Jayashantha Jayawardhana showcases real leadership

For decades, hundreds of business scholars have been poring over volumes of leadership and management literature. And they’ve been adding to what they find as their observations, experiences and insights seek to unravel the mysteries of leadership – and the styles, characteristics and personality traits of great leaders.

But these studies have failed to produce the profile of the ideal leader.

The good news is that in the absence of such a cookie-cutter style of leadership, you won’t risk turning yourself into someone whom others could see through in no time. “No one can be authentic by trying to imitate someone else,” wrote Bill George and Peter Sims et al. in their article titled ‘Discovering Your Authentic Leadership,’ which was published in the Harvard Business Review (HBR) in 2007.

They added: “You can learn from others’ experiences but there is no way you can be successful when you’re trying to be like them. People trust you when you’re genuine and authentic – not a replica of someone else.”

To become an authentic leader, you need to develop a high sense of emotional intelligence – what Daniel Goleman calls Emotional Quotient (EQ) – which attunes you to your own needs, feelings and emotions, as well as of those whom you lead.

The study of human emotions may be fascinating but in real life, it’s often messy and uncharted territory for people lacking sensitivity. On the other hand, if you’re oversensitive, you’ll feel uncomfortable every time you have to make a tough call – and this will make you an authentic but weak leader who fails to produce results.

As an authentic leader, a keen sense of self crystallises your purposes and defines the values you espouse – characteristics that you will practise consistently so that you’ll always lead with your heart and head. You will forge meaningful long-term relationships and instil self-discipline to drive results because authentic leaders will always know who they are and be true to themselves.

The former CEO and chairman of Amgen Kevin Sharer, who had served as Jack Welch’s assistant in the 1980s, saw the downside of General Electric’s (GE) cult personality in those days. “Everyone wanted to be like Jack. Leadership has many voices. You need to be who you are; not try to emulate somebody else,” he explains.

So how can people become and remain authentic leaders?

The authors undertook a study and interviewed 125 leaders from diverse backgrounds and walks of life to understand how they developed their leadership skills.

They observe: “Analysing 3,000 pages of transcripts, our team was startled to see that these people didn’t display any universal characteristics, traits, skills or styles that led to their success. Rather, their leadership emerged from their life stories.”

“Consciously and subconsciously, they were constantly testing themselves through real world experiences, and reframing their life stories to understand who they were at their core. In doing so, they discovered the purpose of their leadership and learned that being authentic made them more effective,” the authors add.

While the life stories of authentic leaders encompass the full spectrum of experiences including the positive impact of parents and educators, many of them reported that their motivation sprang from a harrowing experience in their lives.

The life story of the former chairman and CEO of Novartis Daniel Vasella is a case in point.

Born in 1953 to a modest family in Switzerland, Vasella experienced many medical problems in his early years that ignited his passion to become a physician. At the ripe young age of 10, his 18-year-old sister died following a prolonged illness. Three years later, his father passed away during surgery. At 20, Vasella enrolled in medical school and went on to graduate with honours.

While at school, he sought psychotherapy so that he could come to terms with his early experiences and not feel victimised. Through analysis, he reframed his life story and discovered an inner drive to help more people than he could as a sole practitioner.

Vasella then applied for the post of chief physician at the University of Zurich but unfortunately, his application was rejected since he was considered too young for the job.

Driven by a penchant for finance and business, Vasella joined the US affiliate of Sandoz International where he rose through the ranks. When Sandoz merged with Ciba-Geigy in 1996 and was renamed Novartis, Vasella was appointed CEO.

Vasella blossomed as a leader as he envisioned the opportunity to build a great global healthcare company that could help people through lifesaving new drugs such as Gleevec for patients with chronic myeloid leukemia.

The spark of authentic leadership is in all of us; but first, we need to discover it… and then consciously develop it.