The global crisis due to the Covid-19 pandemic has posed unprecedented challenges, uncertainties, and demands on leadership. There is no known and proven framework to be resilient and lead during these uncertain times. In many situations, leaders have fallen back on their own crucibles of experience and understanding of the context to meet challenges. Many leaders, who have shared their experience of leading in the past few months, have spoken about the need to find and understand your true self to enable authenticity and empathy in interactions during such times.

Several leaders, while sharing their experiences, continue to highlight and action a few keywords such as honesty, authenticity, humility, self-awareness, and situation-awareness, while acknowledging vulnerability and empathy to achieve a larger purpose. We believe these are indeed the key ingredients that constitute authentic leadership. Most companies globally, therefore, are focusing on creating an environment of authenticity and developing authentic leaders to help navigate these uncertain and difficult times.

Along with a significant recessionary impact on the economy caused by the pandemic, what is also troubling the leadership across the world is that it challenges the social capital and collaboration frameworks like never before, that was built over decades.

Along with remote working, social distancing, and the stress of ensuring family wellbeing and good health, the global pandemic has also been difficult on account of financial, social, physical, and mental health parameters. This challenge can be countered across various dimensions by demonstrating authentic leadership.

What is authentic leadership?

Authentic leadership is to be yourself, raising one's true worth to the full potential, and finding one’s north star. It is about purpose, passion, people, and performance. It is about finding a larger purpose, passionately pursuing it while inspiring people to work collaboratively and enabling them to deliver impactful performance. That essentially is what authentic leadership is all about.

The global pandemic has made it even more apparent that leading by example and demonstrating authenticity will be an important ingredient for the current uncertain times, and that it is here to stay for a long time to come. It enables leaders to create a positive environment for people and themselves because it is about authenticity and mindfulness. The journey of leadership is about learning to demonstrate self-confidence, empowering people to achieve their goals, and enabling them to attain emotional, physical, behavioural, and social enrichment. This helps create respect through value creation and practice, rather than by the authority of the position. It brings out the best of Head & Heart. In my experience five key tenets help leaders to practice and demonstrate authentic leadership:

1. Mindfulness

Authentic leadership is about consciously being aware of your mindset. It is even more important in uncertain times when it is most difficult to be self-aware. One needs to introspect, reflect, acknowledge, and realize the baggage that one is carrying from the past. This baggage can be positive or negative, but we should not attach undue meaning to it. But, be fully aware of it. So that the actions, or the manifested behaviour, are not biased or shackled by it.

Practising mindfulness, by way of reflection, introspection, and in many ways, meditation and focus will enable leaders to be aware of their core feelings. It can make leaders more compassionate and sensitive to the needs of others during these uncertain times. It will enable them to seek and obtain feedback to improve and enable unbiased action. Mindfulness is as much about understanding our mindset, as it is about being situationally aware. Mindfulness, when practised well (being self-aware and situationally aware) can help leaders be relevant and responsible for creating a positive change.

2. Change—Being comfortable with vulnerability

Being comfortable with vulnerability, authentic leaders are in tune with their strengths, as well as their limitations, and are not inhibited about showing their weakness to others. Authentic leaders operate with self-confidence and integrity, knowing fully well that they will not be an expert in all areas. They would be willing to acknowledge their vulnerability and work with others towards a common purpose. Especially in a global world, which is becoming progressively uncertain with new technologies, regulations, and complexities, leaders need to be comfortable with their strengths and limitations.

In my personal experience, coming from a non-IT background two decades ago, I have often wondered whether my business knowledge and skills in retail, supply chain, logistics, and distribution could be beneficial for Infosys. I remember, during my first day of induction, I was asked about the languages I was proficient in. I blurted out, without thinking, about the languages I knew – English, Hindi, Tamil, and Kannada. The whole room erupted in laughter. It was only when the subsequent person mentioned C++, Visual Basic, and Java, as the languages he knew that it struck me that ‘language’ was used in the context of programming language and not the spoken language.

Gradually, I realized the need to work with people of varied skills, while I brought business acumen to the table. I understood the power of integrating domain language and business user experience, which then helped me in articulating clients’ business requirements and integrating it accurately with technical requirements. I increasingly realized the benefit of playing at the cusp of business and technology.

More so in the recent years, as the CEO of a subsidiary in a global organization, I have realized that there are several experts and leaders within my team, who have a much broader and deeper knowledge of specific subjects. Their support can be immensely beneficial in solving key business problems without the need for me to pose as an expert in each of them. I have learned to be comfortable in my skin and reach out to others with humility while demonstrating confidence in my own knowledge base.

The global pandemic has been an event, which has brought this to the fore in many, many ways, and has shaken leaders out of their comfort zones.

3. The big “E”

Increasingly, even when newer digital technologies in robotic process automation, predictive analytics, and artificial intelligence have elevated businesses to be digitized and relevant, they still cannot substitute the leadership trait of big “E”, which is Empathy. Empathy is the ability to put oneself in another person’s shoes and understand their need to create a solution, building on collective knowledge.

Leaders who have high empathy will always help in creating the best solutions for the stakeholders they work with. In my own experience of interacting and working with different leaders and their respective leadership styles over three decades, I have found that leaders who treat others with great empathy command a much higher loyalty and influence over their teams.

Leaders, with empathy, empower their teams to bring the best out of innovation and change, which helps in improving efficiencies, increasing effectiveness, as well as enhancing experience. Leaders with empathy have a better chance of balancing out their decisions with Head & Heart and getting it right more times, than others.

The power of empathy in design thinking and enabling innovation cannot be emphasized more.

4. Learning from crucibles

A crucible is a container in a chemistry lab where a vigorous chemical reaction occurs. Similarly, in life, all of us go through different experiences, both pleasant and tough. These are what I call experience crucibles, which we should use to introspect and learn. The global pandemic is a crucible for which we need to draw learnings from past experiences and also reflect and learn to be able to adapt.

Learning from the crucible of experience is crucial for us to make necessary changes and adapt to the new and innovative operating model of work from home while ensuring that data privacy and security of the clients’ data are not compromised. The new operating model for the BPM industry would involve a new definition of the workplace, work itself, and the worker, which throws out many possibilities for further improvement of efficiency, effectiveness, and enhancement of client experience.

5. The art of giving

Throughout our lives, we accumulate knowledge, wealth, experience, and comforts to give us a greater sense of security about our future. While there is absolutely nothing wrong with doing this, we should realize that when we die eventually, we are unable to carry any of the material wealth or assets with us. We do die empty. So we should truly strive to die empty. The best way to leave behind a positive imprint and impact on the world is by building a legacy based on the art of giving.

As the saying goes, “our reputation and legacy far outlive our physical presence in this world,” and so we must serve others through the art of giving and service mindset. An authentic leader practices the art of giving by serving a larger purpose, much higher than themselves. The ability to serve others by caring, sharing knowledge, experiences, appreciation, and gratitude, enables a positive environment without the dysfunctionality of greed, power, or control.

For many leaders, the above five traits of authenticity exist within, in one form or other. What counts, is how leaders consistently and deliberately choose to practice it. The practice of leading with authenticity must be built on the foundation of strong values, driven by a growth mindset, and clearly demonstrated behaviour. It will help leaders achieve a larger purpose while being mindful (inner game) and relevant (outer game). Each of us, as leaders in different organizations, roles, and functions, can practice and demonstrate authentic leadership through the above tenets in our own unique yet impactful way, to help evolve a better and progressive world around us.

Views are personal. The author is CEO & MD, Infosys BPM.

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