An Authentic and Humble Approach to Leadership

What is true leadership? Leadership isn’t fame, fortune, or even internal satisfaction. Rather, leadership is about creating a positive and lasting impact. Combined in a CEO, authenticity and humility are potent combinations for creating this impact. 

Perhaps this more enlightened approach is why we’re seeing CEOs band together to talk about social impact as a primary driver of leadership. It was only 50 years ago that renowned University of Chicago economist Milton Friedman argued in the New York Times that “the social responsibility of a business is to increase its profits.”  It seems we all got a little lost as we embraced that philosophy. I admit that I was convinced that they had it right, believing that all ultimately win if improving shareholder value is the primary motivator. It felt intuitive that investors won, but there is an argument that other key stakeholders won as well because business performance suffered if they were ignored. As a result, all benefited by keeping the focus on a lasting improvement to shareholder value. 

Society tends to learn and adapt when it is led by great thinkers. The recent movement toward social impact has emerged as a result of leaders becoming more self-aware, humble, and authentic. Satya Nadella of Microsoft and Larry Fink of BlackRock are paving the way for making authenticity and consideration of others’ primary traits of leadership. Nadella argues for authenticity in his book “Hit Refresh”, which has been widely read among CEOs. Fink argues that, although increasing shareholder value isn’t a tired concept, perhaps we’re missing something if it is the sole focus of our efforts. He explains that profits are in no way inconsistent with purpose – in fact, they are inextricably linked.

The Friedman thinking is deeply embedded in business culture, however.

“The ideology of shareholder primacy has contributed to the economic inequality we see today in America…. the Chicago school of economics is so embedded in the psyche of investors and legal theory and the C.E.O. mind-set. Overcoming that won’t be easy.” 

– Darren Walker, President of the Ford Foundation

This post is not solely about the drive toward social impact, but rather about the notion that leaders can see a better way through authenticity and humility. It is this expanded view of leadership that gives me hope as I envision CEOs realizing their need to understand themselves more deeply and comprehend their true motives. This takes a measure of humility to achieve because others often see us more clearly than we see ourselves; to accept their insights we need to be vulnerable and honest with ourselves. CEOs with these characteristics impress me the most, and I see them having a real and lasting impact in their organizations, whether they are crusading for a greater focus on social impact in the boardroom or for more empathy in the mail room. These are CEOs with the power to lead successful organizations and to change lives for good.

Categories: Leadership