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Authenticity in Leadership
THURSDAY, OCTOBER 26, 2023  |  

So many of the gurus of the leadership development advice industry preach about authenticity.  Authentic leaders do this, authentic leaders do that…  Some have positioned authenticity as the “gold standard of leadership”.  But, what might the readily available evidence concerning authenticity and its link to effective leadership lead us to believe?  Authenticity is often valued and considered an important characteristic of effective leadership.  Yet, authenticity may not always be the most important or sufficient on its own.  There are several reasons for this perspective:

Contextual Variability: What is considered authentic can vary depending on the cultural, organizational, or situational context.  Authenticity in one context may not translate well to another.  Great leaders often need to adapt to different situations and environments, which may require them to behave differently to meet the needs and expectations of those they are leading.


Balancing Authenticity and Adaptability: Effective leaders must strike a balance between being authentic and adapting to the needs of their team or organization.  While being true to oneself is important, rigidly adhering to one’s authentic self can be detrimental if it hinders the leader’s ability to connect with and motivate others.


Ethical Considerations: Authenticity is not a blanket justification for any behavior or action.  Some leaders might claim authenticity to justify harmful or unethical behavior.  Great leadership includes a strong ethical foundation that goes beyond simply being true to oneself.


Communication and Influence: Effective leadership often requires the ability to communicate, influence, and inspire others.  This may involve framing messages and actions in ways that resonate with the audience.  Authenticity alone may not be sufficient for effective communication and influence, as it doesn’t guarantee that the message will be well-received or understood.


Developing Leadership Skills: Leadership skills can be learned and developed over time.  Leaders may need to acquire new skills and behaviors that are not necessarily part of their authentic selves.  This process of growth and development can be crucial for success as a leader.


Team and Organizational Goals: Leaders must prioritize the goals and needs of their team or organization.  Sometimes, this might require them to set aside their personal preferences and act in a way that is in the best interest of the collective.  Authenticity alone might not always align with these broader goals.


Emotional Intelligence: Emotional intelligence, which involves recognizing and understanding the emotions of oneself and others, is a critical component of effective leadership.  Great leaders use their emotional intelligence to navigate interpersonal relationships, make sound decisions, and motivate their teams.  While authenticity is important, emotional intelligence goes beyond mere authenticity to encompass empathy, self-awareness, and effective interpersonal skills—and helps to avoid breaking the no asshole rules of finer leadership.


In conclusion, it is quite clear from the available empirical evidence on authenticity as a characteristic of effective leaders that authenticity is a valuable quality in leadership, but it must be considered in conjunction with other leadership traits and skills.  Effective leadership often requires a blend of authenticity, adaptability, ethical behavior, strong communication skills, and a focus on organizational goals.  The importance of each of these characteristics may vary depending on the specific leadership situation and the needs of the team or organization being led.


Still, many would concur that authenticity holds significant value.  We often prefer to associate with, or be led by, individuals who are genuine rather than those who feign their true selves.  Embracing behaviors that resonate with truth, transparency, and a genuine connection to one’s core identity is crucial and constitutes an admirable trait in leadership.


Nevertheless, there’s a caveat to this authenticity principle: when your true self exhibits negative qualities, being unfiltered can lead to issues.  In practice, we’ve noticed that some executives have used the pursuit of authenticity as a justification for undesirable conduct.  It’s vital to recognize that authenticity encompasses not only the positive aspects, such as your values, aspirations, and cherished qualities.  For many, their unfiltered selves can also manifest unpleasant traits.  When your authenticity manifests as excessive criticism, poor communication, coarseness, judgmental attitudes, or inflexibility, you might be displaying your most genuine self, but you’re not necessarily displaying your best self . Often, these most authentic aspects of a leader require the most management.


When urging executives to become their best selves, we often encounter resistance.  People resist changing behaviors that feel most natural, even when everyone agrees that change would be beneficial.  For instance, we had a recent client, a national magazine head, who insisted on using her preferred process, which felt most natural to her, to produce each issue.  When asked to consider changing her process to make life easier for the team, she responded with, “This is just how I work.”  She was being authentic, staying true to herself, but this authenticity was obstructing her team from reaching a happier and more productive state.  Her excuse, “this is just how I work,” can be conveniently justified by the recent emphasis on authenticity, cautioning leaders not to pretend to be someone they’re not.  However, hiding behind the authenticity excuse serves as a convenient way to evade the truth about our true selves, our actual behaviors, and their reasons.


Instead, consider following these steps:


1. Gain insight into how others perceive you.  Ask a trusted colleague what challenges they encounter when working with you.  Listen without offering explanations or justifications, and write down their feedback in their own words.


2. Reflect on the feedback.  In private, respond in writing to your colleague’s criticisms.  Consider your thoughts and justifications for your actions. List them all, using your crankiest, most defiant, yet authentic voice.  Read it aloud to acknowledge that this voice is a part of you.


3. Seek an alternative approach.  The next time you feel compelled to engage in the behavior that makes you challenging, determine a different course of action.


4. Make amends.  Reconnect with the colleague and apologize for your challenging behavior. Commit to a plan to rectify the situation. If you repeat the same behavior, despite your intentions, plan how you will address the consequences.


5. Impose consequences.  Pledge to face consequences for misbehavior. If you engage in the problematic behavior again, what will it cost you?  Perhaps you’ll offer coffee or lunch to the affected individual, or compose an apology poem.  The consequence should be constructive but carry a personal cost.


While your authentic self should serve as the foundation of your leadership style, it’s prudent to examine your true self critically before presenting and defending everything that comes naturally.  Admiring leaders like Jack Welch (CEO of General Electric between 1981 and 2001, and author of Winning) is one thing, but don’t delude yourself into believing that unleashing your authentic self entirely is the key to effective leadership.


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