Leading Authentically: Could Gen Y cause the next big shift?

leadershipThe concept of ‘authentic leadership’ has been banded around for some time now, and there are many definitions. In this short blog I suggest that as we are just starting to see ‘Gen Y’ or ‘millennials’ take on their first management roles and lead more people, we are seeing a shift in what it means to lead authentically, coupled with a desire for more meaningful and collaborative ways of working. Now more than ever it is important to recognise and challenge perceived notions of what a leader looks like.

Whilst Gen Ys might get teased for thinking we are all ‘special’ (discussed in that Huff Post piece), I’d argue that many of us have no problem whatsoever in working hard and earning our dues – we are just not prepared to do so at any cost.  This sentiment is in consensus with a wider movement challenging what Leadership in the 21st Century looks like.

In the last decade we’ve seen key institutions dragged through the mud. From the financial crisis, to MP expenses, phone-hacking by journalists, child abuse at the highest echelons of power, NHS crises, and Libor-fixing to name but a few. These establishments had been the leading lights of our economy and society, and their leaders portrayed as successful and invincible. Surely it’s no surprise that those of us coming up the career ladder today don’t necessarily want to replicate what’s come before us. Indeed, the World Economic Forum is putting great efforts into discussing the shift towards a ‘Sharing Economy’ which encompasses this change in mood.

Employees are looking for leaders who are transparent, real, and who want to grow financially as well as contributing to society. Therefore leaders (and future leaders) need to seriously think about how best to empower and engage their teams.

It’s been well proven and documented that unconscious bias can prevent us from choosing the best (most competent) future leaders. We are naturally drawn to ‘People Like Us,’ and it is no fault of ours that a particular type of leadership (namely male, extrovert, with ruthlessness seen as key to success) has been the prevailing model. The dangers of this from a gender perspective are discussed eloquently in this Guardian Women in Leadership article.  Moreover, unconscious bias can also stop many of us putting ourselves forward, or thinking of ourselves as leaders if we don’t ‘fit’ the prescribed model or if we think we have to act totally differently to succeed.

So how can we lead authentically?

 Leading authentically has to start with truly understanding your values and key drivers. It’s then worth asking yourself how can you lead your way? Are you challenging the stereotype of ‘leader’, or are you trying to act like other leaders in your organisation? What key strengths do you have that you can harness in order to lead effectively?

It’s important to note that being ‘authentic’ doesn’t mean always acting the way you’ve acted before. Herminia Ibarra in her book Act like a leader, Think like a leader challenges us to stretch ourselves and go outside of our comfort zone. It brings us back to the idiom that ‘what got you here, won’t get you there’. You will have to try new ways of working and being, but you can still do this in a manner that is true to you.

When we’ve worked with leadership teams and we discuss authentic leadership, the word ‘always’ surfaces a lot. For example, ‘so do I always have to lead collaboratively?’, ‘do I always have to reveal vulnerabilities to get team buy-in?’, or ‘do I always have to shout about my achievements to get noticed?’ The key to leading authentically isn’t ‘always’ being one way or the other, but rather understanding how to flex your leadership style to get the best out of others, whilst remaining true to yourself. We need to get away from the idea that getting ahead always entails a zero sum game, and rather think about leading inclusively so that we can create a space where everyone can be fantastic.

If you want to keep a competitive edge, you can’t ignore this stuff –it’s not going away and emerging leaders making their way up the ranks care about this.  At The People Development Team we work with individuals to help them understand their strengths and how to lead authentically. You can read more about this here.


Kusia Pell is a Global Inclusions Solutions Consultant at PDT Global.