Is authentic leadership a pipe dream?

According to this article there seems to be a lot wrong with authentic leadership. This includes: “shaky philosophical and theoretical foundations, tautological reasoning, weak empirical studies, nonsensical measurement tools, unsupported knowledge claims and a generally simplistic and out of date view of corporate life.”
 
It got me thinking. About my recent conversation with a few leaders and what they’re struggling with. The word “authentic” popped up often. People said they want to lead authentically. They don’t want to be seen as manipulating and fear that if they weren’t authentic, it would sap their energy.
 
Having read Alvesson’s and Einola’s thoughts on the topic, I think this is a fear that is holding them back.
 

Can we be authentic in a leadership role?

Being authentic as in knowing yourself is almost impossible. Let alone being an authentic leader, where leading is all about influencing others. “Combining both, authenticity and leadership, in one concept becomes an endeavor only heroes from mythological realm can ever aspire to successfully overcome.”
 
It seems those who want to be authentic are setting themselves up for failure if at the same time they want to do a good job as a leader. Leadership is about social connections and influence. We can’t be good at that if we’re not willing to adapt to some norms and conventions in our environment.
 

Are we clear about what authenticity really is?

How would those young leaders feel if they’d strive for being sincere rather than authentic? Is this even what they meant all along? Being sincere means presenting yourself accurately and honestly to your team and colleagues.
 
This could take a lot of stress out and reduce the somewhat schizophrenic feeling. 
 

What if you could just do a good job?

The authors proposed some more realistic standards you could hold yourself accountable to:
  • Focus on the job at hand and the people around you. If we’re less concerned about ourselves and our appearance to the outside, we’d have plenty of headspace to complete our tasks and be helpful to our teams.
  • Be diplomatic and consider the needs and wants of those you lead. Think about it. Which leader do you prefer? The one who always has to express himself (or herself) or the one who cares about you?
  • Be a bit more thick skinned. Not as in “not giving a …”, but in the sense of a healthy self-defensive mechanism. Yes, you’ll make mistakes. Yes, you should learn from them. And yes, you should care not to hurt others. But often people on the cheap seats have quite an expensive opinion of you. And even the feedback from your most senior leader is flawed. There are moments where you can respectfully ignore what others think of you.
  • Hide Mr. Hyde. Have you come across those leaders who sometimes get a fit are shouting demeaning words to those around them? You could argue they’re being authentic. A little hot-tempered (with a smile you want to slap off their face). I prefer the leaders who are able to keep their “narcissistic and abusive impulses” in check.
  • Don’t preach or try to convert. This is something that is quite interesting for the whole #diversity debate. You want people to be able to bring their true self to work? Fine by me, but be careful not to impose your own worldview on others.
Do these resonate with you? I found this proposal by Alvesson and Einola appealing and a lot less overwhelming than “be yourself”.
 

The very real downsides to authenticity

Does your organisation – or you – want full authenticity?

If there are people around you with only good qualities, of course you’d want them to be authentic and express these. But what about the ones with “bad temper, poor social skills, neurotic and narcissistic orientations, intolerance, non-mainstream political or religious orientations, problems with the other sex, a dislike for certain professions or functions and other views that make collaboration difficult if these come out in full bloom”?
 

Is your authenticity a career stopper?

When it comes to your rating and the senior people debating behind closed doors whether or not to give you that promotion… What will they look for? If you always “speak your truth” or if you’re loyal to the company and willing to go the direction that has been set? Now you may still want to choose “speaking your truth”. That’s fine and can bring constructive dissent. (#rebel, anyone?) But be aware of the consequences it might have. You can’t have your cake and eat it in every company.
 

Did you cross the line to being self-centred and narcissistic?

In today’s world, we can’t get much done all on our own. We need to collaborate with others to get stuff done. But, an “authentic person focusing highly on self-awareness […] may put him or herself in the center of the universe.”
 

Ready to be vulnerable?

Oh yes, this word. If our self is the focus of attention, rather than what we do, everything becomes personal. Anyone who ever had to downsize a company will know that these are moments where you want others to be as far as possible from your true self.
 

Is authentic leadership blocking your development?

When you stick to an ideal, it becomes very hard to evolve to adapt to the changes in your surroundings. So rather than seeing these challenges as a threat to your (current) true self, why not us them as an opportunity to become the next, better version of yourself?
 
 
What do you think about this? How are you balancing authenticity with your leadership role?
 
 
(This article was also published on LinkedIn.)
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