Know thyself – why authenticity is key to effective leadership

In the run up to Small Charity Week, Ian Joseph, CEO, Trustees Unlimited and Managing Director, Russam GMS, who specialises in the recruitment of leaders for non-profit organisations looks at what it takes to be an effective leader and why authenticity is paramount.

What does it take to be an effective leader in the charity sector today?

Research from the Weston Garfield Foundation last December highlighted the many pressures leaders of small and medium sized charities currently face.  It reported that many are grappling to address the increased demand for services, very often without additional budget. Three in five (59%) small to medium sized charities expect to support more service users in 2018 however, most (64%) are not confident of income growth in that time.

In my experience of recruiting leaders and trustees to charity boards, successful leaders are those that are agile, resilient and adaptable but above all, they have a strong level of self-awareness. They are authentic and this means they understand themselves and their impact on other people and because they are genuine, people are happy to follow them.

As Bill George, a professor of leadership at Harvard Business School, and former CEO of Medtronic, highlighted, ‘self-awareness is the starting point of leadership[i].

The first step towards authentic leadership is to know yourself – what your personal motivations are, what makes you tick and what you value most.

Being self-aware is also about knowing what you are good at as a leader, your strengths and your weaknesses and where your skills gaps lie.

An effective charity leader will know their shortcomings and recruit a leadership team full of people with complementary skills. A self-aware Chair will recruit board members with diverse and complementary skills to ensure good governance and decision making.

Leaders who are authentic have integrity and humility. One of the things we look at when we are recruiting leaders is how they behave – not only in a leadership capacity but when they think no one is looking. How do they treat the receptionist?

Recently we didn’t short list one Charity CEO for a role because a colleague had witnessed him hurling abuse at staff in the tube station. Equally, we put two great candidates forward for a senior role at a charity last month and the CEO couldn’t decide who to hire. He asked his PA and she said one candidate had been quiet and not spoken to her while the other had chatted to her. The one who had made the effort with the PA got the job.

The same is true when we are recruiting trustees. We test them for their values, their motivations, their humility and above all their willingness to learn.

Sometimes trustees will have many years more experience than a CEO, but they need to leave any ego at the door. They need to be humble and collaborative in their approach. They may come from a commercial background and believe they have better ways to do things but being on a board is about collaboration and learning and no matter how senior, people can still learn from others.


Ian Joseph, CEO, Trustees Unlimited and Managing Director, Russam GMS