Dr. Bonnie Henry Is a Masterclass in Authentic Leadership

Long seen as a soft skill, the ability to lead from the heart is getting tested — and refined — like never before. Specifically exemplified in BC's Doctor Bonnie Henry.

Legendary basketball coach John Wooden once said the truest test of character is what you do when no one is watching. Perhaps at no other point in history could it also be said that the opposite is true: Who you are when everyone is watching — and the stakes are highest — is proving to be just as revealing in authentic leadership.

And let’s be clear: everyone is watching. We may all be consumed by our own personal and professional journey through the COVID-19 crisis, but our leadership lens has both widened and focused simultaneously. The acute awareness of our own actions is consistently tested by comparisons to our peers, both here and around the world.

Employees, customers, communities and family are all providing feedback on how we’re doing as leaders. Like it or not, this is a test everyone is forced to take — and the marks will be public.

If ever there were a time for authentic leadership to take centre stage, this is it. And in many ways, the best example is happening here in Victoria each day at 3 p.m.

Dr. Henry’s COVID-19 daily briefing has been a masterclass in the art and science of authentic leadership. At first, I resisted watching, despite my wife’s encouragement.

“She’s incredible,” said Beth. “I just feel so much better after I hear her.”

So when I finally started watching, I was blown away. Everything Dr. Henry and the B.C. leadership team did matched well against the five traits of authentic leadership identified by Bill George, the CEO-turned- Harvard-academic who popularized the theory of authentic leadership.

  1. Pursuing their purpose with passion. Dr. Henry has been on the front lines of outbreaks, from Ebola to SARS, for her entire career, and has literally written the book (Soap and Water & Common Sense).
  2. Practising solid values. Dr. Henry is as interested in the contagion of fear as much as the viruses themselves because fear attacks the very core of our humanity — our empathy for one another.
  3. Leading with their hearts as well as their heads. Each daily briefing always starts with statistics, but it also includes stories to honour the people behind the numbers.
  4. Establishing connected relationships. When Dr. Henry says “be kind, be calm, and be safe,” she seems to be speaking not to a general population, but to each of us individually.
  5. Demonstrating self-discipline. By holding the briefing at the same time each day, with the same agenda, Dr. Henry exercised a leader’s most potent form of discipline: consistency.

During a time of crisis, it’s this last trait — the discipline of consistency — that is at once most difficult and most needed. Authentic leaders have exercised this muscle so many times it just shows up when the stakes are highest. Undisciplined leaders whose communication style, decision-making and emotional stability lack consistency (yes, a certain U.S. politician fits the bill) are quickly exposed.

Comedian George Burns said, “authenticity is everything in politics. Once you learn to fake it, you’re golden.” And while faking authenticity may seem oxymoronic, it’s still possible. But not for long. In a crisis with no end in sight, well, the pretenders get found out. It is exhausting.

Again and again, employee surveys reveal that what they seek most in their leaders is not charisma or passion or even the ability to clearly communicate vision. It’s consistency: knowing that actions and reactions will generally align to a defined set of parameters, which team members can execute without confusion or fear.

In her recent Harvard Business Review article, “Real Leaders Are Forged in Crisis,” professor Nancy Koehn declares unequivocally that leaders are not born but made. Like strong steel, they are forged in high heat, under great pressure. “Your job, as a leader today,” she writes of the COVID challenge, “is to provide both brutal honesty … and credible hope.”

It’s that dual notion of honesty and hope that, for me, most cogently captures authentic leadership at times like this. By its nature, honesty in crisis is brutal. But credible hope at once softens the blow and hardens our resolve to see it through.

I believe there’s tremendous power for leaders who act with authenticity and its equally misunderstood cousin, vulnerability. If I think back to the most impactful leadership moments of my life, either I — or the person leading me — said a version of these five phrases, creating space needed for the connective tissue of leadership to form and strengthen. They were:

  • Thank you for the feedback.
  • What do you think?
  • I don’t know.
  • Help me.
  • Okay, nice, good, ahh, wow, interesting… (or any other open-ended single word).

In fact, often the best word was no word at all, a hard-earned habit that Ian Chisholm at Roy Group captures with the elegant (yet stinging) acronym W.A.I.T. (“Why Am I Talking?”).

Authenticity is defined as “real or genuine; not copied or false; true and accurate.” It comes from the Greek word for author.

Let us all be the authors of hope at this time through honesty, consistency and caring so that — one day — we may look back and see that the greatest contagion of 2020 was not a virus — it was our ability to lead authentically.

Jim Hayhurst is a trusted advisor to purpose- driven organizations and leaders. He is currently active in six companies and social impact projects that elevate Victoria’s reputation as a hub of innovation, collaboration and big thinking.

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