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Authenticity is the hallmark of true leadership

Apr 13, 2009 Business Daily, Leadership

“P&G’s unbroken sales and profit growth under (AG) Lafley has brought great rewards to his investors and to him. He was paid $23.5m last year, with $6.6m in cash, and he holds a huge amount in P&G stock. Yet there are no discernible trappings of wealth on his person or hint of hubris in his demeanour. He wears sensible Ecco shoes, rimless spectacles and a simple watch, the face sitting on his inner wrist. There are no flashy cufflinks or expensive shirts with his initials embroidered on the breast. He deals with compliments without being self-deprecating or conceited.
“That is who I am,” Lafley responds when I say he is incredibly understated given his position as one of America’s most celebrated businessmen. “I am a product of my family and education.””

‘Lunch with the FT’, (Financial Times, December 6, 2008)

“That is who I am,” says AG Lafley, the enormously respected chief executive of the giant Procter & Gamble group. Five words that I think all leaders should imprint on their foreheads.

The respect Lafley has is well deserved. He has been at the helm of P&G for eight years, and has brought it back from an overweight bureaucracy to a highly regarded global giant. Lafley has doubled its turnover, to $80 billion in 2008 (that’s 3 times Kenya’s GDP). Even more startling is the fact that 3.5 billion people use a P&G product EVERY DAY.

So Lafley might be expected to be a little conceited and, with his income, more than a little ready to show it off. But he is not, and he wears his wealth very lightly. As the FT interview revealed, he works in a simple open-plan office, dines sensibly, talks plainly and without embellishment, and does not carry the accoutrements of prosperity with him wherever he goes.

This nature yields big dividends in business. Lafley is able to engage with his customers very naturally and without barriers. He is known to sit around doing the laundry with potential customers, and watching carefully how they live their lives and what they need in the products they use. A famously customer-obsessed culture has emerged at P&G as a result.

OK, now you tell me: when was the last time you met a Kenyan CEO who has similar traits? Who dresses simply, who talks naturally, who doesn’t flaunt his riches at every turn, who doesn’t assume he knows all the answers, who engages with staff and customers without barriers? People like that do exist in Kenya, but they are in the minority. When I meet leaders of that ilk, I value and appreciate them immensely.

But the norm is the other way. For many CEOs, the personal office is a place to show off rather than work in. Cars are chosen for the infantile statement they make, not the utility they give. Shirts and cufflinks? Even limos can be initialled here. Many of our leaders are notoriously aloof, almost impossible to meet, so lost are they in the myth of their own busyness. And when you do meet them, they are “so high on their own supply”, as a friend entertainingly put it recently, that they are almost impossible to talk to. They have an opinion and a solution for every problem in the world, as though being a CEO bestows all the wisdom anyone ever needs.

True leaders are different. They remain who they are; they stay engaged with their followers at all times; they talk freely without pomposity; they don’t assume they are always right; they accept their own limits and own flaws. They are authentic, in other words, not trying to live up to the movie stereotype of the big leader. They are themselves, true to their origins and beliefs. Authentic leaders are the ones who move mountains.

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