Authentic leadership proponents have elbowed their way to the self-help forefront over the past decade. The concept has become a popular point of entry for executives seeking personal improvement and competitive advantage. This can be good — or not.
Authentic leadership can be quickly misunderstood. There is a danger in oversimplifying the concept — some assume it’s “just be yourself” — which diminishes the need for development. When it’s understood as a means rather than an end, authenticity becomes more complex, more introspective and more of a continuous process around interpersonal development.
The real authenticity mission for corporate education is to promote continuous development. That requires assessment, feedback, coaching, learning and practice — the kind of work that true learning organizations are already doing.
The Pitfalls of Buzzword-based Learning
“Nobody is completely authentic,” said Kerry Cronan, a clinical psychologist and executive coach. “That’s a myth, that somehow we achieve authentic leadership. We all have hidden selves.” As director of the Brisbane, Australia-based consultancy Syntactics, Cronan works with organizations to help individuals become more effective contributors and improve work processes. He said authentic leadership is a misnomer. It should not be necessary to pair the two separate terms.
Globally, some might see authentic leadership as an excuse to be the ultimate ugly American, proudly asserting truths about themselves and others in order to win at all costs. Populist movements in Britain, Europe and the United States have smashed pretense and political correctness by putting greater value on unvarnished personality than on traditionally polished professionalism, consummate diplomacy and statesmanship. This has given authenticity a bad name, suggesting brutal honesty is a sign of leadership. But in business, brutal honesty is a behavior that executive coaches have spent decades unteaching.
“You get people thinking that the more forthright people are presumably being authentic, whereas I don’t think that is really authentic,” Cronan said. “That could be a commanding or a promising leadership, but it’s not authentic.”
Instead, he said a truly promising style of leadership is like an escape route that keeps people alert to the promise rather than to the reality, he explained. “And I don’t think we should be disingenuous with people and say that’s authentic.”
There is something quite American about formulaic leadership approaches, even though U.S.-centric leadership development has enjoyed a decade or two of international appeal in academic settings. Christelle Bitouzet is an affiliate professor at HEC Paris. There she teaches social responsibility and is one of the academic coordinators for the business school’s eMBA program, which owes much to American leadership theory. [Editor’s note: The author teaches at HEC Paris.] Her 145 students in two classes, many of whom have significant international business experience, will sometimes ask about authenticity as a topic, but not in the sense of a social movement.
“They’re trying to figure out how they can lead better with a stronger vision, with a bit more passion and with more efficiency,” Bitouzet said. “They wrap this into the idea of being authentic without really referring to the authentic leadership theory. They don’t align the word with something strong in terms of academic design. They are looking for ways to align better with stakeholders’ reality and with their team’s needs.”
In this case, the perception outside the U.S. is that authentic leadership is a shortcut around more complex, in-depth, self-development. Bitouzet said most leaders are willing to leave behind the idea that they can acquire or hone their leadership ability via a two-minute class, a set of quick recipes, or just by being themselves. “They want to develop their ability to be more inspiring, more trusted and a confidence generator.”
Even former Medtronic CEO and author Bill George, who helped popularize the term authentic leadership, said there is a right way and a wrong way to think of authenticity. In “The Truth About Authentic Leaders,” an article that appeared on the Harvard Business School’s website in July 2016, George differentiates between those who misunderstand authenticity with those who understand it as aspirational. “They don’t hide behind their flaws; instead, they seek to understand them. This lifelong developmental process is similar to what musicians and athletes go through in improving their capabilities.”
The most commonly understood authentic leadership approach has a strengths-based component that can short-circuit the difficult work of learning and development, giving individuals who would be well-advised to improve on weaknesses and correct negative behaviors a pass to become well-rounded and more effective.
At their worst, authentic leadership programs can undo a true learning organization’s efforts by advancing leaders who may be abrasive and have narrow bands of interpersonal competency. At best, authentic leadership can help an organization interested in learning build a commitment to self-awareness and personal improvement.
When Authenticity is Authentic
The best interview question to baseline authenticity might be, “Tell me about a time you tried something and failed, and tell me what you learned from it.” The question invites honesty and vulnerability. It asks the candidate to reveal a mistake, but more importantly it asks them to describe how they were able to grow from the experience. It speaks to the candidate’s ability to learn even through conflict or dire circumstances. From a developmental standpoint, this is the essence of authenticity and its importance to the organization.
Further, authenticity is key to learning. It starts at home with introspection and a quest for continual growth. Leaders may exude these traits in their interactions, as they allow themselves to be open to outside input and accept what needs to be addressed. Equally, an authentic leader is aware and empathetic of their followers and colleagues.
George’s ideal of an authentic leader has merit as it describes self-exploration, seeking feedback, understanding one’s purpose and adapting to be more effective. This is also another way to describe a versatile, agile leader. It takes authenticity to become a leader who has grown, who wants to be better and is striving to do this through continual development.
Herminia Ibarra, a professor of organizational behavior at INSEAD, offered a useful categorization for authenticity in human behavior. She differentiates “low self-monitor” and “high self-monitor” individuals. Low self-monitors may be very frank and truthful without understanding the consequences of their actions. A low self-monitor might be very authentic but not very effective in working with others.
A high self-monitor is very careful about the impact of what they say. Still, one should not assume they are going to be any more effective, because there is a danger of becoming a people pleaser, prone to avoiding conflict or playing a role and not being themselves. A high self-monitor who truly understands their strengths and weaknesses and is aware of a tendency to avoid conflict might try to actively confront conflict. This is authentic leadership — putting themselves in the breach by attempting something they don’t do very well, for the betterment of themselves, their team and their organization. The authentic leader is someone who has grown in self-awareness, who is trying to be a better, more effective leader and who tries in several different ways using several different strategies to be better at dealing with conflict.
Reconcile Authentic Leadership with Reality
In the aforementioned example, engaging authentically involves accepting the conflict and embracing the uncertainty of not knowing how to engage in conflict well, with self-awareness and vulnerability. Learning leaders can point to this as something most true learning organizations already do for leadership development.
“In our human nature, we are continuously ambivalent because we’re dealing with the ambiguous. We’re continuously on the seesaw of reactivity and trying to find out where our sense of balance is all the time. That to my mind is the reality of authenticity,” Cronan said. “Thereby we talk about our human vulnerability.”
But, he said there is a problem in how we talk about vulnerability and how other cultures may experience that. Western societies often have a cultural consciousness to be wary about being hurt. Therefore, leaders tend to look on ambivalence as a threat. Whereas Eastern societies such as China, for example, understand crisis as both a threat and an opportunity; this doesn’t always fit with the success oriented American society. “But if we’re going to talk about authenticity then I believe accepting making ourselves vulnerable is the only way we can talk about it.”
While authentic leaders are often placed on a higher pedestal, they are continuously immersed in the process to become better leaders. Then, authenticity is both aspirational and imperfect. It can be framed by traits that include but are not limited to:
- Not being afraid of the truth; authentic leaders seek it out and value honest feedback.
- Being OK with being wrong; they learn from mistakes.
- Being accessible; they don’t hide behind a lot of barriers.
Perhaps the best way to answer the call for authentic leadership is to redefine the term and refocus it on how accurately individuals understand themselves, perceive situations and assess their environment rather than on how individuals present themselves. The best thing about the popularity of authentic leadership is it puts greater emphasis on development and underscores the need for learning.
Learning leaders can respond with curricula based on increased levels of self-awareness using assessments, feedback and coaching to foster development and growth. If a company is already a learning organization, it’s probably already turning out leaders who embrace authenticity.
Randall P. White is a consulting psychologist and founding partner of Executive Development Group. He is also on the faculty at Duke Corporate Education and Head of Leadership in the eMBA at HEC Paris. To comment email editor@CLOmedia.com