What I learnt from Jon Auer about authentic and inclusive leadership Written by Katrin Homer

24th April 2017

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I didn’t expect to be thinking about authentic and inclusive leadership when I recently attended a Jon Auer gig at the Garage in Islington. Jon Auer co-founded the US pop band The Posies and has also been a part of a band called Big Star.

As a tag-along of my husband and his brother who’ve been die-hard Posies fans for most of their adult lives, I came ill-equipped with much knowledge of any Jon Auer songs or what Jon as a person was all about. But I quickly got to know him as a musician who comes across as relaxed and comfortable in his audience’s presence. He addressed us with some personal anecdotes and witty banter and his acoustic rock and pop immediately drew everybody in. His natural and fluent guitar playing was second to none and his singing subtle and heartfelt.

So far, so good. A gifted musician behind the microphone up on stage, his audience listening attentively a few feet below. Great songs, great atmosphere. It would have been a fabulous evening if it had continued like this. But what Jon did next, lifted the gig from great to magical – by doing something very simple.

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For his next song (‘Throwaway’ by the Posies) he unplugged his guitar, left his microphone behind and stepped down from the stage to be amongst the audience. He made himself accessible, willing to see people and be seen by them, without worrying about how it might turn out.

When he performed amongst us in the audience, he created a spark that hadn’t been there before. He allowed himself to be real, near and humble. He immediately got more attention from us by making himself more available, by being more authentic. All of a sudden it wasn’t just him singing his song, we were all singing his song together without any instruction.

During the gig, Jon left the stage and stepped down into the audience twice, and even though this was such a simple act, it transformed everybody’s experience of the evening.

We left awestruck. Chatting away in the pub afterwards I mentioned how I wished that more (business) leaders were able to do just this – to be amongst their audience rather than creating a barrier of hierarchy and distance. Whilst honesty, authenticity, listening, empathy, humility and flexibility are seen as essential traits in today’s leaders, as important as courage, confidence and decisiveness have always been, these traits often don’t quite make it to the front when it comes to keynote speeches, presentations and leadership events.

Yet why not? Sam Shaw says we operate in a business world where organisational hierarchies are less fixed, less about command and control as they become more fluid and multifaceted. Our emotional quotient or EQ is now revered as much as our IQ.

Plus we know that we are more likely to identify with a speaker if they invite us into their world. We are more likely to buy into somebody who makes us feel valued and included as an individual rather than someone who addresses us as a mass of people. Yet, most speakers position themselves behind a lectern, a couple of steps up on stage, a safe (?) distance away.

As I was pondering this, I thought about other opportunities where leaders can lessen the distance between them and their followers.

One question I’ve often encouraged leaders to think about is how to position themselves at a table during a meeting, for instance in a one-to-one meeting with one of their staff. Rather than sitting opposite the other person, I would ask them to consider sitting across the corner, or just around the side at a round table. When I asked the two parties afterwards how that had felt, they would both say that it was a simple yet effective way of reducing distance and hierarchy and increasing inclusivity and collaboration.

Another clever inclusive technique that I’ve seen being used on stage as part of a panel discussion is the ‘empty chair’. Imagine a panel of three speakers and a moderator, so four chairs on stage, plus another empty one amongst them. At regular intervals, this chair is used by the moderator to invite different members of the audience to come up on stage and share their opinion, what’s resonated with them, ask another question etc. By simply asking a volunteer to come on stage and sit down, this instantly creates an atmosphere of inclusivity, an atmosphere of us, rather than us and them.

I remember experiencing this technique for the very first time at an event of the inclusIQ Institute under the leadership of Suzanne Doyle Morris. When Suzanne introduced the concept and how the empty chair was going to be used during the event, I felt excited as well as a bit nervous at the prospect of trying this out. Yet I’m so glad I did because I added value to the debate by providing another point of view, and I felt proud that for a few minutes, I was able to sit amongst a distinguished panel that had invited me in their midst and that had listened to me. Easy!

So whether you’re a leader delivering a keynote, speaking as part of a panel, chairing a team meeting or singing your latest hit single to your fans, it might be worth thinking not just about the why, how and what but also about the where!

If you’d like to discuss any thoughts, questions or ideas on leadership, please get in touch!

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