A Post-COVID World Calls for More Authentic Leadership

The COVID-19 crisis has revealed two things within us: firstly, a greater appreciation for the intangible things in life that money can’t buy and, secondly, an even greater intolerance for businesses and brands who fail to support the community in their greatest time of need.

According to the Edelman Trust Barometer, consumers are putting businesses and brands ‘on notice’ over their behaviour around the coronavirus. But, just as crises can be character building, crises can also have an uncanny knack for revealing a less than palatable ‘authenticity’; one that conforms rather than refutes the archetypical corporate bad boy mould.

After all, PR puffery around how strong leadership means caring for staff all amounts to nothing when leaders at the very helm of such organisations fail to put their money where their mouth is. That kind of disingenuity destroys trust and can be more ruinous to the reputation of a business than the CEO of a major blue chip company who has been ousted for having an affair with a rent boy (former BP chief Lord Browne is a case in point). For, at least with the latter – a leader so often deemed to be powerful as unrelatable to the man on the street – suddenly becomes relatable in his downfall, likeable even, in his sheer human-ness and faults.

One thing’s for sure: trust is now an element that businesses and brands must weave into the very structure of their organisation and sell alongside their tangible ‘product’ if they’re to survive and thrive in a post-lockdown world.

In business life, as in personal relationships, trust is the most precious of intangible ‘gifts’- something that takes an age to build and an instant to break. Trust ensures that teams – all the more aware of just how expendable they are in the wake of this pandemic – stay committed and engaged to the job. Trust ensures that customers buy into businesses and brands that are reflective of their personal values – a behavioural shift that has become all the more apparent and important to people in a so-called post-truth world.

In business life, as in personal relationships, trust is the most precious of intangible ‘gifts’.

For all the negativity around the COVID-19 crisis, one thing that has been widely discussed in various business op-ed pieces of late is the change in dynamics around the typical formal corporate conversation.

Verbal and written exchanges between bosses and teams, service providers and clients, which were once formerly devoid of colour and warmth, are becoming more human. The corporate masks that we are all guilty of wearing in order to cover up authentic elements of our personalities are slipping, almost unconsciously, as we seek for comfort and reassurance in an unsettling ‘new normal’. Could it be that we are starting to become more trusting of our colleagues and bosses that we can finally partake in more authentic conversations?

A few years ago, Deloitte ran a study about the so-called act of ‘covering’ – a strategy employed by individuals that sees them manage or downplay their differences. Suppressing an expression of the authentic self at work, ‘covering’ sees individuals – namely (although not exclusively) those who are LGBT, black, disabled and Millennial – avoid, deny, disassociate or underplay their appearance, world values and behaviour in order to conform to the set standards of corporate culture. The study deduced that those who ‘cover’ feel considerably more negative about their workplace and work experience than those who do not cover. Awareness of ‘covering’ matters because it goes against the grains of inclusivity. It undermines the fostering of trust that mobilises good working relationships and business success. Those who are aware that they are deliberately denying the expression of their true self in order to progress feel like phonies, imposters, sell-outs.

If COVID marks the era of a new, trusting, more authentic form of corporate conversation, perhaps this also signifies the wake of a more congruent and empathic kind of leadership too – one that makes CEOs more relatable on a human level.

Yet herein lies the problem: leaders are the greatest offenders of ‘covering’.

If trust – the vital ingredient to engaging teams and winning customers – can only be fostered through the expression of humanity and authenticity, how might CEOs negotiate such new and uncomfortable terrain when they’ve attained the highest appointment by not, in a sense, being ‘true’ to themselves?

In his piece for Huffington Post about the culture of homophobia in corporates conveyed in his book The Glass Closet: Why Coming Out Is Good For Business, former BP chief Lord Browne reflected that: “Being in the closet certainly seemed to have some advantages. I learned to keep my emotions hidden, which was an enormous asset in business negotiations. At times, I found my double life thrilling and I thought that conducting it somehow improved my skill at sensing danger, as if I were James Bond in training. I also listened closely to my mother, an Auschwitz survivor, who advised me never to trust anybody with my secrets. History demonstrates that when society is in trouble, minorities usually suffer, and so I thought that staying in the closet was the prudent thing to do.

Great progress to legislation around discrimination and the efficacy of awareness-raising campaigns for the marginalised across the board, has made advancement as a minority in the corporate world slightly less hostile since Lord Browne’s tenure as CEO at BP. Yet in the corporate world where we may mix with others who do not share our cultural norms, it can often seem that we make choices between what is expected and what is authentic.

If COVID marks the era of a new, trusting, more authentic form of corporate conversation, perhaps this also signifies the wake of a more congruent and empathic kind of leadership too.

Today’s climate – shaped by populism, pandemics and social media-led propaganda – is seeing people crave for a deeper kind of truth and authenticity like never before. Trust is elusive but is something we all crave to have – amongst ourselves, in the corporates that have grown to become more powerful than some governments, and in the leaders who lead our countries.

So how can this translate into effective leadership for the future?

A delicate balance must be struck. It’s unrealistic, never mind risky, for a CEO to show complete transparency over emotive thoughts and feelings. Yet presenting oneself as human – that is fallible, imperfect, with quirks and idiosyncrasies – an ‘unfinished’ article with still much to learn despite the accolades and achievements – will go a long way in communicating a sense of humanity and authenticity that fosters trust. Indeed, these are not seismic shifts to the way we should conduct ourselves – just the dismantling of the mask that covers us. Its removal will influence the way we in which we communicate and interact with each other, to a positive means.

Culturally, as British people, we are ill at ease at showing emotion or truer aspects of our identities in the workplace. But now that the physical workplace has moved from the soulless rabbit warrens of serviced offices to our homes, so our authenticity and aspects of our more personable identity peep through. Via the portal of Zoom, we see a snapshot of an individual’s humanity – what they like, who they love, how they decorate their space – that fosters a sense of invitation and therefore a feeling of special privilege and trust to enter one’s sanctum.

Perhaps we could be seeing a permanent shift, not only in the way we work (more flexible, agile, with work-life balance in mind) but, most notably, in the future of how we behave at work that allows freer expressions of our own identity. Indeed, this could signify a true coming of age for diversity and inclusivity in the corporate place – no longer deemed just an issue of compliance or a tick box exercise to ensure that BAME, LGBT, women and disabled workers get a seat at the boardroom table – but a true embracing of individuality, a rejection of homogeneity, and an acknowledgement ratified by new policies that underscore an important truth: ‘difference’ in business is a strength.

In a post-COVID landscape, this shift will occur. But it can only be facilitated effectively if we, as leaders, recast the path towards career advancement by making authenticity shine through.

Sheryl Miller is an award winning serial entrepreneur, business coach and author of Smashing Stereotypes: How To Get Ahead When You’re The Only _____ In The Room.

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