It is often said that authentic leadership begins with self-awareness, so let me begin by sharing a little about the origins of my own beliefs around this subject – We start learning how to be leaders in the very first organisation we belong to, namely, the family. The ‘rules’ we learn and adopt from our ‘significant others’; parents, siblings, aunts, uncles, cousins and grandparents provide us with the ‘map’ we later use to guide us through the complex maze of future relationships, and influence what and who we choose to connect with, align to, follow and lead, in both our social and professional lives.
As a parent, my own learning about leadership has continued courtesy of, sometimes hard, feedback from three children, who are clearly willing and capable of expressing their opinions in this matter!
Like many of our generation, my partner and I delayed having children until later in our marriage, enjoying 10 years of autonomy and freedom that came from being what was commonly referred to as ‘dinks’ – double income, no kids. Now, finding myself on the ‘mature’ side of the parental demographic, I have experienced many unexpected pleasures and faced many unforeseen challenges that come with trying to guide three people, who clearly belong to another generation, on the journey to adulthood; self-actualisation and societal contribution.
Over, the years it has been difficult, in a family of five very different and independent souls, to find common interests and activities that serve to bring us together to connect; talk and share what we have been doing and what we might aspire to do, individually and collectively. Determined to do so, and recognising the initiative rested with me, I took the decision to engage with some popular culture.
Whilst I might prefer to relax on a Sunday evening with Antiques Roadshow (It really doesn’t seem that long ago I was sneering at my parents for their taste in viewing!), my children, particularly my 14 year old daughter, are somewhat addicted to any show that touches upon the potential to become famous by singing or dancing in front of the nation and, in my view, an often over enthusiastic and forgiving studio audience.
Limited personal desire combined with finite ‘free’ time over a weekend, to engage in what my eldest refers to as ‘sofa squatting’, meant facing the choice of either watching hopeful attic raiders anxiously awaiting news that their family heirloom was a missing Rembrandt or, having to listen to Carl from Rochdale belt out a karaoke version of ‘Delilah’ for a panel of incredulous and somewhat discomfited celebrities. So it was that, despite reservations, I spent many a weekend last winter doing the latter. I took my place alongside the family to follow a number of popular TV programmes I referred to collectively as, ‘Britain Hasn’t Got a Voice Factor’, on the premise that between quite brutal criticism of contestants from Katie and her two older brothers and under the cloud of some desperately questionable singing, we had something resembling ‘family time’.
My late mother loved to quote the saying, “Every cloud has a silver lining”, and this episode of my life seemed to concur, not only bringing me closer to my family but also providing a powerful reminder of the importance of authentic communication.
On one particular occasion, after requesting the volume be turned down sufficiently to let me hear myself think, I actually found myself getting quite excited during a contestant’s singing of a popular number by a well-known established artist. The young woman (well, they all seem young now) sung a very different and original arrangement which I found both engaging and very moving. I was not alone, one of the judges commenting, “Wow, you really took that and made it your own!”
This contestant really stood out from all the other hopefuls and for the first time, and I have to say I am rather embarrassed to admit it, I heard myself saying, “I’d vote for her”. I hasten to add, I managed to rescue the situation, and discourage my daughter from immediately picking up the phone, by quickly adding, the caveat, “…If the television company wasn’t making a ridiculous amount of money from the exorbitant call charges”.
Anyway, what turned out to be a mini epiphany got me thinking. A good singer, like a good actor, doesn’t just recite someone else’s ‘script’. They take it and put themselves into it, making it theirs. It becomes their song, their story. And, because it is theirs, their belief in it and commitment to it is both genuine and compelling; it becomes one person’s real and authentic expression of a message and its meaning that touches many others.
I remember, as a child, following a religious education class at school asking my father, when he returned home, why four different people had bothered to write a Gospel. Surely it would have made more sense just to have shared one? He very patiently pointed out to the 10 year old me, each one was written from a different viewpoint and for a different kind of audience. At the time, not fully understanding what he was talking about when he said, “A great story belongs to everyone and deserves to be told in many ways to many different people”, I nodded, grunted, muttered an unconvincing ‘thank you’ and went about the business of getting under my mother’s feet as she tried to finish tea, forgetting all about our father son conversation. Until, that is, that singer sung that song.
I have done a lot of work with leaders, individually and collectively, around the change agenda and what is constantly being wrestled with is how difficult it is to engage stakeholders to be proactive in and really own their part in making ‘the journey’ a success. We’ve taken note of much of the wisdom and experience of gurus such as Kotter, Kanter, Bennis and others, talking about creating urgency and helping others ‘feel’ the need for, and determination to, change. We’ve spent many hours developing change visions to clarify how the future will be different from the past. We’ve spent a great deal of time and money on communicating this vision to stakeholders to ensure as many people as possible understand and accept the vision. But what we often overlook is the need people have to take the ‘change script’, the ‘song’, and make it their own.
That singer could not have done what she did if she’d unquestioningly accepted the original was as good, as relevant and as meaningful to her, as it could be. Whilst remaining true to the spirit of original, she had to adapt it, update it and personalise it. She made it her own and she was able to do so because the producer, the show’s leader’, created the opportunity for her to find her authentic voice with which to do so.
Giving people an authentic voice means inviting them to tell the story from their perspective with their chosen audience in mind. It means inviting others to take the message and imbue it with added depth, personal resonance and meaning. Organisations can choose to do this for their people and realise the power of multiple perspectives. Or they can, as so many often unwittingly do, restrict the part everyone can play to that of uncommitted and unconvincing, karaoke performers of the change message.
What will yours do?
Guest post by Ian Moore, Fourtold associate. Ian specialises in individual, group and organisational change.