When I first heard about the concept of ‘authentic leadership’, I was sceptical. Having experienced a number of holier-than-thou leaders along my path, I felt this phrase had the potential to be yet another disguise. Imagine my surprise when I found myself at a conference of about 200 self-described authentic leaders and found it to be true: these people truly were authentic. ‘Disarming’ is the only word I have found to describe how it felt to sit in conversation with these people, to hear their stories and talk about our shared experiences and challenges as equals. But what was different here? What was it that made these world-class leaders feel so accessible and human? There was something vulnerable in the humanness being openly exposed that week: there were stories of failure, of fear, of knowing where one needs to go but having no idea how to get there. They seemed to be expressing an ability to stand in ambiguity without fear or panic, to wait and trust in the emergent outcome. A crucial and common element to these stories was revealed. Each spoke of taking the time to slow down, to reflect and find lessons in these so-called failures, and of bringing that learning forward into their work. Now, I’m not referring to the “I won’t make that mistake again” kind of learning, but a deeper, more contemplative attention to patterns they noticed in the system itself. Something was definitely different.
Leading the way to a new mental model
Tracy Meisterheim directs the master’s in Strategic Leadership Towards Sustainability at Blekinge Institute of Technology in Karlskrona, Sweden. She is an associate with The Natural Step, an Art of Hosting practitioner., and founder of Blue Heron Sustainability Associates, specialising in sustainability training, engagement, process facilitation and design, leadership and organisational development. She has over 20 years’ experience working with clients in the US, Canada and Europe.