Authentic or Inauthentic Leader?

Leaders are constantly told that they must be authentic. When it comes to upholding values, simply giving your feelings and thoughts free rein may be the worst thing you could do.

Be the leader you need to be – that may be different to the one you feel like being.

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High performance headlines

  • If authenticity is about saying what you think and feel, then it has no place in good leadership.
  • Please be authentic, though not if you’re feeling shit. Then we’d really like you to pretend.
  • Most of the time we need and want our leaders to be beautifully inauthentic.

The full viewpoint

Apparently, leaders are now supposed to be “authentic”.

“Authenticity” is highly valued and it’s definitely a bad thing if as a leader, you’re “inauthentic”. Authenticity has assumed a huge value and importance and is consistently promoted by coaches, self-development gurus (really?) and has infected the professional development and L&D community to the point where it’s pretty much accepted wisdom. Courses are even available on Authentic Leadership. I just Googled it and I can spend a few hundred quid on one in Aberdeen or re-mortgage my house and go on one in France. Presumably the one in France is held at an authentic Chateau, though it would be much funnier if it was a mock one.

How about we stop, take a breath, engage our brains and think about what the hell is meant by “authentic”? If authenticity is going to be not just a thing but a useful thing, then we need a common currency of language and understanding as a starting point.

One definition talks about being authentic as being genuine. So not a replica or a copy. I have no idea how that’s helpful, given that I’ve never witnessed a leader trying to pretend to be another one and in any case, young leaders are encouraged to learn from good and bad leaders they’ve experienced, presumably to change and develop through another thing called “role-modelling”.

Maybe by being genuine, they mean saying what you really think and feel. In that case, we’re watching car crash TV. Just in the last couple of months I’ve been with two teams from different organisations where a leader was beautifully authentic. They said exactly what they thought and felt. Unfiltered, without any attempt to mask or modify. It didn’t work out too well. They were upset, the team was damaged and a lot of repair work will be required. But at least they were really authentic.

I’m pretty sure that’s not what the authenticity advocates mean or want. In which case, be clear about what you do mean and want. If authenticity is about saying what you think and feel, then it has no place in good leadership because leaders are people and what they are thinking and feeling at any moment might not be very useful when it comes to actually doing their job. So we have a modifier. “Please be authentic, though not if you’re feeling shit. Then we’d really like you to pretend.”

What about if you’re feeling anxious or nervous or frightened or unsure? Then I can be authentic right? Of course. Showing your vulnerability will help you connect with those you lead. Well that’s clear. Though it isn’t. It’s well documented that after the evacuation from Dunkirk and the prospect of an imminent Nazi invasion, Mr. Churchill was depressed about the prospects and a tiny bit anxious. Fortunately, he didn’t know about being authentic so he didn’t go on the radio and say “It’s all a bit pants and quite frankly, I’m shitting myself too.” Instead, he galvanised the nation with “we will fight them on the beaches…”. I think most people with at least a couple of brain cells are happy that he made the right inauthentic choice.

So now we can build on our earlier modifier: “Please be authentic, though not if you’re feeling shit. Then we’d really like you to pretend. Also, if you have thoughts or feelings that would not be good to express because people are looking to you for a sense of confidence or resilience, please don’t be authentic then either.”

It’s getting a bit tricky now. So it’s not about saying what you think or feel. Maybe it’s about standing up for what you believe in and making that clear as a leader, having it inform how you lead. So if I believe that God created the universe, I should stand up for that in my leadership? Well no, that wouldn’t be appropriate in your role as a leader. We need to modify a bit more.

“Please be authentic, though not if you’re feeling shit. Then we’d really like you to pretend. Also, if you have thoughts or feelings that would not be good to express because people are looking to you for a sense of confidence or resilience, please don’t be authentic then either. Authenticity is about standing up for what you believe in, though if what you believe in is inappropriate in the context of your role as a leader, please don’t stand up for what you believe in.”

The truth is that when the authenticity advocates talk about authenticity they really mean “please be the leader we need and want you to be around here and that might mean hiding your feelings. It’s also likely to mean that at times we need you to say one thing even if you’re feeling another. And if there are things you believe in and that are important to you but don’t really fit with work, then please supress those beliefs when you’re leading.”

There are also times when authentic leaders are vilified for their authenticity. A boss of a European airline and a President springs to mind. They seem pretty authentic and are heavily criticised for it. So we have our final modifier:

“Please be authentic, though not if you’re feeling shit. Then we’d really like you to pretend. Also, if you have thoughts or feelings that would not be good to express because people are looking to you for a sense of confidence or resilience, please don’t be authentic then either. Authenticity is about standing up for what you believe in, though if what you believe in is inappropriate in the context of your role as a leader, please don’t stand up for what you believe in. Finally, when you are being authentic, please make sure it’s the right flavour. We don’t want the wrong sort of authenticity around here.”