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Leadership Forum: The secret ingredient

July 19, 2021 
By Matt Pegg

There is no shortage of literature, instruction, research nor opinion with respect to what it takes to be a successful leader.

Some of my first formal leadership education focused on learning the difference between leadership and management. I remember the simple explanation that was drilled into my head then: Leadership is doing the right thing – management is doing the right thing right.

This principle made good sense to me then, and it still does today.  Management, by definition, has an industrial or even clinical feel to it.  Discussions on management tend to focus on things like continuous quality improvement, quality assurance and compliance. This is not meant to criticize the importance of these functions, as every leader must also be an effective and capable manager to succeed.

Leadership, however, tends to feel more personal and people-centric to me. It conjures up visions of motivation, encouragement, passion, energy and team-building in my mind. Leadership is about setting the course, and then showing the way to the intended destination by being out front – in other words, by leading. Leadership is about doing the right thing, especially when nobody is watching. It is about helping others to succeed, and to feel valued, safe and supported.

When I think about the greatest leaders that I have ever worked with, observed and learned from, one thing stands out in them all; one thing shines in each of them like a bright and unwavering beacon, in plain view for everyone to see.  Every great leader that I have ever seen, is undeniably authentic.  They are the real deal.  There is no need to question their intentions, motivations or objectives as their authenticity shines brightly and leaves little room for confusion or misinterpretation.

In many ways, authenticity directly determines value. For example, an original Wayne Gretzky rookie card, verified as being authentic, is of high value, but a reproduction of the very same card is of little to no value, regardless of its condition or quality. While there may be no apparent difference between the two cards, one is authentic and the other is simply an attempt to replicate the original.

When you are in the presence of an authentic leader, you know it. Authentic leadership is unmistakable, palpable and sets true leaders apart from both imitations and replications of the real thing.  Positional power or rank will never outweigh nor compensate for a lack of leadership authenticity. Absent of authenticity, leadership fails.

Over the course of my career to date, I have had the opportunity to observe a large number of leaders in many different environments, roles and functions. Time and again, I am struck by the few who so clearly exude authenticity and it has caused me to seek to understand what produces this all too uncommon trait. 

My observation is that the secret ingredient to achieving legitimate authenticity in leadership is vulnerability on the part of the leader.

Vulnerability may seem like an odd quality, skill or objective for a leader to pursue as there is often a connotation of weakness that accompanies vulnerability.

But there is actually nothing weak about it.  

In the context of authentic leadership, vulnerability is someone who is willing to allow others to see them for who and what they truly are. Leadership vulnerability is about being transparent, open and honest with your team about your motivations, goals, intentions, fears, strengths, weaknesses and personal limitations.  

Vulnerability builds trust, which is foundational to leadership success, regardless of what level you work at and there are few things that will erode trust faster than being fake, disingenuous or inauthentic.

In order to become truly respected and authentic leaders, we must be willing to allow our teams to see us for who we truly are. That includes being open about our plans, motivations, concerns and fears; being candid and direct when delivering difficult feedback or news and being honest and heartfelt when sharing thanks, praise and congratulations for a job well done.

True leadership is as much about being open, honest and transparent as it is about being competent, capable and effective. In other words, authentic leadership is about facilitating the success and results of the people we lead by being honest with them about who we are and what we stand for.

Matthew Pegg is the chief with Toronto Fire Services, having previously served in Georgina, Ajax and Brampton, Ont. He is currently the incident commander for Toronto’s COVID-19 response. Contact Matthew at and follow him on Twitter at @ChiefPeggTFS. 

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