What Being an "Authentic Leader" Really Means

Being an effective manager requires that you behave authentically. “Why?” you might ask. “Maybe the ‘real me’ isn’t the most , but if I can just act the way an should act and get good results, what’s wrong with that?”

In my experience, two things are wrong with that, and they both amount to the same thing: It almost certainly won’t work. First, it won’t work because, sooner or later, the people who work for you and with you will see through it. Even if your leadership and your instructions are sensible and productive people will feel uncomfortable with someone who doesn’t really mean what he or she says.

Second, trying to act like a different kind of person than you really are won’t work because you yourself will not be able to keep it up day after day, year after year. Your words and your body language as well as your actions and decisions will reveal that you are not what you present yourself to be and people will be more and more reluctant to trust you as a leader. In both ways, then, “” is as much a practical virtue as an ethical one. You simply won’t be able to lead effectively if people perceive you as disingenuous.

Students are often worried — at first — about my emphasis on authenticity. “Isn’t being your true self a license to say whatever you think and vent whatever you feel at a particular moment?” It seems obvious to them that this would cause at least as many problems as it solves &#8212 and, of course, they are right. Being your true self is not the same as being spontaneous. It is one thing to be , quite another to “shoot from the hip.”

Let’s imagine, for example, that you are running a brainstorming meeting and someone comes up with an idea that you think is pretty stupid. Let’s also imagine that patience is not your strong suit, so you shoot back with something like: “That’s a dumb idea.” Not very nice, but you’re the boss and in a way, it is authentic, isn’t it?

Now let’s imagine a different response to your subordinate’s idea. You have learned — from experience, practice, and your self-awareness — that your impatience with that idea might well be a signal that you don’t understand what your subordinate really meant. If you knew more about what he was thinking, his idea might not seem so stupid.

With that in mind, you control your impulse — authentic as it is — to snap at him. Instead you hand the controls over to your other impulse — also authentic — to act in a spirit of mutual respect and grant that your subordinate might have something valuable to offer which escapes you. So you say something like, “I don´t understand what you mean by this. Can you tell us more about it?”

So which of these two authentic responses should you choose?

First of all, it should be the one that reflects more of you. The “dumb idea” response only reflects your feeling that the idea doesn’t make sense and it fails to reflect your awareness that you might not know what the person really means. Indeed, the immediate feeling that someone else is being stupid very often stems from the irritation that we feel when we don’t understand what the other person says or does. And an irritating idea is not necessarily a stupid idea.

With the “tell me more” response, however, you are reflecting yourself more truly. You admit honestly that you don’t always understand everything immediately and, most importantly, you express your inner value of fairness.

It’s not only more authentic, it’s also more effective, which is the whole point of authenticity. The spontaneous offensive response would inhibit the free flow of ideas in the meeting. Even if the other people there agree with you that their colleague’s idea is stupid, they’re not going to be so quick to stick their own necks out in the future. You might well lose out on good ideas and important information. Thus, failure to differentiate authentic from unthinkingly impulsive behavior is likely to undermine the basic project which authenticity serves; namely, establishing and sustaining effective managerial interaction.

The second response will have just the opposite effect. Even if the other people there think that their colleague’s idea is stupid, to see that he didn’t get his head chopped off for that will assure them that they need not be nervous about expressing their ideas openly. They will be more likely than ever to offer you whatever ideas and important information they have. Thus, your leadership will be much more effective.

You might wonder: Would it have been an even better idea to pretend to like the dumb idea, just for the sake of encouraging everyone to share their ideas freely? No, it wouldn’t. If the idea really is a bad one, as it might well be, it’s likely that most of the other people there can see that, too. Pretending to appreciate it will strike a false note and people will get confused and suspicious as they try to figure out what you are really up to. That would certainly not be conducive to effective managerial interaction.

It is crucial to recognize that authenticity is a social ability. Implicit in the concept of being authentic — “being actually what is claimed” — are qualities of interactive behavior. We regard a person as authentic to the extent that her conduct towards others accords with what she truly believes in. Authenticity, then, is about giving a message about your true self — one you must continually shape and deliver by thoughtfully choosing your words and behaviors to suit the people you interact with and the specific purpose at hand.


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