Authenticity, Self Awareness, and Leadership

Authenticity, self-awareness and leadership – one of these things is not like the others.

In Daniel Goleman’s excellent article The Focused Leader, written for The Harvard Business Review, he discusses emotional intelligence in terms of awareness and where the effective leader directs his attention. In terms of being an authentic leader, he asserts that a leader needs to be not only self aware but also to pay attention to what others think of him/her as a leader. This is not to be a people pleaser but to pay heed to the opinions of those the leader respects and values in order to get useful input. This view follows on much research demonstrating how difficult it is for successful leaders and organizations to learn and change.

It seems that success can breed a kind of blindness or hubris; the successful one consciously or unconsciously believes increasingly in his/her own powers of perception and innate “rightness” and seeks less input from others. “Put simply, because many professionals are almost always successful at what they do, they rarely experience failure. And because they have rarely failed, they have never learned how to learn from failure.”  (Argyris, May 1991)  It’s a version of immunity to change and the antidote to this is, in part, a willingness to be open to the opinions and feedback of trusted others.

“Of course, being open to input doesn’t guarantee that someone will provide it. Sadly, life affords us few chances to learn how others really see us, and even fewer for executives as they rise through the ranks.”  (Goleman, 2013) Enabling cultural change that empowers employees to feel safe enough that they will speak “truth to power” is one approach to ensuring authentic leaders are not isolated from reality. The catch here is that the leader sets the tone for this cultural atmosphere and thus it is easy to create unconsciously a closed loop system. I know of a few ‘leadership 360s’ that have gone off the rails because the leaders couldn’t or wouldn’t accept feedback that didn’t fit their mental model of themselves as faultless leaders.

Two powerful avenues to openness to feedback and/or authentic leadership include engaging a coach or spending some quality time with a horse – or both!   It turns out that horses have much to do with this authentic leadership thing. Aside from being what I refer to as The Subject Matter Experts in the domain of leadership, horses are really unable to do anything but provide real and direct feedback. Horses can’t lie and if you understand their language you will have access to the remarkable world of honest, direct, unadulterated feedback such as you might never, or rarely, experience in the workplace. Ultimately who we are as people is the same as who we are with horses.

Why I refer to horses as SMEs of leadership is because they spend their lives consciously playing leadership games with each other (and with us) – all day every day. It is in their prey DNA as a result of tens of thousands of years of evolution. Hierarchical leadership is essential to their survival and the herd is not comfortable until clarity is achieved in this area. In reality the same is true for humans yet we have lost conscious awareness of this need for clarity in leadership. Our rational minds and social structures tend to dull the need for this kind of conscious awareness. We have the police, fire and ambulance to solve real life and death emergencies so we tend to downplay the impact on us of inauthentic, ambiguous, or downright poor leadership. Nevertheless, the impact is felt in the workplace in tendencies to bad behavior, increased competition over cooperation, disquiet, and/or poor productivity and low morale.

What horses and humans share, among many things, is a limbic system – a complex set of brain structures that govern and support emotional responses, long-term memory, motivation, and behavior. The limbic system, a key part of emotional intelligence, is critical to leadership in that emotional messaging, as in non-verbal communication, occurs here. Goleman wisely notes that the crucial dimension in leadership is the “emotional impact of what a leaders says and does.” (Goleman, Primal Leadership)

What happens among zebras on the Serengeti when lions pass by is really the same thing that happens to humans as we move about in the world. We are unaware of much of this operational mode of being but our limbic systems are nonetheless processing input and sorting threat from reward, good feeling from bad, fear from security, and past experience with current reality. Due to the phenomena of “affect contagion” we naturally are drawn to those who make us feel safe and who we trust to take us where we need to go.

So, you may ask: how can I increase my awareness and find out about my leadership by spending time with horses? Spending time with horses naturally shifts us physically away from attending to the inner chatter of the pre-frontal cortex and fosters our ability to move our attention into our bodies, connecting to the heart, gut, and energetic body. Like when practicing meditation or yoga, we begin to perceive ourselves differently and are able to have a whole body experience that inevitably provokes insight and shifts in our thinking. It’s as if right brain and left brain are working together and we are connected to our inner quiet voice, our intuition, and a place of grounded peace that is unaffected by drama, action, and everyday analysis and decision-making. We get access to parts of ourselves that lie dormant and unused most of the time – our authentic selves – the parts of ourselves that are silenced while living in our high tech, mechanized worlds.

The value add that I bring to this kind of coaching occurs when clients are introduced to the language and culture of horses so that they can interact directly with the horse in it’s language. Learning to speak horse is just like learning any language – it takes time and practice but learning the basics is easy and can create profound direct communication with direct feedback. Insight happens when clients see and understand the horse’s reaction to them while at the same time connecting deeply to their inner thoughts and feelings – undistracted from the clutter of daily mental processing.

Would you like to know when you are communicating your intentions effectively? How about getting feedback on your non-verbal communication? Are you really the leader that you believe you are? Are you authentically yourself in the workplace?  Come and spend some time talking with the horses and find out. (You don’t have to be a whisperer to benefit.)




Goleman, Daniel, The Focused Leader, December 2013, The Harvard Business Review
Goleman, Daniel, 2002, Primal Leadership Realizing the Power of Emotional Intelligence.
Argyris, Chris, May 1991, Teaching Smart People How to Learn, Harvard Business Review