If ever there was a time when Africa needed new leaders, it’s now.

–   Oliver Fortune Chikodzore

The depth of misconduct by leaders in the corporate and government spheres continue to shock Africa and the world. It is becoming increasingly obvious that new leadership is required to tackle the urgent challenges we face in governments, business, public service and society.

As we begin to understand today’s global leadership gap at a deeper level, we realize that the missing ingredients in corporations and governments are leaders committed to building authentic organizations for the long term. The fish rots from its head. Like the proverbial frog that dies when temperatures are gradually increased but immediately jumps out when tossed into a boiling pot of water, we need this kind of shock therapy to realize that something is sorely missing in society at all levels today.

What’s missing? In one word, leadership; authentic leadership. In the midst of the current global socio-economic crisis, we must ask ourselves, where have all the leaders gone? Where are the other versions of Nelson Mandela former President of South Africa and Warren Buffet, Chairman of Berkshire Hathaway? Today your capacity to lead and influence people is grounded in your knowledge of relationship with yourself and others. So what then, is the 21st-century leader all about? It is being authentic and uniquely yourself. Authentic leaders know who they are. They are “good in their skin,” so good they don’t feel a need to impress or please others. They not only inspire those around them, they bring people together around a shared purpose and a common set of values and motivate them to create value for everyone involved.

Many people have written on what it means to be a leader. Almost everyone identifies influence as the primary characteristic. By definition, this means that leadership and position are two different things. You can have a title and a position of power, but this does not mean that you are a leader. Even people without these things can exert influence and thus leadership. Leadership expert John C Maxwell suggests that “leadership is influence – nothing more, nothing less.” This moves beyond the position defining the leader, to looking at the ability of the leader to influence others – both those who would consider themselves followers and those outside that circle. Indirectly, it also builds character in leadership, since without maintaining integrity and trustworthiness, the capability to influence will disappear.

The foundation of leadership is authenticity. How do we go about expressing ourselves more authentically? Ask yourself two simple questions: “Do our actions originate from deep within ourselves, or are they coming from a more superficial, limited place?”, “Is our leadership arising from our character, the essence of who we are?” or “Is it only coming from our persona, the external personality we’ve created to cope with life’s circumstances.” The idea “authentic leadership” originates with the School Of Humanistic psychology that emerged in the 1960’s which notes that we cannot help others unless we share ourselves openly and honestly – that we are “real”.

What does the words “authentic leader” actually mean? What truly makes one and why is it worth the effort to become one? There are many different answers to these questions. Goffee and Jones (2005) make the point that a leader cannot define her as an authentic leader. Only the people who experience the leader can ascribe authenticity to the leader. Authenticity is only perceived by others. It is the perception that the leader is real, sincere, and defined by honesty and integrity. These authors state that no one can declare, “I am authentic.” That attribute must be ascribed by others. Authenticity, according to Webster’s Dictionary, is being genuine. Genuine, suggests Webster means not being hypocrite. The following five qualities serve as guidance to make a commitment to the lifelong process of authentically growing as a person in order to grow as an authentic leader.

  • Authentic leaders have insight. Sometimes we refer to this as vision, but that usually has exclusive reference to the future. While leaders must have vision, they need more. They need wisdom and discernment. They need to be able to look at complex situations, gain clarity, and determine a course of action. They need to stand firmly on principle; even in the face of opposition.
  • Authentic leaders demonstrate initiative. They go first. They don’t sit on the side-lines. They don’t ask others to do what they are unwilling to do themselves. Instead, they lead by example. They are more concerned about acting on good ideas rather than having the ideas.
  • Authentic leaders exert influence. It’s no coincidence that influence and influenza (the flu) come from the same root word. Real leaders are contagious. People “catch” what they have. People are drawn to their vision and their values. They are able to gather a following and move people to act. People have a clear understanding of their intent and agendas.
  • Authentic leaders have impact. At the end of the day, leaders make a difference. The world is changed because of their leadership. They are able to create real and lasting change. They have the humility to take full responsibility and to serve everyone at the same time. They seek to recognize contribution rather than being recognized for making it.
  • Authentic leaders exercise integrity. Not every leader is benevolent. Adolf Hitler was a leader, as was Mao Tse-tung (Zedong) and Josef Stalin. They had insight, initiative, influence and impact. Yet their lives were not integrated with the highest values. Integrity – or the lack thereof – ultimately determines the quality of a person’s impact. “Integrity” comes from the same Latin root as the words “integrated “and “integer”. A person has integrity when there is no gap between intent and behaviour…when he or she is whole, seamless, the same – inside and out. In essence, this is the foundation of authentic leadership: it is this quality which lack in leadership today. The absence thereof results in mistrust and a lack of credibility.

So to be truly genuine – or authentic – leaders require a few things: To ensure that one’s corporate actions and rhetoric realigns; to ensure that such actions are meaningful (as opposed to superficial, headline-grabbing actions that don’t take root beyond the organization’s need for disingenuous publicity); and to ensure that ones’ public persona and private core are not at odds.

In contrast, most leaders of today’s best-run corporations and government organizations remain silent. Are they afraid that by speaking out they may invite scrutiny of their entities? Although the global trend to effect changes in regulations – to curb unethical leadership behaviour – is appropriate and necessary, they do not address the deeper issues at stake here. It is impossible to legislate integrity, stewardship, and sound governance. Somewhere along the way we lost sight of the imperative of selecting leaders that create healthy corporations and government agencies for the long term.

We do not need executives running corporations and government entities into the ground in search of personal gain. We do not need celebrities to lead organizations. We do not need more laws. We do not need more conferences. We do not need more excuses and apologies. We do not need more task teams and disciplinary committees. We do not need more tough talk. We do not need more commissions of inquiry. We do not need more cronyism. We need new leadership.

We need authentic leaders, people of the highest integrity, committed to building enduring organizations. We need leaders who have a deep sense of purpose and are true to their core values. We need leaders who are more concerned about what is right than being right. We need leaders who have the courage to build their organizations to meet the needs of all their stakeholders, and who recognize the importance of their service to society.

The general public must stop playing a role in encouraging this inauthentic leadership as well. In idealizing high-profile personalities that ran companies – wrecked by corporate scandals and vote questionable individuals into power, we make them into heroes. Search committees and voters alike fall into the trap of choosing leaders for their style rather than their substance, for their image instead of their integrity. Given this way of doing business, why should we be surprised when our leaders come up short? It is always exciting when our most urgent need and our greatest opportunity coincide. In both the public and the private sectors we have an urgent need for great leadership. Not just any old great leadership, but authentic, great leaders. Let us be open minded to seek the truth we can meaningfully help improve the lives of many in a sustainable way as well as economic growth transforming the world to be a better place.