This is an interview about authentic leadership with Christian Ørsted. The interview is conducted by serial entrepreneur Jonathan Løw. We thank Jonathan Løw for kindly sharing this interview from the GuruBook; a book full of interesting articles and interviews with gurus from around the globe.
Christian Ørsted (Denmark) is a management consultant, public speaker, and author. His client list includes Mærsk, Novo Nordisk, LEGO, and the Danish Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Ørsted is the author of the bestselling book Lethal Leadership.
As soon as I, as the editor of The GuruBook, introduced my good friend Christian Ørsted to the theme authentic leadership, I could see that he both smiled (as he always does) and had a somewhat skeptical look on his face.
For a long time, Christian has inspired me with his very human and concrete approach to leadership.No matter whether we talk about his bestseller Lethal Leadership or his way of public speaking, I have always regarded him as very authentic. I also like the way that he doesn’t wrap things up when he, for instance, as in this interview, states that “we can’t solve our leadership problems by sending the asshole on a training course.”
That was why I thought that Christian could make this book’s readers even wiser about the term authentic leadership, but as it turned out, the interview moved in another direction. We sat together on a rainy spring day in the Navitas innovation environment in Aarhus, and almost immediately, Christian began puncturing the whole thinking behind authenticity in leadership.
The following interview thus became an exciting and very critical look at authentic leadership.
Jonathan Løw: What is authentic leadership to you, Christian?
Christian Ørsted: Actually, I wish your angle was broader than authenticity. The other two main themes in your book don’t have an angle or an adjective. You don’t call it “dynamic innovation,” but simply “innovation.”
But when we talk about leadership, it’s as if there’s something else, something more involved. This doesn’t only apply to The GuruBook, but as a whole when we talk about leadership. It’s as if some seasoning should be added and that leadership as a subject should be entertaining, inspiring, and likable instead of substantial, effective, and documented. Imagine speaking of surgery in the same way! If, instead of sharing experiences about what works, we focused on what surgeons think is funny or inspiring to read books about or be trained in.
So authenticity is a superfluous word when we talk about leadership, or what? Should we just stop the interview here?
The problem with self-exclaimed authenticity is that it’s false
In my view, we talk about authenticity because it’s lacking. We’re talking out of a longing. When a company hangs posters on its wall with its values and about how authentic or service-minded it is, you know precisely what the organization lacks: authenticity and a service mindset.
The problem with self-exclaimed authenticity is that it’s false. Just as people in the old days believed that people performed better if you gave them unrealistic targets, we must today realize that people don’t become more authentic by talking about authenticity.
It’s a gigantic mistake to focus on results; whether there’s a target or a certain type of authentic behavior, is unimportant.
Instead, we should focus on efforts. We must move from talking about what we want to achieve to talking about how we can support each other in achieving it.
Jonathan Løw: Does this mean that, after all, you do believe that it is relevant to talk about authenticity in the sense that it is a part of good leadership, or what?
Christian Ørsted: In my view, one can happily talk about authenticity, but I don’t believe it should be an objective in itself when we talk about leadership. For me, it’s far more relevant to talk about propriety—for instance, caring for others and psychological security.
Leadership should focus on providing a culture in which you know you can trust each other.
the leader’s most important task is not being authentic but focusing on serving
In this way, the leader’s most important task is not being authentic but focusing on serving. The leader’s own idea of the world – or of him or herself, is completely without interest with regard to how he or she can serve the organization and the world in the best possible way.
That’s why there’s a risk that the whole concept of authentic leadership can easily give leaders an excuse for being narcissistic and focusing on themselves and their own values as leaders rather than how they create the best possible culture for their employees.
Jonathan Løw: So the authentic leader is a narcissist?
Christian Ørsted: In my view, there’s a need for changing the focus from the individual to the community. Yes, being a leader can be as hard as nails, but that’s how it must be if it benefits the community.
It’s important to remember that our happiest times as people, as a rule, are those when we give up something to benefit the community. This happens when we become parents. It happens in relationships and team sports, and it can to a high degree also apply in the managerial suite.
The great focus of our time on the individual leader and the individual man or woman is in my view mistaken and ineffective.
we don’t solve our leadership problems in an organization by sending an asshole on a training course
There’s a lot more to be gained from how good communities function, because these communities will often solve many of the individual problems for people. But we don’t solve our leadership problems in an organization by sending an asshole on a training course. Instead, we must focus on what our culture permits, what it encourages, and what consequences there are of short-sighted, egoistic, and self-centered behavior.
In many instances, we say we must think long-term, think about the customers and colleagues, and be humble, but in practice, it’s the opposite qualities that are rewarded. I think that we all know examples of the loud, self-righteous types who were promoted while the quiet and cautious types, who slaved away in the background, were passed over.
Jonathan Løw: So we should stop sending people on courses and make people like you and me redundant?
Christian Ørsted: In my view, course-based leadership and inspirational leadership don’t work. Instead of sending people on these courses, you should focus on the context they are in every day—who they are together with and how they do things there, where they are.
When leaders give an inspiring speech saying now everything will be good, you’re hungering for new input just as much as you do after a visit to McDonald’s. You return to the same people and the same every day again.
We should look far more closely at how we carry out our work and who we do it with, and aim at long-term and sustainable changes in the organization.
Jonathan Løw: Part of authentic leadership deals with openness and daring to be oneself and showing one’s feelings. Do you not believe that this is important for a leader?
Christian Ørsted: I believe that it is important for a leader to be open about things, but the good leader waits before telling the world outside about these problems until the world outside can deal with them. That means that you as a leader make a very conscious decision about what is beneficial to say to the world outside and how you do it.
Let me give you an example from the military, where an officer told me about his managerial breakthrough— in other words, the time when he really got his men’s trust. It was after a mission when he had given orders to kill and had himself killed.
READ ALSO: Edgar Schein: Knowing Why you are There
When they got back to their camp, he cried in front of his platoon at their after-action debriefing. You can say that’s authentic and open—daring to show your feelings—but the most important thing was that he didn’t stand crying in a field in the Helmand province, where Taliban warriors could be lying in ambush and kill them all.
No, he waited until they were back in their camp and in that way he put the needs of the group before his own feelings. Therefore, he wasn’t just authentic. He was more than that. He could be counted on both in a difficult situation and later in acknowledging how difficult it was. In that way, he gave the room so others could also be moved—and exemplified when and how we can support each other best.
Jonathan Løw: It gives food for thought that the military is often mentioned as a pioneer in good leadership. As a pacifist, I won’t go deeper into that debate, but it’s worth mentioning when we talk about leadership as a discipline.
Another contributor to this book, Simon Sinek, also uses the military as an example in his book Leader’s Eat Last. His point is that leaders in the American army are rewarded with medals for sacrificing themselves for the community, while in the business community you get bonuses for sacrificing others.
Christian Ørsted: Luckily, it’s not like that in all organizations, but I understand well where Sinek is going, and that’s precisely why it’s so dangerous to advise leaders to be more authentic, open, or vulnerable. It will often turn out to be an impediment for them in their careers, as it is other qualities that are rewarded.
If instead we agreed on and created an understanding of rules and the consequences in the community, it would be a big step forward. But there is often a great difference between the agreed rules and the consequences experienced. This isn’t just hypocritical, it’s also bad business, as it turns the work into a guessing game instead of a place where we can generate value together.
As leaders, we must focus more on what generates value and makes the community function than on our own need to be likable and popular. That’s easy enough when these things go hand in hand, but it’s not leadership; leadership is what’s called for to make something happen that would not have occurred by itself—that is, when we hold on to something that’s bigger than we are.
Jonathan Løw: Earlier in the interview, you mentioned psychological security as something quite central—and more important than authenticity. What does that mean in practice?
Christian Ørsted: Psychological security is the belief that you won’t be punished or humiliated for talking about your ideas, questions, concerns, or mistakes. What is essential is the belief. And it’s a belief many have lost. They have experienced far too many times that they must be careful about which ideas they air, that asking questions can quickly make them look stupid in others’ eyes, and that mistakes are an expression of a lack of competence or diligence—not because the leaders say that, but because that’s what they experience in reality when they air new ideas, ask questions, or talk about their mistakes.
In such an organization, you cannot learn, you cannot develop, and everyone is the architect of their own happiness. It’s an insecure place to work, and people, therefore,become—quite rightly—more careful. They become egocentric and oversensitive to the criticism and dialogue that can further them.
Just as we’ve seen that the right friendships also have room for criticism and errors, because we know we’re on the same side, we see that really good organizations are capable of both celebrating when things go well and developing, and talking about the difficult things, the things that must be changed or aren’t good enough.
This can, therefore, lead to difficult discussions, but what is quite essential is that the people in such organizations know where they have each other. You become far more insecure from not being told things and having to guess whether or not you’re doing a good job.
In addition, this form of culture is also meaningful with regard to The GuruBook’s second main theme on innovation, as we know that problems can rarely be solved by individuals but are best solved when we are several people working together to fix them.
Therefore, I believe very much in the creative community, whereas a leader you create a space in which the employees can talk about problems, what concerns them, which ideas they have, and what they are in doubt about. That is a form of psychological security where you don’t feel exposed if you have to raise difficult questions or dare go against the line laid down by the management.
Jonathan Løw: In that respect, I’ve seen you quoted as saying that resistance to change is a resource in an organization. At first glance, that sounds illogical when we’re talking innovation.
Christian Ørsted: The paradox here is that we almost never talk about change management, except when the reality is that we are exposing the employees to cutbacks. In that regard, you often forget that acceptance and resignation resemble each other from the outside. And the worst are those who give up, those who doubt whether it’s any use at all.
If we can increase the psychological security in the organization, we enable people to say what makes the change better and more effective. That’s how resistance to change is a resource: it shows there is someone who still believes that saying how they look at the situation is worthwhile, somebody we can involve again if we listen to them. Take them seriously. Use their professionalism and involvement to take the things that make the change successful into account.
What is vitally important is therefore how the management chooses to deal with this kind of resistance, but also in the converse cases where new ideas or thoughts had been aired.
As human beings, we can tolerate being told we’re wrong, but we can’t tolerate feeling that we’re not being heard
If an employee experiences that he or she is not listened to, then, as a rule, this person will seek recognition and sympathy elsewhere. He or she may complain during the lunch break, and this is naturally toxic to the organization.
Psychological security is therefore about ensuring that people feel comfortable with regard to sharing opinions and ideas but also that they feel that their opinions are heard, so it’s not only when the criticism becomes shrill that it’s heard.
As human beings, we can tolerate being told we’re wrong, but we can’t tolerate the feeling that we’re not being heard.
Jonathan Løw’s latest books Listen Louder and The Disruption Book (Danish books), both made it to the top of the bestseller-lists in 2015 in the category “Business and Entrepreneurship”.
Additionally, Jonathan Løw is the editor of The GuruBook – published in March 2018 by Taylor & Francis. The interview about Authentic Leadership with Christian Ørsted is from the GuruBook, where you can find many other interesting interviews and articles.