Awareness & Authentic Leadership (and Innovation)

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I have decided to dig into the large fund of Meeting notes from running my Networking Group, Innovators Anonymous (2004-2016) and share some of them via my ‘regular irregular’ mailout and here.

I am starting with the one from the ‘9th Innovation Leadership Experienced Event* which took place 4th & 5th December 2014. Our topic was:

Awareness & Authentic Leadership

The Essence

The Winds of Change 

We are living in rather interesting times, times that are characterised by change.  I know, change has always been part of life and human development, yet there is something about today’s world that drives the pace of change in a way we have not experienced before.  What has changed?  Let me start with what I believe is the underlying driver for much of the other change we experience: the speed with which information travels.  It is not that long ago that information and communication channels that connected different parts of the world were were rather slow.  

Going back in time and seeing how it all started, we find that news of what was happening beyond our own communities was brought to us by those who travelled; such news travelled very slowly – at the speed of the bearer of news, probably changing and morphing as time went on,  Such news would take months and years to spread, and most likely only reach small parts of the overall system that is our planet.  The written word and postal services allowed for the message to remain unchanged, and perhaps travel a little faster and further, yet access to news and information remained limited to a few.   The introduction of the phone (1876), then radio (1923), then television (1925) – none of which have existed 150 years yet – gave many more access to news and information, and much more in real time than ever before.  Each device was also affordable to a larger audience than the previous. 

Another aspect of information and news in the past: it tended to be one way.  Today?  News – good, bad – travels faster, awareness of a threat, a possibility, some change,  travels faster, and everyone with access to the internet can comment, share, contradict and draw their own conclusions.  Within fractions of a second a piece of news or information is accessible to the entire world, well, those who have access to the internet – which on the 30th June 2014 was 3,035,749,340 people or 42.3% of the world’s population (see also graph on the right).   While some countries embrace the internet faster than others, overall it is the fastest ever global adoption of a technology, ever.  So the big equaliser in terms of access to news and information, as well as a facilitator of individuals’ ability to get involved and contribute, at almost no cost, was and is the internet, which took off in earnest around the turn of the millennium.

What does it mean for innovation?  We all know that much innovation happens through connecting previously unconnected bodies of knowledge.  If it took time and effort to gather together bits and pieces of different bodies of knowledge in the past, today they are a couple of google searches away, meaning that the rate of innovation has increased exponentially. If we look at the graph on the right we find that around the turn of the millennium, when the internet took off, we also see an explosion of technological advancement and with it the introduction of new things. 

What about awareness and authenticity then?

One of the reasons that I feel so strongly that we should take a closer look at awareness and authenticity is the crisis of trust  and confidence in established institutions, be they banks (e.g. collapse of Lehman Brothers), food producers (e.g. Tesco’s horse meat scandal) or political parties (e.g. the rise of alternative parties such as UKIP).  As a consequence, today more so than ever before, we want to know what organisations stand for.  

Yet it is not only the corporations from which we seek clarity, it is individuals too, not least because there is also a lack of trust and confidence in leadership in general (e.g. results from the Edelman Trust Barometer 2013 ).  The Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development brought out a report in 2014 titled, “Cultivating Trustworthy Leaders”. This report concluded that how the economic crisis has made us feel makes it paramount for leaders to demonstrate integrity and benevolence. The report also confirms what those involved in innovation will be aware of: high levels of trust deliver the enabling environment in which innovation, problem solving, knowledge sharing and engagement can thrive, a lack of trust leads to “stuckness” and dysfunction.

 A foundation of authentic leadership and the ability to create an (innovation) enabling environment is (self-) awareness.  Even when using all the right words, if our tone of voice and our behaviours communicate something different, our words do not matter.  So we need to understand ourselves, ourselves in relation to others, and how our own beliefs and values connect with those of our organisation.

One thing that engenders trust is authenticity, and the foundations of authentic leadership and the ability to create an (innovation) enabling environment are an awareness of what goes on inside of us; we need to understand ourselves, ourselves in relation to others, and how our own beliefs and values connect with those of our organisation. 

A second reason in my view is that in today’s context everything seems to happen faster: not only the way news and information travel, how we connect, how much time we have for making decisions, also how fast teams are formed and disbanded, how fast we grow things, and how long things stay ‘new’ and remain ahead of the game.  

I believe that in such a context it pays to know who I am and how I come across – awareness – and to communicate and behave in ways that are aligned with what I stand for and believe in – authenticity. 

In the specific context of innovation I would consider this particularly beneficial for the following reasons:

  • Innovation requires diversity, and highly diverse contexts are prone to miscommunication and misunderstanding.  Only if we ourselves know our strength and weaknesses, what we value and what is not important to us, can we communicate this clearly to others, hence enable others to understand what our contribution can be, and manage expectations.
  • If we are the innovator – or the one who is selling on the innovative ideas of others – it will aid the decision making process of others if they know what I stand for.  If you think the ideas should sell themselves on the basis of their own merit be aware that we know from angel investor and venture capitalist research that investment decisions are increasingly made based on the strength of the individual / team behind the idea…

And finally, only when we are aware of our biases and preferences can we make conscious decisions whether we want to retain them, or work on changing them.  Only once we know how we are seen and understood by others can we start to adjust the way we communicate and present ourselves.

In the following I will go into more details of some of the above, and share some thoughts and sights from the 9th Innovation Leadership Experienced event.


Going Into Detail

Awareness & Authenticity Matter – Why Now?

In ‘The Reason Why’ I have already explained a little why I believe awareness and authenticity are more important today than ever before.  In this Section I would like to present a line of argument, based on observations of things that have changed / are changing, to support and explore this a little further. 

  • Hierarchies and other external guidelines are disappearing

In many organisations today hierarchies are flattening; there are less layers of management, which brings with it a requirement for each and everyone to take more responsibility, to engage more, to lead more.  ‘Who is leading whom’ is often determined by the specific situation and  context at any given time rather than by hierarchy. Having clarity about what we stand for will make it easier for people to decide whether they want to follow us. 

  • Things are happening faster


Like the acceleration of the flow of news and information, ie communication, the speed of many other aspects of life have accelerated too.  Whether it is the speed with which we are travelling around the world (aircraft, high speed trains), the speed with which we expect any orders to arrive (amazon…) or to be able to see the results of our ideas and activities (3D prototyping, digital photography).  

Teams are forming and reforming quickly, we are getting more and more used to work on projects, with different people, in different constellations, on different topics.  In order to get most out if the teams it is important to get to know each other and each others strengths and weaknesses quickly.  The more we know who we are, the easier it will be for others to understand and ’get’ us.

I also get the impression that many of the decisions we need to make need to be made faster. This means that we may have to make our decision with incomplete information.  If we do not decide in that moment, the opportunity might have gone (as someone else will have been willing to make that decision, there and then).  Being aware of our personal biases and preferences can be quite critical, ie if we know that we are generally too optimistic about possibilities, or tend to be too risk averse, we can factor this knowledge into our decision making.

  • We connect and relate differently

Just think about how you meet and connect with people, how the network of your friends and acquaintances has evolved. Think about how many friends and acquaintances your parents will have had, how they will have met them, and what the geographical dispersion of them was.  Unless they have travelled the world extensively, studied or worked abroad, their friends will have come from within a limited geographical area.  Think about your own network, in real life and in your social networks. 

What do you do when you get a connection request on one of the social media?  If you are like me you will check the person out, starting by looking at their profile on that social media site, looking whether there are shared connections, shared interested.  I will look at how they present themselves, in their words as well as the photo they have chosen.  Again knowing, and being able to communicate your essence really helps.

How we find and conduct our work has changed (particularly for the ever increasing group of self-employed).  Drawing on my own experience, I might fly around the world to run a workshop or give a presentation, having liaised with people exclusively via email, perhaps had one or two telephone conversations.  I don’t think my father would have been comfortable with that.

Also think about how long it might have taken to find a specialist or expert 10-15 years ago.   Now you can find communities of experts and specialist in just about any area in a couple of seconds,  perhaps minutes if you are looking for something truly unusual and rare.  

  • The context in which we operate is more complex and more diverse


Flatter hierarchies, increased speed, and different ways of connecting and relating have made our world much more complex; there are not only many more parts, the way in which these parts connect and combine is unpredictable.  Put out a piece of news on the internet and you do not know who picks it up and what they do with it, with what it will be combined, how it will be dissected and which part of it re-used.

There are more choices for anything and everything – including people.  If things are complex, if there is a multitude of choice we often do not have the time, nor resources, to analyse and investigate each possibility.  Often we have to rely on our gut, on our instinct in the decision making.  How well are be trained in that?  Are we not always asked to provide ‘rational’ arguments and evidence for our decisions?   Yet in order to make gut- and intuitive decisions we need to know, understand, and trust ourselves well.

  • Our professional and personal lives are converging

Convergence is not only happening in the fields of technology (see smart phones) and industries (Google working with contact lens manufacturers and health organisations) convergence is also happening between our personal and professional lives. Who does not have a smart phone?  Who does not answer emails – professional as well as personal – any time of the day, any day of the week?  Yet if I had asked people 5-10 years ago if this is how they envisage their future, they would have probably declared me to be a bit mad.  

It is not only our smartphone behaviour, also our engagement with social media.  Some of us are perhaps very aware and conscious of what we are making available online; however, looking at what people post, blog and tweet seems to indicate that not many of us take a deliberate approach to the use of social medial.  Hence, whether we are posting something to our friends, or creating a professional profile, those savvy with the internet will find both. If there are inconsistencies in how we present ourselves, our values and our believes, they will spot that too! If we are one person at work, and someone entirely different at home, people will find out, and it will cause confusion at best, a lack of trust and suspicion at worst. Of course, it does not mean that we can not have many different facets, it just means that if we are working for the WWF and go on hunting parties at weekends, it makes what we are doing less credible and believable, to both constituencies.  

  • This means that we need to communicate more clearly and consistently than ever before


This new context in which we operate also means that we need to communicate more consciously, clearly, and consistently.  Just sending an email and assuming that we have communicated is a fallacy. Everyone is overloaded with information, everyone’s inbox is too full (not least because it is just too easy to copy any- and everyone in).  In a world where everyone seems to be short of time, clarity is hugely beneficial, as is being consistent.  Consistency makes it easier for other to assess and ‘get’ our messages.  In a world with less hierarchy, a world where who is leading and who is following is context dependent we need to understand what people stand for.  It is no longer the hierarchy who tells us whom to follow, but what we believe in. Only if others know what we stand for they can love us or leave us, only then can they make a conscious decision.   

  • Which means self awareness and authenticity are more important


We can only present ourselves clearly, consistently and authentically if we know ourselves!  We can only rely on our gut feel and intuition if we know this to be our own voice – rather than that of other people (particularly our parents’), the desire to confirm to convention or the expectations of others.

Taking a look into the mirror can take courage, particularly if it has never been encouraged.  We might not like what we see, and it might not be consistent with how we like to see ourselves.  However, only once we are aware can we decide whether we would like to stay with it, or whether we want to start changing it. 

  • … not least because authenticity espouses trust


In our changed and continuously changing world one of the words we are hearing more and more frequently is TRUST.  When we can no longer rely on external factors to guide us – structures, hierarchies, politics, religion – we need to be able to rely on something else: people want organisations (and individuals) whom they can trust.  Trust, rather than (position) power is the new currency.  It is all about whether others feel they can trust us, whether they feel they can believe (in) what we say.


If trust is the currency, then being authentic creates a license to print that currency, and (self-) awareness is the foundation for authenticity. 

So I hope that I have managed to succeed to convince you that awareness and authenticity are indeed important (if you were not convinced already…).

Now then, a brief summary of the journey and tools we shared next. 


Creating Awareness – Thoughts & Tools from our Journey  

In this Section I will share some of my thoughts and experiences from the sessions with Joanna, Sarah, and Jackie, the team from Psychology of Success that guided us through the days.  As you  will appreciate from learning the Hot Cross Bun model, your thoughts and experiences might be quite different despite us all being in the same situation!

It was a journey into understanding ourselves, and our effect on others a little better.  We start by looking at ‘Hot Cross Buns’, a concept from Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT). The key idea behind CBT is that our thoughts, emotions, physical symptoms and behaviour can all influence one another and therefore keep us in a certain pattern of thinking, be is positive or negative, though generally the concept is used to get out of negative or vicious circles.  

After the announcement of a short exercise, the thought of which set most of us on edge, we were then asked to reflect on our reaction we had to the announcement of that exercise, using the Hot Cross Bun.  It was interesting to note that which part of the Hot Cross Bun our first reaction related to varied. For some of us it was in our thinking (oh my goodness…), for some in the way we behaved (moving backwards in our chair), for some what we felt (panic!) and for some it was a  sensation in our body (that sinking feeling in your stomach).  So there is not one ‘prescribed’ or ‘typical’ journey across the Hot Cross Bun, we all have our individual ‘entry points’ and sequence of the ‘chain’.  For me, being aware of what my ‘entry point’ means that I have a chance to stop the chain reaction right there, helping to prevent myself from slipping down the otherwise inevitable downwards spiral.  

While I guess the thought ‘no one wants to talk to me’ when facing a large, unknown group of people might not be a particularly uncommon thought pattern.  However, I rather not make assumptions, so I am sharing a personal story here.  I am a person who likes small groups, being with friends, depth conversations rather than small talk.  Going to big social events, parties and such like was never quite  my thing.  The negative journey across the Hot Cross Bun went as follows: No one wants to talk to me -> I really feel uncomfortable when in large groups -> I always feel light headed and my mind goes blank -> best not to go to events, or when unavoidable best to stand aside and leave as soon as possible.  When starting my MBA I decided that I should do something about it; so I made an agreement with myself that I would approach and talk to at least three people (ie changing my behaviour) before allowing myself to leave. I still prefer small groups and being with friends, but am no longer deeply uncomfortable in large groups. 

The next exercise was quite fun: making scones! ‘Make scones’ were then also the entire set of instructions given to us by Joanna, Sarah and Jackie who had brought a bag full of ingredients to  otherwise enable us to follow this request. Well, some of us were actually given a particular role to play in this exercise which only that person knew. It was quite interesting to observe how this played out!  As only the individuals concerned knew about their particular role, they were often merrily ignored in their efforts by the other – particularly if they were not quite comfortable with the role allocated to them, and were hence not living it full-heartedly.  Then again, there were others whom the given role fitted just perfectly.  

What we learned in this exercise is that it is quite difficult to achieve effective and smoothly operating teamwork when there are no ground rules, when there has been no ‘contracting’ between the parties involved as to what to contribute and what to expect from others.  Makes me think how often we enter team work and start doing under similar circumstances: without  expectations and rules having been agreed…  As an aside, it is interesting to note that trust, one of the key ingredients for successful (true) collaboration, is significantly undermined when expectations are not met…

Another thing about the Hot Cross Bun is that it is about exploring the ‘here and now’, and how what happens to us in the here and now will be different – despite being in the same environment or situation – because of our differing past and present experience.  Being in the here and now is key part of awareness and consciousness – and we found that being in the present is not that easy!  As Joanna put it, “The “Here and Now” sessions was both to help learn about ourselves in the moment, being able to be truly aware of what is happening for us, individually, in each moment and therefore more able to choose what to engage with and communicate.”

Using the Hot Cross Buns again we then reflected how we felt at that very point in time, this time describing it to a partner. The role of our partner was to just listen – and point out to us when we were moving away from the ‘here and now’ into the past or future.  It was definitely not easy as it sounded…  While doing this we were also trying to listen for those other voices in our heads that tell us: this is really silly, you are making a fool of yourself, again; you are taking yourself too seriously!  Anyone familiar with such voices?  Being aware of them can help us to start to understand where they might come from and whether we want to continue to listen to them or start developing approaches to quieting them down.  This exercise was about offering real attention to one another, offering one another space (to be creative), listening with a real effort to understand (so I can hear your idea, not be waiting till I can express mine), and really feeling what it is like to take the risk of being absolutely congruent in my response to others (so I can give you real accurate feedback).

As working in a group without some kind of contracting can be quite tricky, this is what we did next, ie we set some rules by which we, as a group, wanted to behave for the duration of our time together – before then exploring being in the ‘here and now’ a little further.  In fact, we explored ‘just being’: sitting observing – ourselves and others – and found that just being can be quite uncomfortable and difficult!  In our busy times it feels like we are wasting time, most of us feel the need to constantly be ‘doing’.  Yet if we do not allow ourself to just be, it is truly difficult to listen into ourself! 

One could almost feel the tensions rising in the room as we all wondered what this was all about! So it was an interesting moment was when one of us spoke up how they felt: confused, a little annoyed, not quite seeing the point of it all.  It was very interesting because the person did not share what they thought they should feel, what might be ‘appropriate’ or ‘right’; they just shared what they were feeling, at that very point in time.  It was really quite amazing when that happened, it was as if a gate had been opened and people felt they had been given permission to express how and what they felt.  Of course, such openness requires a context that enables it, where someone – a facilitator, a leaders – holds the space for complete honesty to emerge.  You may ask, is this possible within the work context?  Upon which I would like to change the question to: what would happen if it were possible in the work context.

 We finished the day with some serious fun: masks. Are you aware how your facial expression impacts other?  Did you know that we often, unconsciously, mimic those opposite us?  In psychology this phenomena is known as ‘mirroring’.  Here is what Wikipedia has to say about it: “Mirroring is the behaviour in which one person subconsciously imitates the gesture, speech pattern, or attitude of another. Mirroring often occurs in social situations, particularly in the company of close friends or family.”  

 If you think about it, from the moment we come into this world we learn by imitation, by copying what we see around us.  By the way, that’s why the role of a leader is so critical – be they a parent, the boss, or the ring leader in a group.  Followers will look to their leaders to decide what is acceptable and what isn’t, and in a group context will be more likely to ‘mirror’ the leader than fellow team members.

It was very interesting to observe how we reacted to those wearing masks, how their facial expressions affected us, and how they influenced how we felt.  Perhaps even more interesting was how those wearing the masks felt!  In the first round we had picked a mask without knowing which expression it wore; by the reaction of others we could tell whether our expression was friendly / happy or rejecting / sad.  Perhaps there is something to be said in checking ourselves in the mirror from time to time… So it is definitely worth remembering the impact our facial expression has on others the next time we step out of bed on the wrong side

Before closing I would like to mention that being aware of a negative effect on others when we wear negative expressions does not mean that we should hide our feelings or that we need to twist ourselves into externally showing something that is not in sink with how we feel inside.  We should remain true to ourselves, otherwise we would not be authentic.  However, have you ever seen you self on video and been rather surprised by what you saw? Did you see yourself behaving and reacting in a way that you would have denied had it not been played back to you?  This was certainly the case for some of us when we watched a reply of the scone-making which had been recorded. So perhaps checking ourselves in a mirror from time to time is not a bad idea.

Understanding the implications of the Hot Cross Bun – namely that one negative aspect of our Hot Cross Bun is likely to affect and be reflected in the others can – is enough reason for me to try to moderate negative expressions. Being aware help us to consciously and deliberately shift towards a more positive expression, thinking pattern, body posture that ultimately makes us feel happier with and in ourselves.

 Final Words

This was the 9th time that we have held an ‘Innovation Leadership Experienced’ (ILE) event. Interestingly, it connects to our first ever ILE event which had the title ‘Innovation Leadership – Inspired and inspiring’ and was, fundamentally, about authenticity.  Our first event was structured around an article by Rob Goffee & Gareth Jones in which they share their insights on the four characteristics that, in their experience, set authentic leaders apart and at least 3 of those require self-awareness, and an understanding of the effect we have on others:

  • They have an ability to sense situation well,
  • They exercise tough empathy, 
  • They reveal their weaknesses, and
  • They dare to be different.

Hierarchies are disappearing, things are happening faster, are more complex and diverse, and our public and private lives are converging. We can no longer rely on external factors to understand whom we should follow, or what should guide our decision making; we have to develop different criteria.  Such criteria will rely on our ability to understand others, and even more importantly ourselves. Only then can we, as individuals and organisations, communicate clearly what we are about and what we stand for, and by doing so get others to engage with us, to follow us.

Times are changing, human awareness is on the increase, and it seems that those at the leading edge, both of innovation and leadership, are ready to take a closer look at themselves in order to pursue their dreams and visions, and to engage others to join them on this journey.  Authenticity is not something we can fake (well, I guess that is quite clear from the definition of the word!).  I also believe that people are too (emotionally) clever to have the wool pulled over their eyes for long in terms of what and who we are.  We should always remember that what we communicate through our actions and behaviours speaks louder than our words, and that we live in a world that is more transparent than ever before; we live in a world where private and public spheres are increasingly difficult to separate. Being authentic, consistently, is the only way forward. 

About time.


For those interested in the Appendices, please reach out to me directly at info (a) innovationleadershipforum . org.


    • Appendix I Agenda 16
    • Appendix II Participants 17
    • Appendix III Info on our Guides 18
    • Appendix IV 2013 Edelman Trust Barometer  – excerpt 19
    • Appendix V From Pyramids to Pancakes 21
    • Appendix VI From Pyramids to Pancakes 22
    • Appendix VII Why Trust is the New Core of Leadership 24
    • Appendix VIII Authentic Leadership Principles 26
    • Appendix IX Who do you love? 27
    • Appendix X Authenticity: The Way To The Millennial’s Heart 31
    • Appendix XI CBT & Hot Cross Buns 33
    • Appendix XII What is Awareness 35
    • Appendix XIII Holding Space 44
    • Appendix XIV Using Masks 48
    • Appendix XV Mirroring 49
    • Appendix XVI The Unconscious Influence of Mirroring 51
    • Appendix XVII Humans ‘subconsciously mimic other accents’ 58
    • Appendix XVIII MBAs take a hard look at soft skills 60


* Background to the ‘Innovation Leadership Experienced’ events

  • The first Innovation Leadership Experienced, part of the series of events held by Innovators Anonymous the Innovation Leadership Forum Networking Group which was founded 2004, took place December 2006.  We introduced ‘Innovation Leadership Experienced’ as a theme for our end of year events as we strongly believe that in order to truly understand “things innovation” you need to experience them.  In other word, we subscribe to the Confucian wisdom that
    • What I hear I forget
    • What I see I remember
    • What I do I understand
  • To elaborate a little further, as we believe that innovation happens in the presence of certain values (autonomy and responsibility, trust, diversity, value-orientation) and behaviours (collaborating, challenging, experimenting), and know that changing values and behaviours is not easy, we feel that the best way of convincing people to embrace certain values and behaviours is to let them experience, and thereby truly understand, the benefits.  
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