Understanding context

My previous blog argued that a leader’s personal must, first and foremost, communicate not only who they are but what they stand for, essentially acting as a blueprint for how they act. This link between belief and action creates the authenticity without which no leader can survive.

Now I want to explore the concept of authenticity a little further to consider the context in which a leader’s brand exists. A leader does not lead in a vacuum—it’s essential that his or her vision and actions are in harmony those of key stakeholders.

To do this, leaders need to spend time really delving into their stakeholders. How do they perceive you and how would you like them to perceive you? What do they consider important, and what do they aspire to? In particular, leaders need to understand the gaps between how they would like to be perceived, and how they are in fact perceived. If necessary, these gaps need to be addressed in how the leader “lives out” his or her personal leadership brand.

At the same time, though, leaders have to be true to themselves. This can be surprisingly difficult. On the one hand, a leader risks being seen as purely “a company man”, just somebody who toes the party line; on the other, he or she risks seeming out of kilter with the environment in which he or she operates.

A further point to bear in mind is that “context” or “environment” are quite loaded terms in today’s connected world. Where does the organisation end? We are coming to realise that organisations exist in a complex web of relationships, and have many stakeholders: employees, business partners, the communities in which they exist and on which they depend, society more broadly. In the corporate world, this is expressed by growing realisation that shareholders are not the only group to which the company must account—a much broader group of stakeholders are entitled to have their needs and expectations addressed.

By the same token, the leader’s brand must be aligned with the organisation and the context it exists.

Donna Rachelson Quote

One of the biggest issues for leaders is how to balance their personal journey with the needs of the organisation in which they find themselves. Rarely, there is a perfect fit: You’re an eco-warrior with a passion for the environment and your company is developing cutting-edge green technologies.

In the real world, though, you’re concerned about the environment, but you work for a company whose processes are far from environmentally sound, although they are in the process of creating a strategy to clean things up. Here it would be possible to position yourself as part of the change, creating a new future for the company.

Or you work for a company where following rigid processes is part of the culture, while you are a lateral thinker and something of a maverick. It’s more difficult, but it would be possible to present your essential “maverickness” as a commitment to achieving results.

One of the best examples of somebody who has integrated his personal leadership brand with the corporate brand is Elon Musk. He’s often sailed close to the wind, but in the end his maverick, provocative personal brand has served his commercial interests well. Of course, being the boss makes it much easier to go out on a limb!

A deft touch is needed to remain true to yourself, and thus authentic, but also to align your brand with that of your organisation.

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