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A Critique of Authenticity

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.

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Categories: Uncategorized

8 replies »

  1. The Army has a saying…..Mission, Team, Self. I full heartily believe in this axiom. I think it applies to your “critique”. In the end, once the mission is launched, and all “observations and reservations” are expressed and “duly noted”, whether or not the leader believes in Mission, no longer matters. The leader now has a duty to “lead” his team in completion of the Mission…..”Mission first”.

    • Thanks for the great example. Often we have to commit to something that we have doubts about. In those cases behaviour leads belief. This is especially important when lives depend on that commitment. “Mission First” couldn’t be more important.

  2. Old timers have another axiom, “Put your money where your mouth is!”. In the above mission, where that mission is sanctioned yet immoral, if that leader, who believes it immoral, does his duty as you see it, he/she is just as likely to get his/her squad killed. That leader’s “Authentic” duty, as I see it, would be to stand down and let another lead the mission.
    If people have become leaders in the armed forces or the corporate world they had better already have a pretty strong idea of who they are otherwise the inconsistencies that occur are going to be detrimental to the mission, team and self.
    There are, however, two trump cards to authenticity. They are the psychopath and the sociopath. Mission is the only thing, team is an expendable tool and self isn’t a consideration.
    In a perfect world leaders make there decisions with knowledge and understanding trying for the optimum results and allow themselves to make mistakes that they learn from – (the authentic leader). In the real world there is a huge chasm between the authentic leader and the sociopathic leader. Don’t dismiss all of the gray area in between.
    Look at your leader. Where do they fit in the chasm?

  3. Maybe I’m being too simplistic, but the argument that complete self-knowledge is a prerequisite for authenticity seems to be overkill. Of course we cannot know the self fully, except over time.

    But isn’t the real story of authenticity rooted in a feeling that instrumental, stage-acting “leaders” have manipulated groups and individuals without having any values rooted in soil deeper than self-aggrandizement?

    Maybe authenticity is a request for leaders to be true rather than false; a cry for something better than manipulation; for a real human with failings and hopes to articulate a group’s hopes and fears rather than a psycho-Photoshopped CEO droid?

    Authenticity might not be perfect, but it’s better than what it’s replacing.

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