about lowering your guard and being more open about feelings, about uncertainties, about risks and issues. It is only natural to be reserved about projecting your personal beliefs on to others. But, remember this: no passion and no conviction mean no inspiration.
Here are 10 things you need to do to help you better articulate who you are and what you believe in, and enable you to be more authentic and passionate with your followers.
1. Define your purpose.
2. Define your values and your beliefs.
3. Understand your strengths. Play to them but don’t trumpet them.
4. Understand, admit to and mitigate your weaknesses.
5. Think about the seminal moments in your career and life and the key learnings that you have carried forward from those. Talk about these.
6. Map your purpose to that of your organization. Create a picture of success. Speak to that more.
7. Map your values to those of your organization. Speak to those more.
8. Show more humanity. Admit mistakes or that you don’t know. Always show respect to others.
9. Ask yourself whether you show up for the difficult conversations and are visible in challenging times.
10. Never swallow the truth. Always be optimistic, but never hide the truth.
In short: be visible, be human and be straight.
Here are some pointers on how to achieve each of the above.