Honest Leadership – Is It Possible?

Recently we met with Neal Froneman CEO Sibanye Gold, followed by a meeting with one of his Executives Dawie Mostert, to continue our recent leadership conversation of the previous week on Cliffcentral Leadership Platform. It was a refreshing experience, for various reasons. However, when I analysed it objectively, what stood out for me was simple HONESTY! There was a childlike, courageous honesty around what we discussed, around self, around elements in their organization and society that prevents us as a nation from taking our leadership heritage to another level – in politics, business and society in general.

Truly great leaders are authentic. To be authentic though, you need to be absolutely honest, even at the risk of not being liked, and at the risk of going against the established way of doing things.

But what role should the environment play in giving a leader the space, freedom to be honest and authentic? Can leaders in South Africa be absolutely honest in their views, even when it differs from that of the government? Can the leaders in your organisation be absolutely honest about their feelings and views, even when it differs from management? Does our environment bind leaders, or free them up to be real? Does our culture allow for true honesty, in every respect? Do we really value it, at all cost?

Some believe leaders in South Africa, and perhaps beyond, struggle to be authentic; they are ‘boxed’ in, saying what is politically correct rather than what they really believe; following agenda’s that are forced upon them rather than what they believe will truly lead to success. Some go even further and question whether or not we still have a lot of good leaders left in South Africa, and perhaps even the world.

As a general principle, we believe that inside a difficult environment great leaders emerge. South Africa is a very difficult place to lead in, and is therefore by default breeding great leaders. But, perhaps, under the surface we are growing great leaders who are just waiting to be unleashed, or they are trying to break through to the surface of the formal ‘leadership playing field’, only to find that the ‘game’ or environment does not allow for them to be who they have been molded to become – honest and authentic.

Are the rules on the political and corporate leadership playing field fair, honest, free? Ask yourself, do you believe you can honestly confront your black colleague about lack of performance without racist allegations being directed at you openly or covertly? Or, can you honestly say that your white manager’s views about you are not clouded by race – that you are judged on merit and not the colour of your skin? Appointing someone to a position, when you know in your heart of hearts that he can’t do the job, is not honest. Accepting a job simply because it will give you status in your community, yet you know you cannot confidently do it, is not honest. Not appointing someone to a position because of race or gender yet using another excuse is not honest. Yet, if we are honest with ourselves these things are happening. Why?

From another angle – how many times have you wanted to say something in a meeting, but did not because of fear or concern of what others may say or think, or what the boss may do to you? When this happened, you were not being honest and therefore authentic and chose to be manipulated by fear.

But, on the other side of the spectrum, if you are the manager, when someone in your team has the courage to be honest with himself by asking a difficult question, or expressing a controversial view or concern, will you treat that person with respect and not victimise him/her? Of course one must learn to be honest in a diplomatic or caring way. But, be aware…some go so far down the road of diplomacy or so called caring that they forget to be honest and therefore authentic. Honesty first and diplomacy second! When you are honest and not diplomatic many will respect you and few will like you. If you learn to be excellent with both, many will respect you and many will like you, but never everyone because leaders have to do the difficult and unpopular thing.

Being honest is a principle and value decision. To become diplomatically honest is an acquired skill and can therefore be developed over time.

Again, on a broader scale, are we having honest conversations in South Africa about sensitive issues? For example are we as a society honest as far as our agenda to eradicate poverty is concerned, or is the real agenda materialism, the selfish acquisition of wealth? Do we really want to encourage growth of small businesses, entrepreneurialism, or not? Is the employment equity agenda an honest one – in other words, are we addressing real issues with real and honest facts, and in the best possible way, or is the agenda of some a black and white issue only? Is our constitution honestly our guide as far as behavior in society is concerned? Are we really honest about transformation? Is the relationship between government, labour, business and civic society an open and honest one? Or are they all pandering to government?

You see, being honest in every respect makes one authentic – honest with yourself; honest with others; honest about what is happening around you; honest in how you address the reality; honest in your agenda. If we therefore want an authentic environment there must be honesty! Then the ground will be fertile to grow leaders that are real, and that will rise to the occasion to achieve the extraordinary. When one is in an environment where one feels one cannot speak up to share one’s honest views, authenticity will be under threat. Where authenticity is under threat great and authentic leaders will struggle even more to emerge.

I challenge you to have a bold conversation with your team about honesty; about how you can create an honest environment where people report honestly; express their views honestly; do performance appraisals honestly; prepare their budgets honestly; set targets honestly – growth, financial and other targets.

I call for “HONEST LEADERSHIP”, which means “AUTHENTIC LEADERSHIP”! In other words I call for an honest environment – where there are no double standards; where we can confront one another with confidence about pertinent issues to break down barriers to growth and prosperity.

Do you recognize some areas in yourself or your team that need improvement? Email Adriaan on adriaan@leadershipplatform.com for more on creating “Leadership Fit” leaders that generate successful movement (performance) inside your organisation.




Louis has been fanatically endeavoring to uncover universal leadership principles and models for longer than most of us have been alive. He is an author, leadership expert, father, grandfather, and the Co-Founder of Leadership Platform.

Call: +27 (0)12 653 3022
Email: info@leadershipplatform.com

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Leadership Platform is a specialist leadership development consultancy, focusing on creating measurable impact to the bottom line through the enhancement of leadership understanding and engagement.


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