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Beyond authentic leadership: A question of vision

6 min read


What are leaders for anyway? Half the time we’re disappointed in them, dismayed by their character flaws, disturbed by the mistakes they make and despise their lack of trustworthiness. And aren’t there many times when we get on without them pretty well? Look at what teams can spontaneously achieve without designated leaders.

Yet all great companies have found inspiration in their leaders. Each of us can recall memorable bosses who really made a difference. Many of these we will have admired as “authentic” — real, honest, admirable human beings who without pretense did the right things. But when you read the leadership literature it is full of injunctions, examples and recipes that have to be fulfilled in order to inspire and transform – the gold standard for many leaders.

They are all wrong. There is no magic formula. The lesson of history is that there are many ways of being a leader, as many as there are leadership situations and types of people. I wrote my new book — “The ‘I’ of Leadership: Strategies for Seeing, Being and Doing” — because I was so fed up with messages about leadership that leave most managers feeling depressed and inadequate.

Strategy as story: Seeing, being and doing

The title tells the story. The “I” of leadership is the leader’s ability to know who she is and how to tell the most important story a leader ever has to tell. This is: who I am and why I am here. The leader constitutes a value proposition for followers and all other stakeholders. The story tells: This is what was critical in my journey to here, this is the nature of my commitment to you, and this is what life will be like for you with me at the helm.

But there’s more to it than that. That kind of declaration runs a risk of becoming an exercise in pure ego. Authenticity gets a bad name when leaders say, this is who I am — take it or leave it, and then takes “authenticity“ as a license to be egotistical, self-indulgent and uncontrolled.

The title of my book has a double meaning — an “I” for an eye. Yes, who you are matters, but it is seeing that underpins all great leaders.

Did you ever try to change someone? Think of your spouse or teenage kid. Pretty hopeless, huh? You know why? It’s because we put all the emphasis on to “being.” We say, in effect, go on, be a different person, in fact someone less like you and more like me. The message here is — I am OK, you are not OK — and it will never work — except on a depressed person, for whom it is final confirmation of their worthlessness. No one ever changed any way else. People change themselves.

Let’s try route No. 2: to change the doing part. This is a hit-and-hope strategy. You reward new behaviors, set new conditions and rules, and the hope is that mind will follow. It may do, but that’s a long row to hoe. It takes time for the mind to catch up and learn that we can change ourselves. If we do new things, we may discover new things about ourselves, but mostly that’s because when we do new things we see ourselves and our surroundings in a new light. It’s all about seeing.

A change of vision is the only way that at the snap of a finger we can do a 180-degree turn in our lives, thoughts and feelings. Like Saul on the road to Damascus, we can have light-bulb moments where new truths ignite our minds in a new direction. These are always moments of seeing. Suddenly the leader realizes what she thought was a situation of safety is revealed as one of danger; the boss who believes people love his rough-and-tough style becomes aware that he is seen as a clumsy bully; a chief discovers in a moment about what customers are saying about the company.

Sometimes these revelations are about the leader himself, such as when feedback opens a leader’s mind to personal blind spots. More often the insights are about the world, showing that new responses are required.


Leaders need self-knowledge to understand their hot spots and risk areas, to show them where self-control is most needed. Leaders need never worry about their limitations. They can always do what is required by using the talents of others. The bigger issue is how confident is the leader about what needs to be done. This is what vision means. Does the leader have real and deep insight into the situation, and not just some wish-filled fantasy?

The challenge of vision is for the leader to get into a space (the helicopter view perhaps) where she can see what others can’t — stakeholder interests, threats, opportunities, hidden pots of gold, culture — and formulate a strategy for making this real to the organization, to help it develop the right responses. The leader is like a theater director — to have a concept of what is needed, to blend the players into a self-regulating ensemble, and then to perform. That requires a narrative — a story of a journey the leader and her people are on together that is compelling, real and positive.

To summarize, here are the five essentials of effective leadership — not a recipe but a methodology:

  1. Be real. You have to know and be able to tell people who you are, how you got here and what your personal value proposition is.
  2. Be a psychologist. Learn to read the minds of others. It’s easy — a matter of asking the right questions and listening.
  3. Build an ensemble. Don’t’ get hung up on who you are. Your job is to serve the organization by building its confidence, capability and integration.
  4. Scan and scout. Don’t spend all your time worrying about what’s going on inside the firm. Your job is to look out, to see what others can’t and resource the folks at home with insights, intelligence, talent and resources.
  5. Tell the story. Your job is to make sense of the world, to bring a wider reality into the view of people, to show them what your community stands for, where it’s going and why people must change to capture the trends.

Nigel Nicholson is a professor of organizational behavior at London Business School. The focus of his work is primarily in leadership, family business, executive development, risk and decision-making, and interpersonal skills. To find out more about his new book, view video clips and read features, visit