Courageous Authenticity

I am a little late to this topic. I wanted to see what the response would be to the speech delivered by Lt. Gen. Jay Silveria at the U.S. Air Force Academy. After racial slurs were written on message boards at the USAFA prep school on the academy’s campus, Gen. Silveria assembled the entire academy student body, staff and officers — about 5,000 people — and was very clear about both his opinion and his response.

His speech is short, to the point and powerful. If you have not heard it, take a moment and see the video below.

Moments like this, when the culture and values of an organization have been violated, are critical tests for leaders. Whether it is an emotionally charged public display or an offhand remark in a meeting, the organization will take its lead from the boss’ response to a violation of culture.

In the book “Mastering Leadership,” Robert Anderson and William Adams label this kind of competency “courageous authenticity” — the ability to talk about difficult or even taboo topics in a constructive and forthright manner.

The underpinnings of their research show a very strong correlation between a leader’s “courageous authenticity” and his overall leadership effectiveness, as well as a link to actual business performance.

According to Anderson and Adams, courageous authenticity is one of the major contributors to the credibility of a leader. Measured together with integrity, it is how an organization understands and trusts its leaders. These capacities are core to establishing a vision of the future and attracting others to that vision. Courageous authenticity, coupled with integrity, engenders deep trust in the judgment, capacity and direction of a leader. Taken together, they underscore and amplify other leadership capacities. If either is low, a leader’s credibility and connection are compromised.

Silveria is not the most eloquent speaker, but he is astute and powerful in making his point in a way that is impossible to miss. He has ordered that the entire cadet corps as well as staff, faculty and even flight personnel be present, giving the meeting both mass and urgency.

He does not mince words about what happened. In fact, he starts by making certain everyone knows what happened. There is no room or doubt about his own values, and those of the institution he leads.

And yes, he does have flag rank that invests him with authority in a culture that clearly respects rank and position. But he earns his stars again with the power of his clarity about the values of the organization — and by reminding all assembled that they are not just his values, but the values of the institution.

Do not get fooled into thinking that he gets a pass since he has those three stars on his collar. Everyone in an organization needs access to courageous authenticity if they are to lead.

In the CEO and key executive private advisory boards I run, courageous authenticity is critical. When a member brings a challenge or opportunity to the group for counsel, he has to be ready for some fairly rough and tumble feedback. Finding all the options and vetting them for the best way forward is our guiding principle. We want to debate all possibilities, which means plain speaking and standing up for your principles. It is in the debate that we often find the first glimmer of the chosen way forward. Those ideas would never surface if we settled for the easy, the expected or the safe.

And my members take that dedication to finding the best solution to a thorny challenge back to their own organizations, rather than settling for the safe (even if unclear) way forward.

Silveria could have settled for the safe route. He could have had a meeting on the floor of the prep school and tried to contain the event there. Or he could have issued a delayed press conference with the now predictable formula: “There was an incident … This is what happened … We are investigating … The guilty will be dealt with severely … .” He could have dodged altogether and issued an internal communication and press release from his office — or worse yet, through a staff member. Instead he sent a clear message to the entire community, focused on what the values of the institution are and what appropriate behavior looks like. No one left that room unclear about the leader’s view and values.

A CEO can delegate a lot. Productivity metrics, finances, workforce planning can all be handed off to someone else to manage. Culture and values, however, cannot be delegated.

Originally published in Arkansas Business, Barry Goldberg On Leadership, October 16, 2017.