Authentic Leadership: The Journey from “I” to “We”.

When I first started writing I described the journey that inspired my first blog as a journey from “I” to “we”.

George and Sims, in their book, True North, describe leadership in general as a journey and authentic leadership specifically as a journey from “I” to “we”.

This relationship between authentic leadership and the journey from “I” to “we” intrigues me. In describing my personal journey as a journey from “I” to “we” I realise at the heart of my journey has been and still is, the desire to be authentic, to live, to lead and to be led authentically. I’m certain I am not alone and journey with many fellow travellers who feel the same way.

In the process of interviewing 125 leaders George and Sims made a fascinating discovery. For most of the leaders they interviewed the journey from “I” to “we” was triggered by what they call a transformative event. These events were often not positive ones, hence they are described as crucible experiences, for example, illness, the death of a loved one, failure in some form or another. This relationship between suffering (the crucible) and the journey from “I” to “we” also intrigues me because as I’ve discussed in previous posts my personal journey from “I” to “we” began with a crucible experience of my own, a stress-related nervous breakdown.

To sum up then, in my experience, and in the research of George and Sims, it seems authentic leadership involves a journey from “I” to “we” which is often triggered by a “crucible” experience.

The relationship between authenticity, the journey from “I” to “we” and suffering is definitely something I will explore further in this series of authentic leadership.

Perhaps somewhat surprisingly (or maybe not) George and Sims describe the journey from “I” to “we” as the most important process leaders go through in becoming authentic. They devote an entire chapter to the subject making a number of points which I’ve captured below, mainly in their words:

Authentic leaders realise that leadership is not about their personal success but the success they could create by empowering others to lead.

• Early in their careers leaders are most often recognised as a result of individual effort and the ability to get others to follow them.

• To become authentic, leaders must discard the myth that leadership is about being in charge and having myriads of followers.

• Authentic leadership is about empowering others on their journey.

• Only when leaders stop focusing on their personal ego needs are they able to develop other leaders.

• Authentic leaders are less competitive and more open to those they work with being right and taking the lead. As a result people are more likely to want to work with them.

• Authentic leaders recognise the unlimited potential of empowered leaders working together for a common purpose.

Powerful stuff! The positive symptoms and side effects of authentic leadership, each one warranting a post of its own.  However, I want to explore as simply as I can the relationship between the crucible experience, the journey from “I” to “we” and authenticity.

In the process I’ll attempt to answer the following questions:

Why does authenticity result in less “me” and more “us”?

Why is suffering often the point of departure for the leadership journey from “I” from “we”?

Why does this journey affect leaders and those they lead in the way it does?

I want to close out this post with a quote from Nelson Mandela, one of the leaders interviewed by George and Scott. In quoting Mandela I am once again reminded of the strong correlation between Greenleaf’s Servant Leadership and George and Sims' Authentic Leadership.

After 27 years in prison Mandela emerged having made the most remarkable journey from “I” to “we”. His long walk to freedom was not characterised by selfish bitterness and anger, hell-bent on revenge for his personal suffering, but a selfless determination to serve the people of his nation for their good. As George and Sims say it, “during those long years in prison Nelson Mandela realised that his leadership was not about the “I” of getting people to follow him but the “we” of reconciliation.”

George and Sims suggest that authentic leaders who have journeyed from “I” to “we” are no longer heroes of their own journey. Mandela is the epitome of a hero transformed into a servant through a crucible experience. Whilst history will remember him as the people’s hero this was not “his-story”. On the day of his release he defined himself not as a self proclaimed hero seeking the adulation of the crowd, but a servant of the nation seeking the best for its people.

I’ll leave Mandela to have the final word and in so doing offer him to you as the leader who embodied more than any other the hallmarks of Servant Leadership and Authentic Leadership combined:

I stand here before you not as a prophet but as a humble servant of you, the people. Your tireless and heroic sacrifices have made it possible for me to be here today. I therefore place the remaining years of my life in your hands.

Nelson Mandela


Mark Lawrence is a leadership and culture consultant