Western society has increasingly bought into the idea that good leadership is authentic leadership. A google search of the term “authenticity and leadership” returned 32.9 million results. Clearly we are obsessed with being authentic.
Over the past couple of years, I’ve been voicing my scepticism about authenticity as a useful leadership trait. While I could partially explain my discomfort with the idea of authenticity, I still struggled to understand why it bugged me so much.
Last night, at a leadership seminar given by Rita Gardiner (a PhD candidate at the University of Western Ontario), I finally figured it out.
The basic premise of authenticity is that your “inside self” (that is your beliefs, values, personality and traits), should match your “outside self”, (that is your behaviours). This premise assumes that we are able to know ourselves completely. It also assumes that our authentic self (no matter what behaviours and traits are expressed), should be acceptable to others, no matter the needs of the group. To quote Lady Gaga, “I was born this way”.
In other words, authenticity assumes that we have the ability to have complete self-knowledge. It also assumes that the expression of our selves is more important than our relationship with others and their needs.
We have lots of evidence that human beings do not have perfect self-knowledge, as we have many perceptual biases that allow us to view ourselves in a more positive light than our actual behaviours would suggest.
A focus on authenticity means that we believe that being our authentic self is more important than the needs of the group. And this is the fundamental issue I have with authenticity. Leadership is about the relationship between the leader and members of a group of people. In order to be effective, both leaders and members of a group need to adjust their behaviours and beliefs in order to work well together. That means that sometimes we have to behave in “inauthentic” ways.
For example, sometimes members will need to believe that their leader is confident about the direction the organization is taking. The leader must express this confidence externally, even when they have doubts about that direction. While this behaviour is “inauthentic”, it is also necessary to align and motivate the members of the group. Which is more important, the need of the leader to be authentic, or the relationship between the leader and members?
Leadership is about leaders and members working together to attain an organizational goal. It is about relationships between the leader and members. Authenticity is about the self, not about the relationship. And leadership is about others, not about the self.